I hear the call of homeschooling often. I dream of following the instinctive arc of a child's passion, rather than the necessary constraints of a standard curriculum. I envision a mad romp through geometry, geography, history, all filtered through a four year old's devotion to building, a nine year old's love of electronics. I think of close friends, acquaintances, perfect strangers who have chosen this path for wildly different reasons, and who travel it with palpable care, grace and skill. I imagine learning and life in sync. Most often, I hear the call of homeschooling at 8:17 on a Monday morning in late January, with frigid wind and tardy bells whistling in my ears.
Still, homeschooling and I have yet to hook up, though I have my reasons. Four, specifically. Cute ones, too, don't you think? It's not every day you get such jaunty reasons, all perky and pointy-tipped.
It might seem a little flimsy, I guess, a handful of string beans up against an entire educational philosophy. But in these beans is everything I adore about a great teacher, a good school.
Consider: to yield four beans by June, you have to plant seeds. In Spring. Simple stuff, stuff of my own preschool years, complete with name awkwardly Sharpie'd on popsicle stick. Stuff I never, ever remember. I know it's old news, know the Agricultural Revolution's been around for a while now. I'll catch up, really, any year now. But we were particularly busy this year (I say this every year), and so I find myself particularly grateful for the teachers in my childrens' lives, and the many beans, edible and otherwise, they've helped them grow.
Just this week, I've seen Max come home all enthralled over slanted strokes and upward curves. Over cursive! What kind of Annie Sullivan can get a group of third graders giddy over an elegant C?
I've seen Henry, who's pouted all summer over school (which is to say, over the prospect of any pause -- errands, parks, bathroom breaks -- in his robot-building reverie), pull a complete about-face. Seen him walk into last year's classroom, growing taller with each step. Seen him lock eyes with his teacher, the one who looks and listens as though he's the only child East of Fargo, who drops instantly to one knee in the way of all perfect preschool teachers. Seen his rumpled brow melt into that silly, slap-happy grin I thought he saved just for family.
I've seen that, once again, my children are in hands that hold talents, tools, experiences, jokes, perspectives, skills and keen bean planting instincts magnificently different from my own. It's just that old village business, really. We all have our strengths, and I'd just as soon complement my own little set with some mighty fine others, especially when it comes to the rich business of opening up little minds and spirits.
Village life can be complicated. There are days I long to edit out the flotsam and jetsam that are part of the whole school package. There's always a word, an attitude, a must-have doodad I wish wasn't there. In school as in life. But it's called diversity, and the school years are as good a time as any, I think, to learn tolerance and critical thinking and respect.
Besides, every time I run the trade-off analysis, these small aggravations always lose out handily to all we gain. Like the conference of fancy beetles our (by then enormous) beans hosted in early July. They were tiny and shiny black and edged in a darling white picot. They were also ravenous, and in a week's time turned the broad open leaves to filigree. And then they were gone. And the beans grew on. Beans are tough, it turns out.
Or, more recently, the most extraordinary of grasshoppers, so articulated, so elegant, I'm fairly well certain he walked right out of Wind in the Willows and on to our beans. Surely grasshoppers only wear herringbone stockings in storybooks?
Also, a smidge of pride.
And quite a bit of good eating. Did you know beans need harvesting every few days? Two months divided by every few days is a lot of beans. We've stir-fried them with chicken and cashews, sautéed them with lemon and almonds, and eaten them simply boiled and slicked in olive oil and salt, which is the second best way I know to eat a green bean.
The first best being, of course, salade niçoise, which I met during my own school years. I'll never know why my French teachers believed a tepid bowl of watery tuna mash, February tomatoes, khaki canned beans and bottled Caesar ought to be our introduction to one of the world's greatest cuisines. But they did. All six of them. And every year, I learned to loathe it just a little bit more.
Some minds take a little longer to open than others. About fifteen years, if you're me, and you're a little slow to realize that 24 teenagers in a first-period French portable will decimate any dish, no matter how sublime. Had those early salades been made in high Summer instead of early second Semester, with marigold-yolked eggs and a parsleyed vinaigrette and this tuna and those beans up there? I'm fairly certain I would have come around sooner.
Henry did, instantly. "I LOVE this salad!!" he exclaimed the first time we ate it. Which was remarkable only because he boycotts all salads. And all green beans, his own homegrown included. (That first batch of four beans? Ceremoniously cooked to perfection. Ceremoniously licked clean of all butter and salt. And deposited back on the plate with the verdict, "I like their buttery taste.") And sure enough, every last green bean had been carefully sorted out of his salad. What he loved, actually, was the hard-boiled eggs and tender tuna and boiled buttered potatoes. Which is fine by me. To hear a child of mine include "love" and "salad" in the same sentence is a minor miracle.
I haven't succeeded in teaching any of my kids to love many green things. But who knows, there may be a teacher yet who inspires in them an appetite not just for growing green beans, but for eating them also.
I'm tempted to call this Niçoise-ish, as it's not strictly traditional. Then again, there really is no one Niçoise, only the brilliant idea of combining some of late Summer's best and brightest (tomatoes, beans, new potatoes) with enough substance (eggs, tuna) to make it a meal and enough vibrant spunk (lemon and herbs if you're Molly, anchovy and dijon if you're Montpellian) to make it a party. The one essential is great canned tuna -- not water-packed slosh, and not seared bluefin. This one's exquisite, but any oil packed variety will do nicely.
I often keep hard-boiled eggs on hand, and the dressing can go together hours or even days ahead of time, in which case this is a twenty-minute meal.
2/3 cup olive oil
2 lemons, zested, then juiced
1 cup mixed herbs, finely chopped (mostly soft herbs -- parsley, basil -- with a few Tablespoons of thyme and chives, if desired)
1 tsp. salt
several grinds of black pepper
Zest and juice lemons into a jar with a lid, then add salt and swirl to dissolve. Add pepper, oil and herbs, screw lid on well, then give to your four year old to shake like mad. Alternatively, I sometimes give this a quick blitz with a stick blender, which produces a lovely all-over green.
8 ounces green beans
8 ounces new potatoes
2 large tomatoes, cut into wedges (or 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved)
4 eggs, hard-boiled, quartered
2 tins olive-oil packed tuna
10-20 briny black olives (kalamata, niçoise)
1. Put a medium pot of water on to boil. Salt it well -- 2-3 teaspoons. When boiling, add topped and tailed green beans and cook until just tender, 7-9 minutes. When lovely, remove with a slotted spoon to strainer.
2. Place potatoes in same boiling water. Boil until just tender. This will depend on size -- I start testing fingerlings with a knife at 15 minutes, though larger ones can take as long as 25 minutes. When knife pierces easily to center, drain.
3. As soon as potatoes can be handled, slice into halves (fingerlings) or quarters (small new potatoes). While still warm, toss gently in half of the dressing (I use the now-empty boiling pot for this).
On a platter, arrange piles of dressed potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, tuna, eggs, and olives. Pour remaining half of dressing over salad, and serve.