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Stickers: Experience Is Its Own Reward

by David H. Albert

The piano teacher had a shocked, horrified look on her face. "Doesnít your daughter like the stickers? All the other kids do."

"Of course she does. In fact, she has an entire collection of them at home." Weíd had this discussion before with violin teachers for my older one, so we knew where this was headed. "So why canít I give them to her?" The teacher now looked pained.

"Oh, do give them to her," my wife replied, "we donít object. But donít give them as a reward after she finishes and perfects a piece of music. Paste them on the page to mark where she is supposed to start a new one." And she did.

"Itís too hard!" We would hear Meeraís plaintive voice emanating from the living room. We learned to butt out. We were meant to overhear, but this was a conversation Meera was having with the piano, Grieg, Bach, Mozart, Gershwin, Granados, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, not with us. Twenty or thirty or forty or fifty minutes later, or maybe even in two or three days, her playing of the new piece would be like breathing.

And somewhere along the line, and I donít remember where or when, the complaints disappeared. And so did the stickers.

* * * * *

There is an old expression: "Experience is its own reward." Of course, just because it is old, doesnít necessarily make it true, but in a world rife with uncertainty, and often fixated upon punishments and rewards, an attitude that enables one to find at least some satisfaction in the learning that comes with experience Ė academic or otherwise Ė might be worth cultivating. Or so seems reasonable to me.

The problem is, how does one learn that "Experience is its own reward" unless one has had experience? The answer is: One doesnít until one has the experience of it! And if you are always seeking external rewards, or avoiding punishments, it is easy for this learning to pass you by.

What to do? I think it might be worthwhile to take note from other cultures and traditions. In many places in the Islamic world, children are given dates in a sweet syrup before learning their first words from the Koran. In the Jewish tradition, children are given bread soaked in honey prior reading their first words from the Torah. In fact, I have heard tell of at least one rabbi who places a drop of honey on each letter as children learn the Hebrew alphabet. They lick the honey off, and the letter is revealed.

When I lived in India, I witnessed a holiday that is celebrated every January/February called Saraswati Puja (Saraswati worship). Saraswati is the goddess of memory, knowledge and music. During the holiday in her honor, children are brought to the temple to learn their first letters or have their first music lessons under her blessing. Adults will also bring newly-purchased tools of their trade Ė farmers with sickles or tractors, accountants with computers, photographers with cameras Ė so that they may be blessed with the knowledge to use them wisely. School children will bring new pencils, pens, erasers, empty notebooks and unread textbooks, lay them at the foot of the altar and cover them with flowers.

And thereís more. Saraswati Puja is the one day each year that very young girls are allowed to wear sarees (clothing normally reserved for adult women.) It is a celebration of anticipation, an expression of the excitement -- and the fulfillment -- that is to come with the experience that lies ahead.

Translated literally, Saraswati means "the flowing one." She is the goddess of rivers and, hence, of purification, but she also represents the flow of experience that is to come. The prayer to Saraswati is one to trust in her blessings without fear, the anticipatory knowledge that we will all, some day, "grow into our sarees," into the people we were meant to be.

I guess all this amounts to for us in our day-to-day homeschooling practice is relatively simple: Regardless of how you approach your childrenís education, be sure to provide them, continuously, a honeyed taste of the future that lies ahead with the knowledge yet to be attained. Read books to them that are currently beyond their own reading capabilities. Bring home videos from the library on scientific or mathematical topics they have yet to explore. Before starting geometry (if thatís what you and they have decided to be doing), have your children go out and meet an architect. When learning about the Constitution, have them go to your local courthouse and watch the judicial system in action.

And when there is a subject you are sure they are really excited and really passionate about, make sure they have at least one challenge in front of them that you think is just too hard! You never know.

The point is not whether they remember the information or are able to regurgitate it on demand, but that they are afforded the opportunity to develop an expanded sense of themselves, and an attitude toward the knowledge quest that will make them whole.

* * * * *

Meera, 12, had been home from piano camp, held at Washington State University, for a week now and requested a trip to the music store. We shuffled over to the music racks.

"That one," she pointed with just a hint of hesitation. "Alexander Scriabin - Complete Etudes."

"Why that one?" I gulped, trying to sound as nonchalant as I could. "Everyone at camp said it was too hard, and no one would try them."

I handed her the book. She took it over to one of the practice pianos and started to play. "So?" I asked. Meera smiled. "Can you get it for me?"

Home we went. Meera sat down at the piano and did a "sampling," of the 26 etudes, each progressively more difficult. Then, she put on her helmet, climbed on her bicycle and raced down the driveway to play with her ten-year-old friend at the end of the court.

Iím used to this routine Ė it could take days or even a couple of weeks before she finally decides which piece she is going to try to master. Or, maybe, the book will just sit for a month or two. I have enough experience to know that sooner or later, it will rise to the top of the pile again.

I intend to take a trip downtown to a toy store located one block from the fountain and purchase a big Teddy bear sticker. Itís going to get pasted on "Scriabin." Iím a lucky guy!

* * * * *

David H. Albert is a homeschooling father of two, and author of Homeschooling and the Voyage of Self-Discovery, And the Skylark Sings with Me: Adventures in Homeschooling and Community-Based Education, editor of two books on storytelling called The Healing Heart, and co-author of the new book about his Indian parents, The Color of Freedom. He speaks all over the North America, and if you would be interested in having him come to your community, contact him through his website at www.skylarksings.com or e-mail him directly at shantinik@earthlink.net.