Learning in Real Life

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Starting Early

These stories are from Growing Without Schooling V. 1.

From an article in the New York Times, 2/8/81, about Kyra Nichols, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet:

There is little question that today, at 22, Miss Nichols belongs in that realm, a place in dance that she seems, in retrospect, to have aimed at all her life.

Mrs. Nichols recalls the terrifyingly single-minded determination with which her daughter took to ballet from the age of 4, a determination that seems surprising, today, in view of Kyra Nichols’s serenity onstage and off. “I hated school because it got in the way of dance,” Miss Nichols says today. “I wanted to be in the studio working. ”

At four, Miss Nichols decided it was not enough to imitate from the sidelines as her mother taught ballet. “She took class holding onto a pool table across the room, then one day I noticed her at the end of the barre,” Mrs. Nichols remembers. “And, rather than have a fuss in front of the other children, I let her stay.”

At nine, Miss Nichols began to take company classes with her mother at the San Francisco-based Pacific Ballet. “Everyone else in the class was an adult,” Mrs. Nichols recalled.“ But no one thought of Kyra as a child. She was tall for her age and she always looked and acted mature. ”


From the liner notes on an album of music by Harry James:

When he was ten years old, he was the leader of the number two band in Christy’s Circus, having mastered the trumpet after a couple of years of instruction from his father, who led the number one band.

That wasn’t his first musical experience either. At four he performed on drums (and doubled as the world’s youngest contortionist) in the Mighty Haag Circus, in which he had been born on the road, and from which he derived his middle name.


A quote from the great jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, on a record album jacket, Jazz Women: A Feminist Retrospective:

I have to give my mother credit here. She used to tell the story that I was a nervous child. To keep me out of mischief, she held me on her lap while she played an old fashioned pump organ that she had at home. One day my hands beat hers to the keyboard and I picked out a melody. She was so surprised she dropped me on the floor and ran to get the neighbors to come and hear me. That was the beginning and from that time on (I was three) I never left the piano. She never let a teacher near me. She had studied and all she could do was read. She couldn’t improvise on her own at all. So instead, she did a very good thing. She had professional playing musicians come to the house and play for me. That’s how Jack Howard came on the scene. Some days I’d stay at the piano twelve hours. I didn’t stop to eat or anything—sometimes I’d drink just a glass of water.

It was my step-father, Fletcher Burley, who really encouraged me. He bought me a Seth player with piano rolls. I learned the classics for him from the rolls and he used to listen to Irish songs, as well. He was very proud of me, and used to take me everywhere with him. He’d hide me under his coat and bring me to his meeting places and have me play for all his friends. By the time I was six I was professional—playing for parties at $1 an hour. I played with the Union Band in Pittsburgh, Pa. where we had moved when I was four. And later on when musicians came to the city, they’d come out to the house and ask me to play with them: Earl Hines’ guys and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers I remember especially.

When I was twelve or so, a revue came through town. It seems their pianist got hung up or something, and one of the stagehands said he knew where they could find a pianist for the show. The producer came out in his big car to East Liberty where we lived and got mad when I was pointed out playing hopscotch on the sidewalk. But he changed quickly when we went inside. They hummed the score to me and I played it through, and played the show that night, and then went out on the road for the first time in my life.

A "Chaotic Curriculum" As a Child Creates a Director of the National Institutes of Health

Dr. Francis Collins talks about his unique education as a child and how it gave him a love of learning that drove him to become a scientist. This is a C-SPAN interview but the page also has a complete transcript if you prefer to read the interview. Here are some quotes:
"A remarkable woman who had a master's degree from Yale, which is where she met my father when he was getting his PhD and she was unusual in being in graduate school at Yale in the 1930s. she decided that her four sons, I'm the youngest of those four, would be better served by her educational methods than by various public schools as the family traveled between North Carolina and Long Island and Virginia. And she was right, she was remarkably gifted in providing that spark that you really want to see education represent of the level of learning. And I learned to love learning because of the way she introduced me to topics. It was very chaotic, I must say."

" . . It was totally unpredictable. There was no lesson plan, there was certainly no curriculum standards, my mother would basically say, OK, what's interesting today? And some days it would be mathematics and we might do only mathematics for three days in a row because it was interesting. And then we'll sort of get tiresome and she will say, well, let's talk about history. Here, let's see this, let's talk about the significance of that event was. She was a playwright, she also was very interested in languages. We did a lot of sort of studying of languages and she would say, OK, here's a word, do you think that's derived from Greek or older French or Latin? And after a while, I got pretty good at that. And then we'll go to the (under bridge) dictionary and look at that and see what the answer was."

"Wondering What Happened to Your Class Valedictorian? Not Much, Research Shows."

This article is surprisingly blunt about how schools largely reward conformity. The researcher from Boston College whose work is featured notes, “Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries . . . they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”

Self-Taught Saxophone Great

The tenor saxophone icon George Coleman has influenced generations of musicians. Reflecting on his life and historic music sessions, Jazz Times (Sept. 2016) reports: “Coleman began his journey in Memphis, Tenn., in 1935. He took up alto and was already gigging as a teenager with B.B. King in the early ‘50s. He learned basic music theory in high school but was essentially self-taught: for knowledge, he turned to Memphis musicians such as arranger Ozzie Horne, piano modernist Bob Tally and stride pianist Eugene Barlow, among others. “The stuff that guys were learning at Berklee,” says Coleman, “I knew when I was about 17 or 18 years old.”

Learning in Spite of School

This story reminds me of a favorite quote of John Holt's. It is from a poem by William Blake, "Blight never does good to a tree … but if it still bear fruit, let none say that the fruit was in consequence of the blight.”

Astrophysicist and celebrity Neil deGrasse Tyson was invited to give a commencement address at his elementary school but refused. In a New Yorker profile, he recalled telling the administration:

"I am where I am not because of what happened in school but in spite of it, and it probably is not what you want me to say. Call me back, and I will address your teachers and give them a piece of my mind." A more important education came from his parents … Tyson’s mother gave him a pair of folding opera glasses, which provided his first magnified look at the night sky. In middle school, he bought a telescope with money that he earned by walking neighbors’ dogs—"It was the golden age of dog walking, because you didn’t have to lean up after them," he recalls—and studied the sky from the roof of his apartment building. In his bedroom, he arranged glow-in-the-dark stars in the shape of constellations.

Seven Famous Architectural Dropouts and Autodidacts

Seven informative portraits of famous architects with no conventional credentials but a driving passion to bring their visions to life. The people portrayed are Tadao Ando, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Louis Sullivan, Eileen Gray, Buckminster Fuller, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, aka Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright.