The Dream

All over the United States today, citizens are taking up one-day service projects (which will sometimes result in longer-term commitment) inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to compassion and justice. What a refreshing alternative to our customary observation of a national holiday: shopping the sales.

This is a detail of an entry in my daughter’s second grade homeschooling block, Saints, Heroes, and Heroines. For the rest of the entry, please see Martin Luther King, Jr.



Paradise Lost

Today is the birthday of John Milton (1608-1674), and in his honor I post the closing lines of his masterpiece Paradise Lost, along with a drawing by my daughter from our homeschooling Old Testament block several years ago. It’s not exactly a match, but I couldn’t resist.

Her drawing belies the solemnity of the poem. Adam and Eve actually look rather pleased at their departure from the Garden of Eden.


In either hand the hastening angel caught
Our lingering parents, and to the eastern gate
Led them direct, and down the cliff as fast
To the subjected plain; then disappeared.
They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

—John Milton


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.




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.

Crazy for Math

This is a page of the Improper Fractions lesson from our homeschooling Fractions block. I hope to get the entire book up on the Homeschooling page eventually. For now it serves as an introduction for what I am about to tell you.


Recently a big group of us had dinner at the home of our friends Lynn and Giovanni. The meal ended with everyone playing with math puzzles and games around the dining room table. Lynn, a Math Whiz, owns hundreds of them. For years she was a math instructor and tutor. Then in 1999 she developed a summer Math Camp called “MathTree.” It’s not only for kids struggling with math, but also for kids who can’t get enough and want it included in their summers. (I understand that there actually ARE such children, although none has shown up in my family.)

MathTree has taken off—that first summer there were two locations, and now there are 26 of them (!!!), for kids ages five to teens, all over the Washington metropolitan area. Lynn has developed a hands-on approach using objects, games, puzzles, and real-life experiences. (I was reading the fliers for the camp choices and thinking I might like to sign up myself! except they don’t have my age group.) If you are looking for an unusual kids’ math camp, MathTree might be just the ticket. So I’m putting a link to the website and brochure here. As my husband and I frequently remind each other, Someday Our Children Will Thank Us.

Maryland, My Maryland

Pictures by my daughter from the Local History and Geography homeschooling block.

On this day in 1788, Maryland became the 7th state to ratify the Constitution. Perhaps you live in Maryland and never knew how this came about. Or perhaps Maryland is terra incognita because you live far away, in Nepal, or Virginia. In any case, I am going to tell you.


For thousands of years human beings on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay fished, farmed, and fought one another without foreign interference. However, the seagoing vessels across the Atlantic Ocean grew ever-larger, and when Italian Giovanni Caboto, in the pay of Henry VII of England, wandered into codfish-rich Newfoundland/Maine waters in 1497, that was enough for England to claim the promising land. (They also insisted on referring to Caboto as “John Cabot” to help make their case.)

One hundred and ten years later Captain John Smith, although mainly concerned with the floundering colony in Virginia, ventured up the Chesapeake Bay, pronounced it goodly and pleasant, and produced a map that received much attention. So when George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, tired of the anti-Catholic feeling in Protestant England (Catholics were considered untrustworthy and could not hold office, vote, or worship openly), he asked his friend King Charles I to give him a piece of this New World land.

Calvert had tried Newfoundland first, but his settlers died of harsh weather and disease. His request was granted, but the Virginians were unhappy about the potential nearness of Papists. Well, suggested Charles, how about just a northern sliver of Virginia, about 10,000 square miles around the Chesapeake Bay—nobody there except non-Christian native dwellers! Calvert accepted this parcel, to tax and govern as he saw fit, in exchange for two Indian arrowheads a year, an enviably low rent.

Shortly afterward George Calvert died, so his younger son Leonard set sail in the Ark and the Dove and a party that included settlers and adventurers, several gentlemen, a handful of women, a number of indentured servants, and three priests. The group was a mixture of Catholics and Protestants, as it was Calvert’s intention to set up a religious-tolerant community. When they arrived at the mouth of the Potomac in March 1634, they were kindly greeted by the surprised yet helpful Yaocomico inhabitants, who, tiring of attacks by their Susquehannah neighbors, were fortuitously planning a move west. They granted the newcomers their land, along with houses, fields, and useful botanical, zoological, and culinary tips. The settlers renamed the territory Terra Maria, in honor of Queen Henrietta Maria (daughter of King Henri IV of France). Terra Maria: Mary-Land.


The Maryland settlers were better prepared than their hapless predecessors in Jamestown, those aristocratic younger sons who arrived in their best clothes ready to pick up the gold and jewels lying scattered on the shores of America. No, these folks brought tools and seeds and useful skills like carpentry, and had been recruited by Calvert on condition of willingness to work hard. The village, now called Saint Mary’s City, Maryland’s capital, was quickly fortified and the surrounding lands divided and allotted according to size of the household living on it: for heads of household, wives, and indentured servants, 100 acres each; for children 50 acres each. You can imagine that this arrangement encouraged emigration of large groups. “And here is my cousin Robert… and his son John…and their three manservants…” Voilá—450 more acres!

Although the Calverts were Proprietors—they actually “owned” Maryland and could govern it as they saw fit—the settlers announced that they intended to make their own laws. Calvert objected, and an uneasy compromise was worked out, but this insistence on self-rule was, as we know, a harbinger of things to come. Calvert did convince them to pass his Act of Toleration in 1649, which guaranteed religious freedom to Christians, although the arrangement was: if you deny the divinity of Jesus Christ you will be executed. Such means of ensuring uniform worship have not entirely fallen out of favor in 2010. The Act lasted until the Puritans chopped off Charles I’s head for tyrannical cluelessness (no longer a capital offense in Great Britain). In 1692 England and its colonies were declared officially Protestant. The new leaders burned down the Catholic churches in Maryland and moved its capital to Puritan-founded Providence—renamed Annapolis for Protestant Queen Anne.

