Hands-On Alabama History: Helen Keller

So I think I missed a couple things in my own Alabama education.

I missed that Helen Keller was an international superstar, and I missed that she lived until the late 1960s – she died only 13 years before I was born.

The first fact I believe I missed precisely because I’m from Alabama. Sure, we studied her – but I didn’t fully realize that all of y’all did as well – and probably half the world (there were gifts from dozens of countries on the grounds of her birthplace, the subject of this field trip. Also, Helen Keller’s statue is one of very few women in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the Capitol, hanging out with Ronald Reagan, Sam Adams, and George Washington.)

(But, just in case you too weren’t aware of how great Helen was, she was the first deaf and blind woman to go to college, wrote multiple books, had an insanely high IQ, and traveled the world promoting women’s rights and rights for the blind.)

And as for the second fact – she was born in 1880, y’all. That was like an entirely different existence. How could she have been still alive when my Mom learned about her in school? And do our parents remember when she died like one of those moments where you’re all like “I remember where I was when…”?

So many questions that I pondered on our field trip last week.

We drove two hours northwest with our friends Christen, Luke, Aubrey, and Levi to visit Helen Keller’s birthplace, Ivy Green, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Tuscumbia is a small town in Northwest Alabama that is neighbors with Florence, Muscle Shoals, and Sheffield. I don’t remember going there before, as Northwest Alabama is vastly unexplored by me, despite its unbelievable beauty.

We traveled with some friends, which is highly recommended – two hour car trips with kids entertained by their friends is significantly better than two hour car trips with bored and lonely children.

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Ivy Green was remarkably tiny looking on the outside, but had lovely grounds (10 acres of the original 640 that her grandparents built upon.) The surrounding neighborhood is full of far grander houses that resemble perfectly outfitted Victorian dollhouses.

The tour of the house is guided, pointing out photos of Helen and her family, along with tidbits from Helen’s life.

These were her actual dresses, again blowing my mind that she was still alive when my parents were kids. Or maybe my parents are just older than I realize.

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Each room was cordoned off to prevent tiny hands from ruining artifacts – something that greatly decreases the amount of Mommy Anxiety wasted on a field trip.

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Our tour guide told delightful stories about her family, her upbringing, and the house.

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Upstairs held three very low-ceilinged rooms, and this one was the one shared by Helen and Anne Sullivan, her lifelong friend and teacher.

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They also had one room open as a museum, including a replica of Helen’s statue at the capitol.

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The house was built in 1820, so to prevent fires, the kitchen was actually in a shed out back.

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The grounds included all sorts of unique and curious finds that helped the kids run off their two-hour-car-ride bundle of energy.

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And of course, the grounds tour included the pump at which Helen and Anne were able to first communicate.

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The kids learned a little, bonded a lot, and got to see another part of our state.

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Before we left, we visited Tuscumbia’s stunning Spring Park, where we enjoyed a playground and gorgeous waterfall,

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Water wheels and a pond,

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And a very impressive fountain that made the kids scream every time it reached its highest point.

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And of course, we moms enjoyed the long miles of Alabama backroad and its ever-present curiosities, including one very special town, which may become a primary entry into my personal dictionary.

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Alabama is awesome, y’all.

Here’s Ali’s report:

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Desperado.

I live for spelling bees.

I only participated in one when I was a kid, but I remember relishing the thrill of competition. I’m also a fairly good speller (except for the word dilemma) and would greatly appreciate it if my children would join me in that vital pursuit.

Last year was Ali’s first round of spelling bees. We have a school spelling bee (just our homeschool cover school), and then the Birmingham District Homeschooling spelling bee. In Ali’s first ever spelling bee as a third grader (spelling bees are for 1-8th grade – so clearly I forgot what I lived for two years in a row), she placed 1st in her grade and 4th in the school and was elated at her achievement, even though she was one spot away from a cash prize. She decided she wanted to work even harder for the district bee, truly hoping to grab a cash prize. But alas, the district spelling bee’s Round One started in words past where we’d studied, and so she was out on round one, along with over half the kids that participated.

As soon as the spelling sheets came out for this school year, we began studying. We made it through all 450 words a few times through before the first bee, challenging my pronunciation abilities and forcing me to use the audio feature of dictionary.com to learn words such as a posteriori, recherche, netsuke (pronounced netskee), and more. And then there were the long words that were a delight to say, such as prestidigitation and supererogation. We loosely knew them all, but alas – Ali was self-admittedly too confident as a mature 4th grader, and spelled out of the school spelling bee at 5th place.

We trudged through the holidays, spelling and re-spelling reveille and sanctum sanctorum, in preparation for the district bee. I wasn’t super confident in her readiness for the harder spelling bee, but I encouraged her to go slow, picture the word in her head, and GO SLOW. The district bee was important, after all. The winners of that bee progressed toward Nationals.

The top three winners of the district bee get to go to the “Homeschool County” bee – there are 67 counties in Alabama, but homeschoolers don’t get to compete in their county bee – they all get thrown into the same pot called Homeschool County, then winners of the 67 real counties and the one imaginary Homeschool County compete against each other in the State Bee. I enjoy imagining what Homeschool County is like, and often find myself daydreaming about it…the stores lining the streets would include Denim Jumpers R Us and Minivan Superstore, the “playgrounds” would just be circular seating arrangements of children reciting the U.S. constitution in Latin, and all food inside county boundaries would be required to be gluten free and devoid of any devilish red dye.

(But I digress.)

