Early Education: Counting to Ten

At the Guyton household in Jackson, Mississippi, new babies began to arrive. David, Robert, Johnny, Steve, Cathy, and Jeannie had moved with Ruth and Arthur from Oxford to a cramped small house on Meadow Road. Doug soon occupied a crib in a corner of his parents’ room. By the time Jimmy and Tommy arrived, the big concrete house was ready to welcome them.

That might have been enough, but later in the 1960s a bonus package arrived. It seemed only fitting that this Protestant mother would name her 10th child Gregory Paul after two Catholic popes. Ruth had to send a telegram to her Wellesley classmates explaining why she would not be able to attend their 25th reunion. “They were struck dead with horror,” she recalled with great amusement.

She laughed at herself after she took the new baby in for his first regular pediatrician appointment. Oldest son David sat with them in the waiting room. The receptionist called out, “Mrs. Guyton, what’s the baby’s name?” Flustered, she turned to the young man beside her and asked, “David, what’s his name?”

When asked why they had so many children, Ruth would reply nonchalantly, “I liked the littlest ones. I liked always having a little one to play with.” That was true, but she also found joy in every child’s progress as he or she grew up.

Arthur occasionally gave a more logical explanation. Both he and Ruth had graduated at or near the top of their classes throughout their educational years. His version of Darwinism informed him that the human gene pool would tend to deteriorate as life on earth became less strenuous for the masses. He held that basic intelligence was mostly genetic, and he told the children that he and Mama were making their contribution to the gene pool.

Today we hear almost no discussion about the gene pool, but it received serious attention in the first part of the 20th century. I think the concept was flawed. It served abusively for purposes of domination, and its retreat is welcome. Whether the quality of the gene pool should ever be discussed again will be a question for future generations.

Even if genes, healthy nutrition, and physical activity supply the basis for brain development, education drives the growth of intelligence needed for today’s civilization. Both of our parents believed in starting as early as possible.

A heritage of teaching extended over generations in both of their families. In a previous blog I described how Ruth’s father, a pioneer in childhood education, had written a book that sold a million copies from 1911 to 1940. It was – as absurd as it sounds today – a textbook on how to teach Sunday School. Arthur’s mother and his paternal grandmother worked as teachers before marriage. His mother Kate taught Sunday School throughout her life at First Methodist in Oxford and gave innumerable talks on Confucius and Eastern wisdom to women’s groups in north Mississippi.

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Ruth reading to grandson Morgan and granddaughter Julia

Here are Arthur’s thoughts on starting education early, from an interview with biographer Carroll Brinson:

Ruth is the one who worked the most with our children on their schoolwork. She actually began this when the children were as young as one and a half to two years of age by reading to them every night. For a period of twenty years or more while the children were young, I suspect that Ruth had a reading schedule that averaged close to an hour every night. One of the important things about reading to children at this younger age is that it trains them in language. The younger a person is trained in language, the more easily can he transmit and receive ideas by the language medium throughout the remainder of his life. All aspects of intelligence build upon the previous intelligence that a person has gained. By gaining high levels of communicative intelligence at such early ages, our children could move along to the other stages of intellectual development more rapidly than would ever have been possible without this early training given to them by Ruth.[1]

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Ruth reading to grandchildren, first cousins Morgan and Carrie

We always appreciated our parents’ interest in early education. But I’m still not sure that an adequate answer has been given to the question: Why 10 children? Some of us especially in our teenage years suspected another reason.

Cheap labor. I described in the last blog the older children’s work constructing bookshelves and cabinets for the big house and also our summer jobs machining and assembling oxygen analyzers for the Oxford Instrument Company. Because we were officers and co-owners of the company, Daddy didn’t have to pay us much. It mostly went into bank accounts for future education anyway.

I wrote the last paragraph tongue in cheek. Whatever the immediate response when Daddy poked his crutch into the mattress to jostle us awake at 7 a.m. on summer mornings, we had a sense that the work ethic gained would become invaluable to us as adults. Both parents would remind us of some simple math: family finances divided 10 ways would not carry us very far; we would have to make it on our own.

A frugal upbringing meant that we learned to build things ourselves and fix things ourselves. I cannot recall ever seeing a repairman come to our house, except that Ginger Howard, our black friend from the medical school staff, came out several times for more difficult tasks.

Daddy knew how to fix anything – the washing machine, his home-built heating system beneath the concrete floor, even the sewer pipe than ran the length of the 127-foot house. But he couldn’t do those things physically. We provided the hands and muscle power. In the closeness of many jobs performed together, we imbibed his will to figure things out and make them work as intended.

 

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THE HOLE

The worst jobs involved descending into “the hole,” which was located in the long central hallway of the house. The child, usually a teenager, would use a stick of wood and 2 screws  to lift a block of concrete out of the hallway floor, in order to gain entrance to a crawl space, about 3.5 feet high, beneath the living areas. The home-built furnace, always breaking down, lay just beneath the hole. Daddy knew where every valve and electrical connection could be found and often directed an hour-long repair job from the hallway above. Sometimes he would ask to be lifted bodily into and out of the hole himself, when the repair was complex.

 

Clogging of the sewer pipe struck fear into the heart of whoever the oldest child at home happened to be. We had a very long roll of steel wire, hooked at one end to bust up the clog, and bent into handles at the other end for manual rotation. Sometimes, however, this homemade “roto-rooter” did not suffice. The sewer could be fixed only by going down into the hole and crawling along the sewer line while tapping on the pipe to find the obstruction, then breaking into the clay pipe, letting the pressurized contents gush forth, moving the crap back and forth to establish a flow again, and finally repairing the pipe. All of this supervised by our father, upon whom our chances for success in life depended.

In a late interview with Allen Weisse, Arthur recalled the many years of child-raising in the big concrete house:

My wife had a terrific love for young children, the babies; and I loved small children from three, four, or five right through high school and even college, as they were growing up. It turned out that being in a wheelchair was an advantage, because instead of doing things for them all the time, you tell them how to do it. So I had a very close relationship with all the children, and, by having that close relationship and such a terrific fondness for them, I always said I would have as many as my wife wanted.[2]

Did you catch what he said? “It turned out that being in a wheelchair was an advantage….” I find it hard to comment on that. Words fail.

 

Addendum from Cathy Guyton Greenberger:

Johnny, do you remember how I was taught? Daddy taught himself how to knit so he could teach me. I don’t know how he managed the knitting with only one good hand but somehow he did. He took me to Ben Franklin to buy a girls’ size 7 dress pattern and material so “we” could learn to sew. We got the pattern cut out and sewed a few seams — the pieces were still there on the high shelf of the pink room closet when I left for college. Then there was cooking…..he encouraged me to bake things even before I could read. One day I left out the eggs in the brownie mix — turned out like brownie brittle, which no one else would touch but he declared it delicious!

 

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Featured image and other photos. Family photos, Susan Storm Guyton, own work, public domain CC0.

[1] Brinson, C. Arthur C. Guyton – His Life, His Family, His Achievements. Oakdale Press, Jackson, MS, 1989, p. 71.

[2] Weisse, A.B. Heart to Heart: the Twentieth Century Battle against Cardiac Disease, an Oral History. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2002, pp. 115-133.

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