We always feel tall in our childhood homes

Do you have a piece of furniture you once measured yourself by, noticing how you slowly crept up it? For me, it was a cheap metal cabinet now in the basement. The rickety cabinet has been there ever since my parents moved to this house in 1963. Before that it was in the kitchen, and apparently something my parents feared we would pull down on top of ourselves. It held cheap tools, tape, a whisk broom, and other make-believe treasures for a 5 year old. I remember reaching up to the higher part, and it was a stretch, back when it was in our old house. We were not so organized as to have a place on the wall we marked our growth, the way so many have, so this 3 level cabinet sufficed.

Children measure themselves against the standards that are set for them, at least in part. On NPR the other day a young girl was hoping to shoot her first buck, a landmark in her Mississippi hunting family. I remember a professor of mine pushing his young son to jump across a stream from one snow bank to another in Algonquin provincial park, a hurdle, and a challenge he met, though with fear apparent to the class. As kids we leap to one new talent after another, from the ones we don’t remember, like crawling, walking, and running, to those we may remember, biking, shimmying up a pole, climbing to the top of the jungle gym, or walking to school alone.

The physical challenges may be most abruptly mastered, but the intellectual ones that are more gradual can be just as real, and important. I come from a family that saves a lot, and so I can gaze back on papers from first grade with pages of letters, carefully copied. Actually, not so carefully – those As, Bs, Cs etc. were messy. In general, the standards of my family were clear, and we girls met them.

Houston is full of children who are measuring themselves not only against the standards of their schools, and their peers, but also those their parents bring from other countries and cultures. Some go to school on Saturday or Sunday, learning family languages. Others struggle to talk to grandparents in those languages and learn to eat and live in the style of a place and time long past. I think meeting multiple standards, seeing the diversity in ways to live is a source of creativity that helps give Houston its dynamism, when it doesn’t have cruel restrictions on girls. Actually living in another culture is the most extreme way to do this. When I am called on to introduce someone in my field who is very prominent, I often discover childhood years spent in other countries.

The standards of a different place or culture may stretch us, but comfort comes from home, where we know where we stand. I suppose it is a rare child that gets to visit their original home, at least in the US. Our kids grew up in two homes in Houston. We’ll bring to St. Louis the furniture they may have measured themselves against. I hope my children can feel tall in our new St. Louis home.

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How’s this for a ridiculous picture of me and that famous rickety cabinet, dressed for my parent’s overheated home.

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So the kids grew, a millimeter or two at a time.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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