The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

Where did you go to school in Ethiopia?

A new school year.


When I was five and six, we lived in Maji.  One of the big things Presbyterians were doing in that part of Ethiopia was running a clinic (with a nurse and someone whose title was “dresser”) and running a school.  We had church in this school building on Sundays, and I can still remember the feeling of the mud and straw scratching my legs as I sat trying to figure out the sermon (in Amharic) while I drew pictures.

Now I wish Mom and Dad had sent us to that school, which would have given me a strong foundation in Amharic.

Instead, Mom homeschooled us.  The family story goes that when my older sister started her lessons, Mom asked if I wanted to start school, too.  “Do I have to?” I asked.

“Only if you want to.”

That was not what I wanted to hear.  I wanted to be a REAL student.  “No, Mom,” I said.  “Say I have to.”

After all, I was the one when we got to Maji (and I looked like this) who said (when asked why we were outside late), “Oh, we were just lifting our eyes unto the hills.”

I loved the sounds of words.  I loved realizing that black marks on a white page made the sounds of words in my mind…made them thump in my blood.

Being homeschooled left lots of time to explore the big, gorgeous, fascinating outside world where I grew up.  My sisters and I made up inventive games and stories that we acted out for days running on days.  We used the animals, vegetables and minerals of the outside world as the props in our stories.  Frogs.  Lizards.  Flowers.  Mud.  When I met with the American Girl team to talk about the Doll of the Year, I showed them my childhood pictures and said I wanted Lanie to be an outside girl.

At fourth grade, I went off to boarding school in Addis Ababa and learned the wrench of homesickness but also learned what it was to have a library.  After school, we ran to the dining room for our snacks–looking at this picture makes me remember the salty crunch of cheese bread/biscuit sticks–and then to the dorm to toss our school things on our bunks and run outside.  More long afternoons spent outside…in the (off-limits) rock quarry or pretending I was a horse, galloping through the grass.  In school, during the mornings and early afternoons, I read.  I read and read.

 My dad loved the outdoors.  When I was working on Lanie’s stories, I was so grateful for everything he brought into our lives with the camping trips and long hikes and daily explorations around Maji.  My mom was the reader and the writer.  When she was a little girl, her mom found her crying.  Mom managed to sniffle out the sad truth that she had just realized someday she’d be too old to go to school any more.

Everyone should be lucky enough to learn to read from someone who loves to read.  Everyone should have a teacher who loves being in school.

My mom grew up in a poor and struggling family.  I have no doubt school was a haven.  It was also a place where she got a vision of a new life for herself.

There’s something about school…if it’s a place of reading and thinking and curiosity and dreaming and opening up new thoughts and new worlds.

Yay teachers.

Yay reading.

Yay school.

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