The Teacher Lady In The Wild West Can Teach Us A Thing Or Two

“She doesn’t know what her daughter’s going to at camp without her cell phone,” my friend said of another mother, who like her, was sending her daughter off to a nature camp that forbid the use of electronic devices. I couldn’t help but think how far we had come since my cell-phone free childhood where if something happened, I went to an adult who called my parents.  When I got a phone, it’s only function was to make phone calls (imagine that), and my parents stipulated in “emergencies only”.  Then I thought about Lily Casey Smith who at the age of 15 rode 500 miles by herself on a horse to teaching position at one-room school house in remote Arizona during the height of WWI. Her only protection was her wits and small pearl-handled .22.  What would she think of today’s 15 year olds who lie around texting and playing Angry Birds?

Lily Casey Smith is the protagonist and narrator of Jeannette Walls’ Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel.  Lily is Walls’ grandmother, and Walls pieced together her grandmother’s life to create a novel that reads very much like a memoir.  Lily’s voice comes through as so genuine and clear that I had a hard time remembering that it wasn’t written by her.  My jaw was on the table as I read about her exploits breaking horses at the age of six, teaching all alone in unfamiliar territory at the age of 15, moving away to Chicago and getting married to her “crumb-bum” first husband, returning to the desert, dealing with the hypocrisy of frontier society, marrying again, raising two children, surviving the Great Depression by doing whatever it took including moving away from her husband to teach at remote schools, learning to fly, handling a head-strong daughter who valued art and emotions rather than pragmatic, hard-nosed determination and work, living in the city, and basically carving a life out for her and her family in one of the most inhospitable regions of the U.S..  Lily’s unabashed spunk (this really seems too light and condescending of a word) and her partnership with her husband allowed them to survive and thrive through whatever life, nature, or the economy threw their way.

Being one who grew up in the suburbs and whose most difficult chore was pulling weeds, I was over-whelmed and awed at her life.  I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad when I finished.  Not just because the book ended, but because I wondered what kind of stories would we leave for future generations?  Will my students tell their grandchildren about how much they texted?  Lily scoffed at unnecessary rules and regulations and often took matters into her own hands to do what she thought needed to be done.   How much are our rules created to keep kids “safe” limiting their experiences?  I once saw two people windsurfing in full wetsuits with helmets, knee-pads, and elbow-pads, but weren’t all those safety precautions defeating the purpose of windsurfing to feel the spray of the water their skin and the wind through their hair?  We have school districts that are banning hugs and having best friends. The New York City Department of Education wants to ban certain words in school such as birthday, cancer, homelessness, abuse, unemployment, evolution, and divorce.  These words, and many more, might make a student feel “unpleasant”.   They have not considered that a student who has a divorced, unemployed mother with cancer might want to talk about it with someone.  How can we get children to think if we take away their words?  We cannot make problems go away by not talking about them.

Remember to wear your helmet at all times!

Lily dealt with her realities head-on.  She was resourceful and innovative, always thinking how she could make things better or get the most use out of an item.  When catastrophe headed her way, she didn’t go to therapy, sit around and eat Haagen-Daz, or fret about what she should do.  She dealt with it using whatever means necessary.  Granted some of her tactics got her fired, but she got things done.  I think we can learn a lot from her approach to life of accepting what it gives and moving on.

Image via

To read more about words banned in New York, check out Jodi Ambrose’s blog.


4 thoughts on “The Teacher Lady In The Wild West Can Teach Us A Thing Or Two

  1. Lily sounds like a fascinating lady. I will have to check that book out. You might be interested in an article I posted about a woman who successfully ran her own farm business in the early 1900s. I came across an article about her while doing research for a historical novel I’m writing. Here is a link to my blog, and the specific article is called, “What a Woman Can Do.” It seems to me that we are resting on the determination and guts of that very lively generation. Thanks for writing.

    1. thanks for the link! I will definitely look up that article. I feel like the past generations would be rather appalled at how we live today and what we worry about. Have you ever read Edgar Lee Master’s poem Lucinda Matlock? I think he summarizes some of our generation when speaker says “life is too strong for you”. You may want to read my post The Haves Might Really Be The Have Nots for more early century farming info. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I love it when people share their ideas with me.

  2. “We cannot make problems go away by not talking about them.” Truer words were never spoken. Thanks for the award–it really warmed my heart. And thanks for link to my blog. You are such a dear. 🙂

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