Five moments from teaching at Freedom School

January 1, 2024

My two months at Freedom School ended as the Winter Break began. It’s been a hectic and demanding time, and I loved almost every minute of it.

So many moments of joy and satisfaction at bringing this marvelous string work to so many kids, and so little time to sit and reflect and try to articulate what they were and why they needed to be recorded and shared! Here are a few highlights from the last few days: in my final sessions with the kindergarten classes with which I’ve had such amazing success for the first time ever at that grade level, one moment stands out. A tiny little girl, using the very short strings I’ve used exclusively with the Kinders so that they can experience immediate success with the simplest of figures and not have to struggle, came up to me and said she wanted to do the Four Diamonds. This is the figure known in the English-speaking world as Jacob’s Ladder. I use the name “Osage Four Diamonds” as a rule, to honor a Native American tribe and encourage the pattern recognition which leads to understanding the algorithmic progressions string figures can teach.

I told her it was pretty complicated and was tempted to give her a longer string, which would make the task quite a bit easier. But she was so determined and steadfast in her attitude that I surrendered to the moment and simply led her through the many intricate steps to accomplish her goal. She amazed me with her level of dexterity and control and mastered every challenging move without a single blunder. 

On our last day, I was able to share a description of this moment with her classroom teacher, and he agreed that she has a remarkable level of fine motor dexterity and an equal level of determination. He then thanked me for sharing the story with him.

Two other marvelous moments were much more familiar, yet still outstanding in their intensity. In a third-grade group, within a few moments of each other, first, a boy asked me to help him learn the final steps of the Four Diamonds figure, demonstrating that he had mastered the “Cat’s Whiskers” sequence which means more than half of the figure has been prepared. When he was finally able to display the four diamonds, he stood there in awe, his eyes widened, then widened again, and then got so big they looked like they would pop out of his head! I had never seen increasing levels of silent wonder grow and expand so beautifully. 

Within a few moments, a girl approached with the same request. She had mastered the Cat’s Whiskers and now wanted to get to the Four Diamonds. Her reaction to her success was squeals of delight, and then a half dozen quick jumps, as if she expected herself to begin to fly. Again, I felt overcome with the pleasure and honor I feel at being able to bring such moments of joy to children, repeatedly and often. 

Yesterday brought three more such moments, subtler but just as satisfying. We were deeply engaged in a complicated dance in the classroom, where most of the class had a choice between free exploration of string figures on their own or with any of the books in my large library of string game books, or free drawing with blank paper or a variety of pattern pages for coloring. The choices give me the opportunity to work with small groups of students at the back of the room on fabricating string circles of 5-, 6-, 7-, or 8-pointed stars wound around cardboard cake rounds. It’s the perfect non-sectarian yet festive winter holiday project.

Although I explain to the kids that I am not available for questions and they need to follow their choices as well as they can on their own, many nevertheless are unable to resist interrupting me with questions or just their enthusiastic pride at showing off some string-related accomplishment. In a fourth-grade group yesterday, I had three such moments one after another which were equally delightful. First, a boy approached with the same request as the third-grader had made last week: “I’ve got the Cat’s Whiskers, can you help me learn the Four Diamonds?” I asked the class, “Who’s a good Four Diamonds teacher?” and immediately another boy standing nearby said “I am” and jumped right in to finish the task. 

Shortly after, another student came up and proudly showed me he had learned the Eight Diamonds, a complicated variation of the diamonds sequence that I’ve never even attempted — I know the Two Diamonds well, and can usually remember the One and the Three, but I’ve never gone beyond the Four. His initiative in teaching it to himself (no doubt with the help of YouTube!) was a delightful testament to string learning taking a firm hold.

Then, to top that off, he returned shortly to introduce me to a friend to whom he had just taught the Eight Diamonds! I gave them hearty congratulations and then challenged them to attempt a Double-Double, where they would have to share two strings between their paired opposite hands and do the figure simultaneously on both pairs of hands. 

They did return and show me that they could do it as a Double, and I’m sure they will master the Double-Double at some point. I was so proud at each of these moments–what a blessing this work has been!