If you lived in 17th century England and were found guilty of stealing, consequences could be severe: whipping, branding, a term in the pillory, even hanging. An alternative was transportation to the New World and seven years of indentured servitude. The colonies needed laborers.

For some people what was essentially permanent exile might have seemed worse than hanging. But it apparently worked out well for one Molly Welsh, a dairymaid who was transported and indentured to a Maryland tobacco planter in 1683 when she was found guilty of stealing, or at least knocking over, a pail of milk. It was a life-changing accident. After working a seven-year term, Molly had earned enough to buy a tobacco farm of her own, and bought a slave named Banneka (or Banneky) to help work it. Although interracial marriage was illegal at the time, love triumphed. Molly freed Banneka; the two were married and had four daughters.

One of their daughters also fell in love with a slave, so her parents bought his freedom to enable them to marry. Because like many slaves he had no surname, when they married he took their name (now Banneker) as well. And these were the parents of Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), whose birthday it is today.


Benjamin was from all accounts a very bright child. His grandmother Molly taught him to read and write, and he was eager to learn from any available source. But books were few. Around 1770, three Ellicott brothers from a large Pennsylvania Quaker family built a mill, homes, and store nearby, which eventually became the hub of a prosperous community (now Ellicott City). The Ellicotts and their offspring were mechanically inclined and enjoyed experimenting with mechanical and scientific inventions. The family befriended their knowledge-hungry neighbor Benjamin and lent him books, tools, and a telescope.

From that moment Banneker was devoted to astronomy, which he taught himself from the books and from studies of the night sky he made (in addition to carrying on the work of the family farm). He became so skilled that in 1791, when Andrew Ellicott, who had helped complete the Mason-Dixon Line survey, was hired to survey the land for the nation’s new capital city, he asked Benjamin Banneker to help him with the necessary astronomical observations. It’s pretty rough spending your nights outdoors for months stretched out on the cold ground measuring the stars when you’re 59 years old, but Banneker agreed. (This is the scene depicted above in my daughter’s Main Lesson book from our homeschooling Local History and Geography block.) So off they went to lay out the boundaries for the ten-by-ten-mile square that was to become Washington, DC. Some of the original boundary stones are still visible.

In the course of this project Banneker grew ill and was obliged to retire to the farm. But he was undeterred from his studies, and by 1792 he had created and published an almanac that included forecasts of weather, tides, eclipses and other movements of heavenly bodies—all calculated by Banneker—as well as festival days, essays and poetry (including work by Phillis Wheatley), instructions for home medical care, and Banneker’s views on free public education and religion.

The almanac was distributed in four states and went through several editions, one of which included an exchange of correspondence between Banneker and Thomas Jefferson, then serving as Secretary of State under George Washington. Banneker pointed out in his letter the irony of Jefferson’s having stated in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” while simultaneously “detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression.” In Jefferson’s polite and complimentary response, however, he avoids addressing this conundrum in his life, as he adroitly managed to do whenever it was mentioned.

Abolitionists in the colonies and Great Britain were thrilled with the almanac as another piece of evidence for the immorality—in fact, the downright senselessness—of slavery. Happy Birthday, Benjamin Banneker. Your work is another milestone on the road to freedom.


Heavenly Strings


One of the numerous advantages of homeschooling is accompanying one’s children on field trips. Recently we attended a performance by amazing violinist Karen Briggs and her back-up combo. The concert, one of a series organized for school groups, was held in the Kennedy Center’s Jazz Club, which is set up with cafe tables and chairs rather than rows of seats, and intimate enough that Briggs could chat with us informally between pieces (and that I could see her well enough to sketch). She played for us a range of pieces, and her fiery interpretations and improvisations, drawing on classical, jazz, gospel, African, and Middle Eastern traditions, mesmerized and dazzled the audience, many of whom, it turned out, were young violinists. Briggs has played in concert halls all over the world and is probably best known for her work with keyboard artist Yanni. We all departed with stars in our eyes.



Día de los Muertos

First paper cutouts, now dough…you must think I’ve forgotten how to draw.


Today is All Saints Day, also known as Día de los Muertos in Latin American countries. For the last several years our homeschooling Spanish class has celebrated this day together. We set up a table and decorate it with autumn flowers and leaves, papel picado, and photographs and mementos of those who have crossed over (parents, grandparents, pets, anyone beloved). My daughter and I bake a huge anise-flavored Pan de Muerto—a skull surrounded by bones. The mother who teaches Spanish reads aloud a story about the day, written from a child’s point of view. We all sing “Hasta los Muertos Salen a Bailar” (“Even the Dead are Rising Up to Dance”) which is a really hard song to stop singing all day long once you’ve sung a few rounds. Then each family comes to the table, lights a candle, and says a few words about their loved ones, and the festival concludes with a skull-and-bones snack. Although the children devour the bread with enthusiasm, I think they actually appreciate the entire event, especially as each year brings more shared losses into our lives.

