This month, Iris Westman turns 114 years old. Iris doesn’t want attention or notoriety for her age. But for me, as her great-great niece, I want her story and legacy to live on for our family’s future generations.
My husband, daughters, one of my brothers and I visited Iris recently. Our daughters shared about their upcoming school years as they begin in fourth and sixth grades. Iris listened and then said, “My fourth-grade teacher was Miss Carpenter. She wore her hair back in a tight bun. She was very good in math, which was my weakest subject. And she didn’t care much if we liked her or not.” We listened.
Iris shared more about her elementary teachers and the pursuit of education. She talked of her dad as the “school bus driver” transporting her and her brothers, including my great-grandfather, to and from their farm into town to attend public school. Driving was not loading up a car or four-wheel drive vehicle like we might think of today. Her dad’s school bus was by horse and wagon, through all types of prairie weather.
I am a proponent for not going back to the way things used to be in agriculture and rural life. Iris’s reflections reminded me how the simple task of getting our kids to a public school is much simpler now. It also reminded me of the commitment to education started generations ago in our family with Iris’s father, my great-great grandfather’s commitment to get his kids to school on a daily basis and have them all graduate from high school.
Education advanced our rural family across generations, not only on the farm but added careers and advancement to those who didn’t return to the farm after their childhoods. The pursuit of education laid a foundation for generations like my grandmother and her siblings, my mother and her siblings, my siblings, cousins and now our children to pursue not only high school diplomas but secondary education and for some, professional schools and degrees.
Our son, Hunter, begins his fourth year at the University of North Dakota, first with fall football camp and then the fall semester of classes this month. Graduating from a class of 18 students in a rural school did not limit his opportunity to pursue advanced education. He was prepared when he began and is working toward a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering. He has shared with me that he looked up to those he was raised by as the role models he should follow. When he eventually graduates from UND, he follows in the footsteps of one of my brothers, parents and me who are all graduates of the same university. But who started the family tradition of pursuing an education at the University of North Dakota? Iris graduated from UND in 1928.
While we do not need to go back to the way things used to be, the foundation of education for anyone and everyone in America is an honor and gift we can continue to grow on for the future. In the hustle and bustle of modern-day back-to-school preparations, the importance of simply getting our kids to school and giving them the opportunity to grow, learn and advance through education can be muted.
The lists are long of what kids “need” for school now. But Iris’ insight reminded me our kids get to attend school to advance their future, with all types of “Miss Carpenter” teachers giving all they have to teach our children. No matter our roots or location, we can grow through education. Thank you to a nearly 114-year-old great-great aunt for the vivid reminders and stories of this gift of education.
You don’t need a family history of education to pursue your path. Blaze your education pursuits and create a legacy for your future generations to follow.