It had been over a month since I’d visited my Aunt at Wesley Health Care, and I wondered if she’d remember me. My dad and I arrived to find her napping. Being her younger brother, he clapped his hands and she woke with a dazed look on her face. I smiled at her while my dad pointing to me asked, “Do you remember who this one is?” She looked at me puzzled for a few seconds, but then smiled and said, “Stephen!”. She remarked with slurred and halting speech, “It’s Amazing What You Remember,” and after a five second pause, “And Amazing What You Forget.” I smiled and responded to my Aunt, “Yes, it is amazing.” She returned a tired smile back.
Whenever I visit my Aunt Jo, whether in her prime when she worked as Margaret Mead’s protege, or now in late stage dementia, I am always reminded of her good work and zest for intellectual curiosity. My Aunt is/was a free-spirited, brilliant, first generation Sicilian with a passion for teaching and learning and a life marked by significant contributions to education and society. A lovely article about my Aunt written by Paul Post of the Saratogian hangs by her bed.
Aunt Jo lived on the tail end of the bell curve and went to the beat of her own drum. However, that beat always involved intellectual curiosity, teaching or learning, and contributions to the poor and ethnic minorities. Through her dissertation work under Margaret Mead and contacts with Jean Piaget in Geneva as part of a Mensa grant to study intelligence, Aunt Jo published, “An Anthropological Exploration of the Influence of a Sicilian Peasant Culture on Cognition.” Wow! From my perspective as an educator, that is seminal stuff.
Basically, Aunt Jo experienced the culture of her parents through her study of a small school for underprivileged boys in the Sicilian mountains led by Father Don Calogero La Placa. She was curious and wanted to both amaze and be amazed through her anthropological research and findings. And that is how Aunt Jo led her life. Amazement is good, though it often requires hard work and perseverance. Do we amaze our students today? Do we arouse their deep intellectual curiosity, or has technology and a zeal for testing tamped out that innate element of our being? It’s all so complicated. And yet, if we make time to delve deeply into topics that matter to our students (not necessarily us), and if we reduce the constant stream of stimuli in their environment, we can surely bring amazement to our students and their learning.
We left Aunt Jo smiling. During our visit a staff member brought in two of her dogs to entertain and stimulate the residents. I watched the dogs prance around on their hind legs for a pepperoni flavored dog treat. When I looked over to my Aunt, she was studying me. I asked her, “Are you watching Max and Teesa? They’re amazing.” She responded, “I’d rather watch you.” My Aunt Jo, the amazing anthropologist at work. I left knowing I need to visit her more often.