Justice of the Peace


This sketch is from a canal barge tour we took on the C&O Canal as part of our homeschooling Local History & Geography block. It was mid-week, and my daughter and I were the only non-senior citizens on the trip, so she was definitely the focus of kindly attention (being small and cute with long blond braids), which was fine with her. The restored barge was beautiful, the costumed guide was excellent, the mules were friendly, and it was a lovely day.

ANYWAY, I post the sketch in honor of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (1898-1980), whose birthday it is today. What, you may ask, is the connection?

Well, some of you may know that Douglas, in addition to serving for 36 years on the Supreme Court, was an avid outdoorsman and supported various environmental causes, even serving briefly on the board of the Sierra Club.

In the 1950s, an era newly keen on the divine glory of automobiles and expanses of concrete pavement, there was a movement in Congress, supported by The Washington Post, to replace the canal with a highway. Douglas, familiar with the canal’s scenery and wildlife, thought this an idiotic and short-sighted idea and challenged the Post’s editorial staff to accompany him on a hike of the canal’s entire length.

Douglas expected that perhaps a handful of folks might accompany him; however, news of the challenge spread, and by the departure date there were 58 in the group, including conservationists, historians, geologists, ornithologists, and zoologists. Each night when they crashed, the group had a free, informative lecture, offered by one of their traveling companions, on some aspect of the canal.

Word got around, and thousands of newspapers carried updates on the hikers. Organizations along the way hosted them and prepared meals. Children and townspeople watched for them and shouted their support. Some joined in for parts of the route.

Even given the ongoing attention, it was a tough hike. The C&O Canal is 185 miles long, and Douglas, age 55, maintained an average pace of 23 miles a day. This was a man who had, after all, hiked the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail. Only eight of his companions made it to the end. By then, public support to save the canal was enormous. Douglas organized and worked with a committee to plan its restoration and preservation, and The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park Act finally passed in 1971.

Canal-lovers, imagine this place as a highway! Today it’s one of the most popular national parks in the U.S., enjoyed by millions of hikers, boaters, bicyclists, and birdwatchers. Not to mention the birds themselves, as well as countless fish, frogs, beaver, fox, and deer. Happy Birthday, Justice Douglas! We have you to thank for this gift, all year round.


CakeYellowRosesAunt Bett

Opera Look-In


Each year the Washington Opera presents “Opera Look-In,” at the Kennedy Center Opera House to educate children about opera. The program presents opera in a highly accessible manner, combining storytelling, brief scenes in costume, and selected arias (accompanied by the full Opera House Orchestra!) with behind-the-scenes explanations of the use of lighting, music, costumes, and props. School groups attend from all over the Washington, DC area, including homeschool groups—lucky us.

Last year the program revolved around the opera Carmen, and included an exhibition of costumes created by fashion design students at Duke Ellington School for the Arts. This year’s program featured Ellington School students supposedly lost in an opera house, encountering as if by accident scenes from The Barber of Seville, Madame Butterfly, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Magic Flute, and (big crowd-pleaser) Cosi Fan Tutte. It’s not easy to sketch in the dark, and by the end I gave up and settled back to enjoy the humorous last quintet.

To engage an auditorium packed with elementary school students is no easy task, and the kids were riveted. I wonder how many go home and ask their parents to rent Cosi Fan Tutte so they can see the rest of the story.



Somewhere in the world there must be a person turning ten years old on this day, perhaps even someone actually born at 10:10 in the morning. Happy Birthday to you! It’s a special one.

In honor of this day, here is a page from my daughter’s first grade homeschooling main lesson book, Numbers. I don’t know about you, but I am perfectly content to be living in a base-ten number world, with the ten represented by a one followed by a zero. And it was not a foregone conclusion. We could be living in a base-twenty world, like the ancient Mayan, Aztec, Celtic, and Germanic peoples (remnants of which groupings by twenty survive in some modern European counting systems). Or a base-sixty world, like the Babylonians. Or, we could be using base ten but still be lumbering along in lengthy strings of Roman numerals, with nary a zero to be seen. And the computer would never have been born.


St. Francis of Assisi


Tomorrow, October 4th, is actually the Feast Day of St. Francis, not today, but I am celebrating him a day in advance because today is the Blessing of the Animals in his honor at Washington National Cathedral. (And many other churches have similar events.) Come at 2:30 to the west steps of the Cathedral for a brief service followed by individual blessings for your dog, cat, rabbit, goldfish, or any other pet not actually life-threatening to the clergy in attendance. There will also be representatives from the Humane Society and the Animal Rescue League to accept donations of pet food and toys and to share information about adopting homeless animals.

These drawings are from my daughter’s second grade Saints, Heroes, and Heroines main lesson book.

Living History


Fall is the time for farm field trips, to see the bounty of the season and learn how it was achieved. These sketches are from a trip to National Colonial Farm, an 18th century living history farm in Accokeek, Maryland, which sponsors a number of school programs for children in kindergarten through 6th grade, including homeschool groups. Our homeschoolers were a pretty savvy bunch, already intimately familiar with carding combs, rollaghs, hollowed gourd containers, dried herbs and the like, but they enjoyed the informative walking tour through the farm buildings, the wagon ride, and the opportunity to milk the cow (THAT we don’t have at home).