This week, I came across two picture books that reminded me about how important grandmothers are in the lives of children. Grandmothers are wise leaders and mentors. They have gentle and guiding hands. They offer solace for scraped knees, dented feelings, and broken hearts. They can set the world right again.
In my own life, I never knew my maternal grandmother. She died six years before I was born. I know her only from the stories told to me by other family members. I was told that I look a lot like she did. My name resembles hers. Her name was Josephine; mine is Joanne, but my parents always called me Josie. They told me I had Josephine’s eyes and smile. It was hard, at first, for me to see myself in the old photographs of her. It took me years to find my smile in hers and her eyes in mine. But yes, she is within me even though I never had the good fortune to meet her.
My paternal grandmother divorced my grandmother when my father was twelve years old. At ninety-five, my father continues to be bitter about this and his relationship with his mother was distant and fraught with anger. Olga lived in Florida, so we did not see her often. We went a few times to visit her in the sunshine state, and she came north to visit us in New Jersey a few times. Every Christmas, she would send straw-filled crates of oranges, grapefruits, key limes, and chocolate covered coconut patties. For this, Olga held a special place in my heart, but we did not have the close, supportive relationship that I craved. That empty spot was filled by my incredible grandfathers, Charlie and Tony. They were my confidants and my champions. With them I was able to be myself, and just be held.
When I happened upon Nana Akua Goes to School by Tricia Elam Walker and April Harrison in our school library, I knew I held a special gem in my hands. And I was eager to think about how to share its gifts with our Kindergarten and 1st grade students. The book recounts the relationship between Zura and her grandmother, Nana Akua, whose names means “born on Wednesday” in Twi, the language of Ghana. The children in Zura’s class are celebrating Grandparents’ Day and are asked to invite their relatives to come to school and share their stories. Zura is a bit worried about her grandmother coming to school because Nana Akua has scars on her cheeks from an old West African tradition where parents put marks on her face to show which tribal family she belonged to. These marked represented beauty and confidence. Zura fears that her classmates will be scared of Nana. Of course, Nana is a wise woman and when she visits, she brings with her calm understanding and shows the beauty of her culture. She explains the Adinkra symbols to the children, having them choose one that represents themselves, and paints the symbol on each child’s check. The book’s endpapers show each Adinkra symbol, and I contemplated how best to share this story with our students. I practiced making the symbols and creating some of my own. When I read this book the students, I will encourage them to explore and create these symbols also.
Thinking about grandmothers, I came across another picture book, Grandmother School by Rina Sigh and Ellen Rooney. It takes place in India and is based on a true story about a grandmother, Aaji, who is finally allowed to go to school with a bunch of other grandmothers. The thatched roof and mud floors of the school is much different from the shiny schools that American children are accustomed to. The grandmothers had not be allowed to go to school when they were young. Now they were able to return to school so they could learn to read and write. Some people thought, “Learning at this age was a waste of time.” But of course, it was not a waste of time at all. By the end of the year, the grandmothers have learned so much: to count, to sign their names, and to read beautiful words like mango, river, bird, and rain.
The real grandmother school, Aajibaichi Shala, is located in Phangane, a small village in India 77 miles from Mumbai. The school was started in 2016 by Yogendra Bangar, a local schoolteacher, who wanted everyone is his village to be able to read and write. Twenty-nine grandmothers attended the school. They were over the age of sixty, and the oldest grandmother is ninety. This was their first opportunity to learn. I love the message of this story: Learning is timeless. No one is too old to learn. There is hope and opportunity to achieve no matter what age you are. What a wonderful gift to young readers far and wide!