To be continued April 29th: Part II.


Let My People Go

Passover begins at sunset today. In celebration I post here a page of my daughter’s Main Lesson book from our Stories of the Hebrew People block.

And after the sun goes down, in Jewish households all over the world a child will ask the first of the Four Questions: Why is this night different from all other nights?


Not THAT Grover


Now be honest. How often have you celebrated the birthday of Grover Cleveland? I thought so. Well, this is a first for me too. But it’s about time, because THIS Grover used to live in our neighborhood, as we learned during a Local History and Geography homeschooling lesson.

Cleveland (1837-1908), our 22nd AND 24th President, was born on this day in Caldwell, New Jersey, one of the nine children of a Presbyterian minister. When he was 16, his father died, and Cleveland left school to help support the family. From that point his career followed such an uneventful path that one would not imagine it arriving at the White House: assistant teacher… scribe… secretary.

Then a position as law clerk in Buffalo led to his admission to the bar without his ever actually having attended law school. Or any university. Or finishing high school. Yet he launched what turned out to be a prosperous law career. (Aren’t you just kicking yourself, you lawyers, for frittering away all that money on your education?) Well, what else was there to do after that but… run successfully for sheriff, and then Mayor? And Mayor Cleveland’s refusal to award city contracts based on political connections was remarkable and unusual enough to establish his reputation for honesty, and propelled him next into the Governor’s seat.

As the Presidential primaries loomed in 1884, the Democrats, who had not won a Presidential election since before the Civil War, eyed the blunt outspoken Cleveland as a possible challenge to the series of weak and corrupt Republican administrations with which the public was disgusted. Reformist Republican voters (“Mugwumps”) deserted their party to help put Cleveland in the White House. That’s what this country needs. More Mugwumps.

Cleveland sent shock waves through his supporters when he announced that his appointments would be based on ability rather than loyalty or party affiliation. What a concept. He also used the Presidential veto freely, especially when a bill called for profligate or potentially fraudulent spending. The most contentious issues of his Presidency were protective tariffs (he was skeptical) and the gold standard (he supported it). Ongoing disputes and enemies made over these issues led to his supposed defeat by Benjamin Harrison in the 1888 election. (Acknowledged fraud achieved Cleveland’s loss of electoral votes in key states, although he won the popular vote.) The ruinous policies of the Harrison administration, however, led to Cleveland’s re-election in 1892, leaving him to deal with the resulting crises of bank failures, economic depression and unemployment. (Hmm, where have I heard that before?)

When he entered the White House, Cleveland was a bachelor, but he had the responsibility to supervise the upbringing and education of Frances Folsom, the daughter of an old friend who had passed away and named Cleveland as executor of his estate. Cleveland must have thought she turned out pretty well because in 1885 he asked her to become the First Lady. She was 21, beautiful, and charming—he was 49—the media and the country went wild. The wedding took place in the White House with John Philip Sousa conducting the Marine Band. Frances, the youngest-ever First Lady, was extremely popular, and the activities of their growing family were followed eagerly. Baby Ruth had a candy bar named after her.

Which brings me back at last to the neighborhood. In his first term, the Clevelands modernized Oak View, a country farmhouse in northwest Washington, to use as a retreat, and Cleveland commuted downtown by buggy. Unfortunately the house has since been razed, but his presence gave the name Cleveland Park to the neighborhood. In his second term, the Clevelands, now a family, rented Woodley, the mansion built in 1801 for Philip Barton Key (Francis Scott Key’s uncle), as a summer home, where the children could enjoy peace and quiet and country air far from the bustle of the White House. This house still stands and is currently Maret School. Now, whenever I stroll by, I imagine the little Clevelands cavorting on the lawn.

Amerigo the Beautiful


If you live in North America, when you awaken in the morning do you lie in bed gazing at the sky and thinking to yourself, “Why is this continent named America when it might have been called any number of things?” Well, if so, I can show you this page from our current homeschooling lesson book: it is named for Amerigo Vespucci (1452-1512). Perhaps now a little light bulb goes on in your head, a memory from an old geography class.

Today is Vespucci’s birthday, although how this is known is amazing to me—old baptismal records I suppose. Vespucci was born in Florence, Italy, and in adulthood he went to work for a Medici banking/investment house in Seville, Spain that helped finance Columbus’ second voyage to the New World (the one that was to prove beyond a doubt Columbus had indeed reached India).

Vespucci gives the impression of having been a bright, lively fellow with either great charisma or influential contacts, because he was invited by two different kings (of Castile and of Portugal) to participate as an observer on four voyages to the unfamiliar yet promising lands across the Atlantic. Since he was tiring, as he wrote, of his profession’s “frail and transitory benefits” (which observation remains true in the 21st century), he packed his trunk and off he went.

These expeditions actually ventured much further south than had Columbus’ ships, exploring the coast of what would become Brazil, stopping for days or weeks at a time to look around and trade/dine/lodge/fight with the people they met along the way. It became clear that south of the Caribbean islands was an entirely unexpected continent.

When Vespucci returned to Europe, he published accounts of his travels, describing the new landscape with its strange birds, plants, animals, the people and their customs, and the various adventures he had among them. He wrote in such engaging and entertaining detail (also poignant and dismaying to a modern eye) that it caught the attention of mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller, who decided to name the surprise continent in Vespucci’s honor on his brand-new map of the world. And America it remained, eventually coming to mean not only the southern but the central and northern sections as well. The entire Western Hemisphere! The most you can hope for today is to get an avenue named after you, or perhaps a candy bar.

CakeDaisies Grandma Marie