My heart began beating heavily as soon as we entered the room for the district bee. My hands were shaking. I decided I needed to busy them so as to not take on more nervousness on behalf of my daughter. So I took her picture.

IMG_3905She unwittingly chose the only long skirt she had – it was SO Homeschool County of her. The sequins on her shirt, however, would definitely get her thrown into Homeschool County Jail. Where she could keep me company during my incarceration for having purple hair.

According to the seating arrangement, Ali was the third to last speller, and since I couldn’t take pictures of her to busy myself, I decided I’d write down every word used, match them against our study sheets, and see if all the words did indeed come from the 450 we tried our best to memorize. There had also been extra sheets of challenge words – some we’d briefly gone over – but 450 words is really an undertaking. Who has time to look at a dozen more sheets?

I began writing with each student, and then texting updates to Chris and a couple other friends waiting with bated breath (or wishing I’d quit texting them.) I created a system – dots on the left meant the student got the word wrong and was therefore out. I put Ali’s word in a square, and dots on the right meant the word had a homonym and therefore had its definition read with the word (during the last spelling bee, we the spectators had played “Who can figure out what the homonym is?” – a game that is harder than you might imagine.)

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Thankfully, the moderator started with much easier words this year. As soon as the first word was read, Ali looked back at me and smiled. There would be no Round One elimination for her this year.

The rounds kept going and Ali continued to spell correctly.

Round 7 was the frightening round – the one where the moderators took a minute to discuss amongst themselves, then shuffle papers – I knew they were going off-script. We had finished with the word list and were headed into uncharted territories.

With each new unstudied word, I just knew Ali would be out.

But then she spelled tortilla and popularity. My heart burst with spelling pride.

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There were only five students left by round 9, and Ali was giving then word “Hogan”, except that it was pronounced “hog-on”, and I didn’t even know how to spell it. Surely this would be the end. Ali paused, having no idea what a Hogan was (nor did I), and wisely asked for a definition.

“a Navajo Indian dwelling constructed of earth and branches and covered with mud or sod. It can also be pronounced ‘hogan.’”

Oh, this was the breakthrough Ali needed. Would she opt for guessing “hogan” or “hogon”?

She went with Hogan. And was right.

She made it through round 10, miraculously spelling acronym.

The field was now down to 4 – it started at 29 spellers. This was crazy. She was on a roll.

Then she was given the word Desperado.

She’d never heard it before, and after a moment of thinking, she spelled it desperoto.

She was out, officially 4th place, just two rounds before the bee was over.

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She and I were both shocked and excited that she’d made it so far, and not at all disappointed that we didn’t get to visit the magical land of Homeschool County as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place finishers did. We quickly decided that 4th place was “The first place of No More Studying”, and celebrated by car-dancing to Spotify on the way home – something that’s surely not allowed in Homeschool County.

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And, for what it’s worth, when it comes to Desperado, Ali and I unanimously concur that Rihanna does it best.

The Best New Crafting Bling: Fimo Slices.

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It’s been way too long since I’ve made a craft project worthy of sharing. Today’s is brought to you by purchasing the wrong product, because sometimes you discover something fabulous by screwing up. Such was the case with Fimo barrels.

I loved making Fimo beads when I was a kid – the rolling into a barrel, then slicing to show the amazing detail. I was never great at it, but it was fun anyway. When I saw that you could very inexpensively order pre-made super detailed barrels, I was thrilled.

Fimo ProjectIMG_4741sI ordered this set and this set, and they should last us for many craft projects.

I did not realize, however, that the barrels were already baked, making them more of a hard rubber than the soft clay I was used to working with for beading.

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In retrospect I should have assumed so – they were advertised as nail décor – something I would NOT be using them for. (Any mother knows that supergluing something adorable to our fingernails would be a practice in maddening futility.) But alas. I had excitedly ordered them, then when I found out what they were, promptly put them in a junk drawer for over a year – which is, apparently, the amount of time it takes for me to have a eureka moment as to how to utilize something.

That realization was that we could use them for a 100 Days of School craft.

Using an X-acto knife, I carefully sliced 100 slivers for each of the kids (and 100 for myself – because if we’re gonna craft, I should get to craft too.)

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(Aren’t they gorgeous? It made me happy just seeing them all.)

I drew us each a tree with a metallic sharpie on scrapbook paper I had left over from previous craft forays (these were from a frames project from YEARS ago. I have trouble purging craft products.)

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Then I gave the kids some glue and told them to have fun.

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I have to say. The finished product, though useless except to lay around the house for the next year and a half until I finally throw it out, was VERY satisfying.

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And the kids loved all the different shapes – there were Angry Birds, flags, playing cards, emoji, and a animals. The random variety kept them endlessly entertained and plugged into our crafting project.

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A couple of weeks later, it was about to be my Mom’s birthday. She is a Master Gardener, so I thought it would be fun to use the barrels in the shape of flowers to make her garden birthday cards.

I pulled out my scrapbook paper again, and also my Washi Tape (from my gift wrap hack that I’ve gloriously used for the past three years.)

I sliced the kids one of each of the flowers, along with other things that would belong in a garden.

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I then drew them stems, handed them glue, and told them to go to town.

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The finished product further convinced me: Fimo barrels should be in everyone’s craft drawer, not sadly languishing in a junk drawer.

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Of course, as delightful as the outsides were, I’m pretty sure Gramamma preferred the freestyling insides.

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But let’s be honest – crafting before sentimentality. Those Fimo flowers are THE BOMB.

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