Dear Little Men,
Thank you. I was completely baffled by the book that you sequel, Little Women. My mother loved it; she wanted me to love it. Girly classmates adored it and tried to enjoin me in their effusing in a “you like books and I like this one book so we totally have this thing in common right?” way.
Obviously they wanted me to love Jo because, you know—boots and a sword, but the dilemma of stained gloves at parties, my inability to comprehend poverty but with servants, and the incessant promotion of goodness, cleanliness, and husbands eclipsed even boots and a sword leaving me not just cold but faintly repelled.
But you, Little Men, I read at least a dozen times, more than once finishing the last page and turning back to the first to dive again into world of pocket knives, climbing-trees, birds’ nests, archery, and platters of shiny gingerbread. A world of boys! Boys with emotional lives who sinned, triumphed, betrayed all in an exotic place where they were quite frankly appreciated and seemed to have endless opportunity to pursue mastery of mundane skills, unconstrained by the concerns for safety and propriety impinged my own adventures.
When I found you again at my mother’s house a few years ago I was not so impressed with the tale of the girl who shows her “courage” by losing to a less skilled boy in an archery contest and who is taught a lesson for I don’t even know the f*%k what, by being tied up. As a child I had missed most of the moralizing, the classism and a whole lot of hetro-puppy love. I had been oblivious to the creepy emotional manipulations of adults “molding” children and the way that less than masculine boys were called as weak. But instead of consigning you to the place of embarrassing childhood loves, the thing that makes me hold up your mildew scented pages now saying this, THIS book, is the school, Plumfield, or more specifically the museum.
Really, could there be a more hideous premise for a children’s book chapter than students reading research papers aloud? I had forgotten it entirely but the pedagogical vision of Chapter 17, “Composition Day” buried itself somewhere in my unconscious. A multi-age classroom, from lisping toddlers to teens, share their observations and research into the biology and behavior of cats, dragonflies, sponges, moles etc. in their own, home-made, natural history museum. Each scholar’s enthusiasms, including contributions from two boys who can’t write, are celebrated, a live owl is produced from inside a boy’s coat, and a microscope is presented as precious treasure and gateway to an almost magical world.
Louisa May Alcott’s father was Bronson Alcott, a forerunner of democratic education who espoused such scandalous notions as teaching boys and girls together, students writing on subjects of their own knowledge and interest, encouraging children to ask questions about the gospels, and racial integration. (The “ambiguously brown” character Dan, may be a reference to abolitionist Alcott’s inclusion of an African American student in his “parlour” school). As a child Alcott the writer, took lessons from her neighbor, naturalist-philosopher Henry David Thoreau, whose school included close observation of nature, woodland excursions to gather berries and identify the homes of birds and animals, and lessons conduced in a rowboat. Little Men, your author promotes a synthesis of these two educational models and that is why I love you.
A beaver skull sits atop my dining room shelves, there are magnifiers and forceps in the pencil jar, field guides on the kitchen counter and a gulls egg between the biblical references. My child attends an alternative democratic school, I have developed a mulit-age children’s curriculum for exploring scripture and the flora and fauna of the lower Fraser watershed, and I’m priest in charge of a church that promotes citizen science, is teaching kids eco-activism and conservation skills, and worships outdoors.
I never invested much in your flatish morality tale characters Little Men, but I could imagine myself whittling in your willow branches, observing dragonflies by your pond, and proudly presenting my findings in that museum where the only qualifications for unlimited scientific joy were the patience to observe and a capacity for wonder.
This piece was generously written for http://www.radicaldiscipleship.net.