July 18, 2024

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Mrs. Baldwin of Missouri Teaches All About Mexico

by Maggie Van Ostrand

When sixth-grade teacher, Dorothy Baldwin, sent an email asking for permission to use my story, “The Day I Photographed Josefina’s family,” in a class project about Mexico, I said yes, and requested only that she forward the result for my files.

I expected to see my story, about what a simple photograph can represent to a Mexican family, sandwiched somewhere between a few dull student essays filled with misspelled words, written in poor penmanship on pages torn out of a Mead Composition Book. I based this low expectation on newspaper articles and television shows decrying the quality of education in the United States.

Media continually scream out about the dumbing of students, seemingly forgetting that there are millions of bright, clever children all across the country. Not every child lives in overcrowded cities. Not every child is stuck in classes with too many students. Not every child is assigned to a class taught by someone who might be better qualified to function in another profession.

Last week, Mrs. Baldwin sent me a package which weighed in at just under a pound and a half. That’s not a guess. I weighed it.

It’s an 8-1/2 x 11 inch, spiral-bound, laser-printed, tome. The cover is bright yellow. The frontispiece: a color picture of the Mexican flag which takes up half the page. Underneath it are the words, “MEXICO” by (child’s name).

The Table of Contents alone may be more than I ever learned about Mexico, even though I’ve lived there off and on, for eight years. In part, and not even counting all the provocative maps, graphs, and puzzles, the Contents include Maya Pottery, the Six Tests of Xibalba, the Finding of Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs (including laws and politics), Tracking the Monarch Butterfly (the Monarchs fly from Mexico right past their mid-west town), a Strange Drink Called Xoco-Latl; The Manufacturing Process of Chocolate; The Vertical Zonation of Crops; The Heroes of the Fifth of May; Farming in Northern Mexico; Touring Mexico; Hurricane Tracking; Lifestyles in Urban and Rural Mexico.

Seems an awful lot for a sixth grader, doesn’t it? Apparently not for Mrs. Baldwin’s creative sixth graders. Among the choice morsels to be found in this class project, is a short story, “A Letter to God,” by Mexican writer, Gregorio Lopez y Fuentes. Señor Lopez’ story is about a poor farmer, desperate for rain to grow the crops he needed for his family to live. The farmer writes a letter to God asking for a hundred dollars, addresses the envelope “To God,” and drops it in the mailbox.

Both the mail clerk and the postmaster laugh when they see the envelope and the letter, then realize that the farmer’s faith is very strong and to be admired. They decide to help the farmer.

The postmaster goes to his friends and coworkers and collects as much as they can spare, which comes to sixty dollars. He puts the cash into an envelope addressed to the farmer, who picks it up in a few days.

The farmer is not surprised when he receives money, for he knew God would answer his prayers. He is surprised, however, that the amount is less than he had asked for. He goes to the desk in the post office and writes another letter to God. Here is what it said:

“God, the money you sent me amounted to only sixty dollars by my counting. Send me the rest, because I have great need for it. But don’t send it to me through the post office. The clerks are a bunch of thieves.”

Carrying on with interesting work from the class project: “The Brave One,” the story of a little Mexico City boy and his bull, Gitano, is one of my all-time favorite films. I once made a copy of it for the children of Ajijic artist, Enrique Velasquez, who shared it with all their friends. I thought I was the only person who ever heard of this charming, moving film.

Mrs. Baldwin knows about it. She said, on a post-it note stuck on the appropriate page, “I use this movie to help students understand life in Mexico up until recent years.” She explains the characters, locations, plot, and defines Spanish words.

Further, she conducts an “interview” with Leonardo Miguel Rocito, from the movie. This “interview” occurs today, 47 years since the film was made, and answers questions about what happened to the characters. She asked her students to then write their own interview, asking the age-old “who, what, when, where, why and how” questions of Sr. Rocito. She attached a sample interview.

At the end of the interview appears the handwritten statement: “I give Mrs. Baldwin permission to use my writing,” signed by students Bailey Long and Channdra Binns.

Such a small thing, asking their permission, and yet consider the lessons here. The children are treated with respect and also learn ethics; the members of Mrs. Baldwin’s class who grow up to become writers will not plagiarize another’s work.

I suggest that, next time the media does a story condemning educational standards in the United States, they journey to Maryville, Missouri, and audit Mrs. Baldwin’s class.

They might learn something.

©2013 Maggie Van Ostrand, all rights reserved.