Slipping Through the Cracks




My friend Tim Lebling, an instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School told me of a college student that he once had on a trip sea kayaking in Alaska, who was surprised to find that Alaska was attached to the mainland of North America. She thought it was an island, like Hawaii, for she always saw it represented in an atlas as its own little square at the bottom of the page.

I saw cracks in more college age students when an Honors group of students came to our house from Salisbury University in Maryland for a “Voluntary Simplicity” workshop. We have been hired by this university and others over the years to share our alternative lifestyle with the students.  

 After the tour of our property and handmade log home, we help the students prepare their dinner of burritos. When I see a young man stirring a very tall pot of refried beans and merely moving the top inch or two or food, I tell him he needs to get to the very bottom and stir or it will stick and burn. When he clumsily acts as if he doesn’t understand, I take the spoon and show him and tease,

“Didn’t you ever stir anything before?”


“You mean you never stirred a pot of anything before?”


I am speechless.


When dinner is over and the dishes are tackled, the young man in the sink fills each individual teaspoon with dish detergent before washing it, while the tap runs full steam. These are college juniors and seniors- honor students. After a workshop on the value of learning practical skills, I begin to wonder what kind of education their parents and the public school system has given these kids.


We all know there are holes in our children’s upbringing, their education, things that slipped through the cracks that we hope they’ll pick up on their own. My own children have them and I was surprised to see to what extent.


I screwed up in the housekeeping part. I not only did not instill a love for a clean home but my children also lack the skills to make that happen.


My sister bought me a shirt years ago that said, “A man’s home is his castle, let him clean it.” I had women stop me at gas stations and grocery stores telling me how much they loved it. My girlfriend recently got me a plaque that reads, “The way to deal with housework is to live outside.”  So this was the perverted attitude that my poor children were being launched into the world with; couple that with a funky lifestyle where we lived without many of society’s conveniences, and complications are bound to occur. This was illustrated when I visited Sierra during her first year of college, while she was house sitting for a professor.


So Sierra is opening the dishwasher to obtain clean dishes so we can enjoy the meal we just prepared. She is baffled that the plates are not clean. “I ran the dishwasher,” she says puzzled. “I’ll have to do it again,” and she closes the door and pushes the button.

I stare at it for a second and say, “You need to put dishwasher soap in there,” I announce.

“Really?” she replies.


“How was I supposed to know that? How do you know that?”

“My mother had one.” and I looked under the sink for the detergent, opened the trap door, and poured in the powder.

Sierra is impressed, that I possess this skill about technology and she, the young one, does not.


She told me of another basic household skill she discovered she lacked while house sitting. This had to do with the clothes dryer. She put her soiled clothing into a machine and turned it on and was surprised to find that the soap just caked onto her clothing and the water never entered the machine. We don’t have a dryer at home. We have permanent lines in the balcony library. We can hang five loads up there and put some much-needed moisture into our house in the winter when the wood stove heat dries out the air. Or, I hang my wash outdoors. Her professor’s washer and dryer look alike she rationalized.


Earlier in the week, her friend had to stop her from heating up food in an aluminum pie plate in the microwave. “You can’t do that!” he yells. She dials my phone number and yells at me, “Mom, you failed!”

I suppose I did in these areas. It is amazing to think that Sierra is so bright yet her life experience did not include these skills. When she went away to Governor’s School in her junior year of high school and stayed on Penn State’s main campus in a dorm, she was embarrassed that she did not know how to work a microwave. I was told then that I failed.

“You can easily pick up these skills, bright children like yourselves, and bring yourselves up to snuff,” I assured them, laughing. 


It’s not always obvious how big the space is between how our family lives and what the rest of the world is doing. It is interesting to think of all the worldly experiences I’ve exposed my children to yet there are things like filling a dishwasher that they do not know. It’s much the same as a foreigner from a different culture. There are so many different sets of skills and the life skills you need to function and be happy in one life situation can look much different when you are injected into another life situation.


I prefer the gaps my children got to the ones they would have if they had been totally socialized by society. Then they wouldn’t know how to follow their dreams. They may not even know what their dreams are because they spent most of their time in school standing in line, shutting up, coloring in the lines, memorizing and regurgitating what the teacher thought important…., instead of being excited over what they were learning.

3 thoughts on “Slipping Through the Cracks Leave a comment

  1. Cultural literacy is a tough challenge, today more than ever. So much difference exists between those immersed in technology and those still in the physical world. I read an article in the NY TIMES today about an airline (I think KLM) that is going to let you select who you sit next to by your LinkedIn profile or something. Now, we cannot even meet people who are different than us by accident.

    Our world is getting smaller technology wise, but so much larger due to our ability to put on the headphones and shut the rest out (the ultimate way to get your seat mate to leave you alone).

    A whole new opportunity exists to help each other, the savvy with nature and the savvy with technology. When we can match up the best of both, we can all celebrate. We’re on this swirling sphere together, we may as well act like it.

  2. I can relate.
    Our son has never seen a dishwasher or clothes dryer or microwave either.
    But, at 6 years old, I let him drive my motorcycle sometimes.
    (He’s been riding double with me since he’s 1)
    Many Thai kids can do this, but not so many Americans.
    (He does have trouble catching a baseball though)

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