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Teaching others to thrive

Liz Ulmen has been teaching children in the Spokane area for 30 years. She believes that children are “spontaneously generous” and have a lot to teach adults struggling in these hard economic times. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)
Liz Ulmen has been teaching children in the Spokane area for 30 years. She believes that children are “spontaneously generous” and have a lot to teach adults struggling in these hard economic times. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)

Educator molds young minds with life lessons

Liz Ulmen is an award-winning teacher for Spokane School District. Her students come to the Libby Center each day from all over the district to participate in Tessera, a program for gifted children.

Ulmen, 54, taught in both public and private schools in the Spokane area before specializing in the teaching of gifted children 16 years ago. She remains in awe of the resilience and creativity of all children.

The Montana native believes that during this economic downturn, children are learning lessons about financial and emotional health that they will carry into older age in the same impermeable way Depression-era children never forgot the lessons of the 1930s.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent “Wise Words” interview with Ulmen:

•My dad was an only child. He grew up in Oregon. He would constantly remind us to take care of things, because when he grew up, one day Grandpa went to the bank to get the money to continue building the house they were building. The bank was closed, and Grandpa’s savings was gone. And they had just a floor, a roof, walls but no wallboard.

They lived through an Oregon winter in a frame. That made such an impression on my father as a child, chipping ice off of the bedpan beside their bed. He was sleeping in that kind of cold. His parents were distraught because everything they owned was gone. And Grandpa had a good job. He was an engineer building bridges for the railroad.

•There were seven of us kids, and my dad was a physician, so it wasn’t like we had to live so frugally. But I wore hand-me-down clothes, and my parents mixed store milk with powdered milk, because it was so much cheaper. We’d drink a gallon a day with seven kids. That money added up over the years. By living that way, he was able to pay all of our college, for all seven of us, all the way though college.

•My maternal grandmother was always frugal. She canned applesauce. She made her own soap. She never would have understood this need to acquire stuff we all have been caught up in.

•The cycle that I think is the hardest on children – for their long-term success in life – is the cycle of boom where there’s no responsibility, where there’s “get what you want when you want as much as you want.” And there’s no accountability to whose life is being impinged upon for having these sneakers or having 12 T-shirts.

•Many children, especially in the boom times, are so unaware of the extreme poverty in other parts of the world. Then they grow up thinking, “Well, I have a right to this stuff.” So when the rug is pulled out from under, they don’t have the resilience to manage on less.

•Previous to teaching at Libby, I had an experience going from a higher socio-economic school to a blue-collar-neighborhood school. At the higher-income school, I read “Polar Express” to the children. And I bought a little bell and tied a ribbon around it, and when the bell rings, that’s the end of the story.

I gave each child a bell on a ribbon. At the higher socio-economic school, the kids were going “This is the gift? You’re giving me this? A bell on a ribbon?” Two years later, I did the same thing at the blue-collar school. They were like, “A bell!” They were ringing it and wearing it for two weeks afterward.

•Right now at Libby, we’re in the middle of the medieval unit, and it’s delightful because in some ways, there are so many parallels that I want them to see, but not too close to embed fear in them. Everything that caused Rome to fall, we can see parallels now – overspending, over-strapping the military.

Each kid has a little cardboard figure they’ve created. They chose medieval names. We have Cedric and Simon. Matilda and Griselda. They have little journals, and they write the story about their character. The character has the amazing ability to live 1,000 years, from the fall of Rome in 476 to the 1400s, when Gutenberg invented the printing press.

Every week, we go 100 years forward in time. So it’s pretty dismal at first. I’ll tell them something that happened in history, like Rome just fell, and we have to flee to the Northland. Always, always, always their character survives.

Charlemagne opened schools, but only for the boys. My girls were outraged. So I said, “OK, what will you do?” And they are sneaking around, dressing like boys. They are coercing their uncles and fathers to teach them. They are all figuring out ways around dilemmas, with the constant attitude they will survive, that they will figure it out.

They are not going to die. They might lose a limb or be maimed in some way, but they are not dying and they are not giving up. That’s just how they are. Their world has endless possibilities. The doors are all out there, all open.

•We’ve done a thing in years past, right before Christmas, called a hunger simulation. We pretend the classroom is the world. And that means 25 kids is the world. We take a big plate of Oreos and distribute the food.

So the Third World kids get half an Oreo for seven kids. And the First World kids get like 35 Oreos for one kid. And when I set the table for that child, that child has a table, a lamp, silverware.

And the seven Third World kids are on the floor in the dark part of the classroom. They have this little piece of Oreo, and sometimes they are busy crumpling it up so that everybody gets the tiniest little bit. One year a kid just ate it and it was gone. He was so embarrassed. He didn’t realize that instantaneous greed had taken over his judgment.

•Best advice I’ve received? One was don’t give advice, because unasked for advice is criticism. If you advise someone when they don’t ask, you are assuming they don’t have the tools to solve their own problems. I’ve learned to ask my own sons: “How are you going to handle that? What’s your plan?”

•Never stifle a generous intention. That advice came from my grandpa. If a child wants to give all Christmas money to the poor, don’t say no.

•When you find a person whose goodness just shines out, make efforts to incorporate them into your life.

•One more advice treasure: Love is needed most when it is deserved least.

•One spring I walked out of the school, and I noticed in the (crook) of a tree there was a whole rose bush growing, 10 feet above the ground. One little rose seed, pooped out by a bird or something, got in the tree where there’s a bit of dirt and urban smudge and bloomed and grew.

Every spring we wait for it. It’s in the middle of an asphalt jungle. It’s just streets, sidewalks, parking lots and a rose bush growing in the middle of a tree. Life is persistent.