The carefree childhood

I’m not sure whether I ever mentioned this, but one of my favorite authors is Gerald Durrell, the renowned zoologist. He traveled all around the world and wrote many books about all the places, people and animals he encountered, but what I love the most from his works are the books about his childhood on Corfu.

In the Corfu books, he describes a truly carefree childhood. He was sporadically educated at home by a number of private tutors, but overall had all the space and time he wanted to explore, invent, and give free reign to the primary and overwhelming interest of his entire life – animals. In his books, he reports more than once that he never really had much interest in anything else.

He was fortunate enough, however, to have what many children these days lack – a true zeal for something, a burning desire to learn, know, and do everything connected with his favorite pursuit. His thirst for knowledge prompted him to read all about animals; a fortunate idea to start a nature journal, planted by a wise friend, encouraged him to develop his writing skills; the practical care of his specimens involved measuring, counting, building cages etc, which taught him probably all the math he ever needed. In the context of the animal kingdom, he learned history and geography, and his roams around the island of Corfu usually involved meeting an entire host of interesting characters, which were later vividly portrayed in his autobiographic books.

Such an education would have been considered skewed and incomplete, not to mention shockingly undersupervised by many of today’s experts, but it was far better than most children can hope for today. A strong passion for something, if this something involves exploring the world and meeting people, and being introduced into life, is education in itself. It is far better than professionally planned, age-appropriate, well-balanced, well-rounded, but insipid and boring lessons received in a school setting and automatically disposed of by a caged brain. Gerald Durrell had the desire and freedom to learn, access to resources of learning, and the rest was done almost automatically. Life educated him.

And, something which is perhaps a little trivial but nevertheless important, he never forgot to return home for tea. His books are full of descriptions of family meals, of breakfast, lunch, and dinner eaten together, of family outings and family parties, of life lived together, even though each individual child was given the freedom to be, and do, and develop according to his unique personality. I’ve always loved the descriptions of Durrell’s mother in his books – she is portrayed as someone stern enough to keep a family together, but indulgent enough to give her (sometimes slightly eccentric) children room to grow, and easygoing enough to adjust to the flow of life with all its bends and twists.

This combination of flexible, non-compartmentalized education and good, stable home life produced an intelligent, talented, energetic, sparky individual with an enormous zeal for learning, good works, and life in general. Not all of us can be as talented. Not all of us can do things of such magnitude; but many children can likewise blossom, in a warm home setting, with freedom to be who G-d made them, and encouragement to do what they are good at.

I was a child when I read those books for the first time, and could relate to the author very well. I remember thinking with envy, I wish I could live like that. For various reasons, I did not, but I think the seed was planted then. I reached adulthood perceiving it as an axiom that schools, at best, contribute nothing to the education of those who already love to learn, read every book they can lay their hands on, and would like to try everything and know everything.

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4 thoughts on “The carefree childhood

  1. Oh, my! What a stroll down memory lane! A favorite book of childhood is Encounters with Animals by Gerald Durrell. So fascinating & hilarious! I still have it, broken & falling apart (1970; 75 cents). I recently read quite a few of his other books &, besides Encounters, liked the ones about his childhood best.

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    • Goldnrod, I have almost all Durrell’s books and re-read them from time to time. It’s like getting together with an old friend. I wish I had met this amazing man in person.

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  2. I adored Gerry Durrell! I only on one – My Family and Other Animals – but I have read all of the others and enjoyed them tremendously. One of my favorite scenes was the time a giant porcupine got loose in the middle of the night and one of the zoo keepers had to bring it back home by pushing it along with a long handled broom with a wide head. Mr. Durrell suggested a lot of folks, seeing a porcupine being shoved along the street in the dark, gave up drinking that night.

    He was also, for what it’s worth, one of Princess Anne’s favourite writers.

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