People who grow in and enjoy their careers throughought the years are typically "lifelong learners" who enjoy discovering and applying new skills and ideas in their lives. Are you a learner? The answer is probably "yes" if you are taking time to read a blog like this one.
As part of my doctoral program I am taking a class called "Teaching in Higher Education" where we explore questions such as "What is knowledge?" "How do we create knowledge?" and "How do we transfer knowledge to others?" As part of the class, we were assigned to write a reflective autobiography of ourselves as learners and then to share them with each other. It was absolutely fascinating to hear how the other students the class contemplated the presence of "learning" in their lives. It was a good reminder to me that we rarely have the same view others have, so its a good idea to develop the habit of asking instead of telling.
I was particularly struck by the autobiography of one of my classmates, as her life experiences were so different than mine. We are both committed lifelong learners who are enthusiastically constructing careers we enjoy, yet we come at it from such different perspectives. With her permission, I am posting it (anonymously) below. It's long, but I think you'll find it encouraging to know that you are not alone in your efforts to be and do good in this world - many, many others are out there on the journey with you.
Autobiography of a Learner
My first and finest recollection of learning sends me searching through two decades of reflection. I recall my Auntie Mamie’s request for me to spell the words on a lotion bottle to my Auntie Julia. The lotion bottle read “Rose Milk.” I remember my Auntie Julia replying, “Oh Mamie she is very smart.” I was four years of age, when my Aunt Julia identified me as being smart. So, in essence, I would attest my Auntie Mamie, who was my caregiver for 7 years, prepared me for kindergarten similar to the early childhood programs of the late 20th and 21st century. As an enthusiastic preschooler receiving informal preschool/early childhood education instruction, I was very eager to attend school. Since my 7 elder siblings attend school and I would hear there conversation about school, I was excited and often imagined the classroom. For example, I vividly recall thinking about a desk, a chair and the teacher. At last, I finally attended kindergarten and was pleased and excited to attend everyday, unlike my siblings, who were often frustrated and unhappy with school. From my limited experience as a student/learner, it was pleasing to interact with the other children, discover and learn new songs.
At the age of 7, my first informal yet effective first instructor, Auntie Mamie died. As a result, I moved in with my elder 7 siblings, 3 younger siblings, and single mother. Before my Auntie Mamie died, I remember my mother would visit my Auntie and me every Sunday afternoon following church. On every visit my mother would bring along a business size manila envelope/folder with mail. My Auntie Mamie would read the proceedings to my mother and instruct her on how to respond to each correspondence. After my Auntie Mamie died, my mother decided to visit my Auntie Julia. Now 8 years of age, I learn that my mother is illiterate. On bright crisp Sunday afternoon following church, I accompany my mother to Auntie Julia’s house. During our bus ride, I ask my mother to let me see the envelope and she passed it over to me with a cautioned look in her eyes. I responded with a passion look in my eye; to assure my mother that I could help her with reading the mail; I read it out loud. She immediately opened her eyes, which was a sign that I was reading out loud.
At the ripe age of 8, with a limited elementary education; I was an advanced, critical thinker and learner. With only four years of experience as a learner, I learned my mother could not read and write. Also, on another occasion, I learned my older siblings would short change my mother whenever she sent them to the convenience store for grocery items. My mother located convenience and authority within me. As time progressed, I eagerly resumed Auntie Julia’s duties. I read my mother the mail and instructed her on how to respond. I taught her how to read and write. The first book we read was A Duck is A Duck. Later I would go to the library alone and check out books to read to my mother. Our list included texts by Ezra Jack Keats and other childhood writers.
As I continued my education, I educated and empowered my mother. Later she enrolled in an evening adult basic education course. I vividly recall her instructor, Ms. Williams. Ms. Williams enjoyed having me assist her evening adult class. I would help the other students with Math assignments as well as praise the students when they mastered a concept or idea. Ms. Williams’s students would reward me with money ($1 or $5 or candy) and inform my mother “your daughter is smart; you better keep her away from those boys and let her finish her education.” The entire adult basic education class was familiar with my name and would encourage my mother to bring me to class.
Unlike most daughter and mother, my mother and I relationship was non-traditional. I was the instructor and she was the learner. Yet, I was a curious child, and on occasions my mother would describe her childhood and inability to attend school. So one day I questioned my mother about her illiteracy and why she did attend school as a child. She informed me that she was unable because she had to work or was needed in the field. With only three to four years of education, I was just introduced to civil rights and Martin Luther King. My mother with limited education was instructing me on my first lesson of poverty, civil rights, segregation, sharecropping and the legal institution of Southern slavery. She revealed a promised she made to herself, “if I ever have children, they would not work in a field. Or in a white families’ house. They would attend school.” My mother was took part in the Great Migration (black southeners relocating to Midwest states like Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, etc.) Now in a new city and following Brown v. Board of Education, my mother was in a position to access her dream/promise.
During my undergraduate experience, I connected all the stories, songs and hymns my mother shared with me as a youth as a learning experience about poverty in Black America, African-Americans underrepresented and underprepared for higher education, and how social and public policy once launched to eliminate poverty has reversed its mission. I became a critical, reflective teacher from my earliest experiences as a learner. My experience as a learner prepared me to strive for opportunities to challenge poverty, value education as well as lesson I learned about the injustices of the South, and be my children’s first formal educator.