What I Learned from Bazooka Joe

When I was a kid I was a big fan of Bazooka Joe. Bubble gum was a great treat in summers on the island. Besides the obvious sugar rush and the entertainment value of countless pink bubbles big enough to tangle in my hair, there were the comic strips curled inside the wrapper. They came with a comic, a “fun fact” and a fortune or bit of philosophy. Not a bad return on a few pennies.

One fortune I remember that stuck with me for years was “Learn something every day. It will amount to much in a year”. At the age of ten I wasn’t much of a philosopher, but I remember seeing the wisdom even then in that particular idea. I began that summer to puzzle every night in bed what I had learned that day.

That summer I learned easily many things that I took delight in remembering. Maria, my friend who spoke only French, taught me the French word for beach was la plage and that’s where she would meet me. When I examined the sand at that beach I found that it was made predominately of quartz with tiny garnets mixed in. Climbing the anchor in bare feet was made easier if you wiped your feet on the grass and spit on the soles first. I read interesting books just because it was a rainy day and they happened to be there. I learned that people from different parts of the country talk with different accents. Blueberries grew in the places where the soil was rocky. If you sit quietly with a peanut butter sandwich the red squirrel will come to you and eat it right out of your hand. Pine pitch makes a poor glue for a broken balsa wood plane but it’s still better than nothing. And seagulls are so bold that they will take not only the fish guts you throw to them but the cleaned fish as well if you don’t protect it. I learned songs and games. I learned skills. These were odd facts, but exactly as Bazooka Joe predicted, they added up to a wealth of knowledge of life and the physical world. A knowledge base from which I still draw.

After a summer of being so invested in my education I looked forward to school with less loathing than in previous years. I would learn. Someone would teach me something every day and it would amount to a lot because that was the whole point of being there. But, as much as I tried to remember to learn, as much as I wanted to make it work this year, I distinctly remember laying in bed trying to remember what I had learned that day and drawing a blank. I knew I had learned. I must have learned. I had been to school that day, hadn’t I? Yet I could draw to mind nothing of real worth that I felt I could add to my list of knowledge.

I had a proper American education. I learned to read, I learned some modicum of math and history and geography. But the things I really learned, the things that stuck with me, were the things I learned either on my own or with the help of someone who I had chosen to teach me. My friends who would teach me French words, the books that taught me the names of birds and trees, the old man who played chess with me taught me at least as much in my short summer holidays as I learned cramped in a classroom taking tests through the dreary winter.

I do not damn schools or teachers or our education system. I support them as one of the many tools important for education. But it is as important for children to have time to learn on their own. Children need to feel the sand in their fingers or see the clouds. They need to be alone and bored so that they will fill in that boredom with a different kind of learning. They need to play with other children without the constant supervision of an adult so they will learn the social skills that will guide them through life. Children need the tools of learning, time, space, occasional guidance, and the use of a few good books or maybe, God forbid, internet access. Children need friends.

I don’t want to re-run Lord of the Flies here. Of course children need guidance. They might need to be reminded occasionally that there is a big world out there and some day they will need to find their place in it. Children need to be exposed to hundreds of experiences from which they can discover their interests. Then they need to be trusted to learn in their own way at their own pace of the things that interest them the most.

Maybe, occasionally, they need a few pennies to see what they can learn from Bazooka Joe.


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