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Wise Words with Liz Ulmen

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 the complete transcript of her “Wise Words” interview with Spokesman-Review feature writer Rebecca Nappi, published Nov. 7, 2009.

  • In the summer of 2006, we went on a bike tour of Colorado. We took our tandem and we rode through the Denver area and the suburbs, house after house after house of these palatial homes. Subdivisions full of these houses and swimming pools. I’m thinking where is all the money, where is it coming from, what jobs are these people doing that they are able to afford half million dollar homes? When we’ve been working our entire lives and built our house ourselves, and it’s rather modest, and we have double incomes. What are these people doing? And obviously they were going into debt, because they are all empty now. Colorado is one of the states that’s been the worst hit by the foreclosures. I was just so startled driving through, miles and miles of brand new homes.
  • I felt a little worried for our country, because when do we ever come to the place where we realize that we don’t have to live by “too much is not enough and more is better.” How will we get out of this cycle of greed and entitlement?
  • My dad was an only child. He grew up in Oregon. He would constantly remind us to take care of things and be careful with the things we had because when he grew up, one day Grandpa went to the bank to get the money to continue building the house they were building. And they had just a floor, a roof, walls but no wallboard. Just the 2-by-4s, no wall coverings. And all his money was gone. The bank closed, and Grandpa’s savings was gone.
  • 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 bed pan 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. They lived in Salem but he went around where bridges needed building. Those wooden trestle bridges you see.
  • One of my dad’s wise, big sayings was never pass up the opportunity to trade money for something of value or beauty. It was an investment, an actual real object. It wasn’t paper money. It wasn’t this flimsy stuff that someday could disappear and be worthless. Even now, in his 80s, he’s cautious financially, like so many of that generation.
  • My maternal grandmother was always frugal. She canned applesauce. She made her own soap. She made so many things to squirrel away — the safety of food and the ability to make the things you needed if you had to. She never would have understood this need to acquire stuff we all have been caught up in.
  • There were seven kids and my dad was a physician so it wasn’t like we had to live so frugally. I wore hand-me-down clothes, and my parents mixed store milk with powdered milk, because it was so much cheaper. Powdered milk was about half the cost of regular milk. They would deliver the dairy milk to our house and we’d save out one extra gallon and mix half powdered milk with store milk. It saved us three gallons a week. We’d drink a gallon a day with seven kids. That was considerable money added up over the years.
  • But by living that way, he was able to pay all of our college, all seven of us, full rides, all the way though college. I went to Gonzaga and so did three of my siblings.
  • I absorbed that I need to be self-reliant. I need to look out and see if other people need help but not become too dependent on other people. If it’s clean and serviceable and does the job, it’s just fine. Just like everybody, we get caught up in the desire to have the newest, best, most fancy widget. But then we stop and ask, “Do we really need this? Is it really going to enhance our lives?” When we were younger, it was easier to get caught in that. Now that we’re older, and we’ve divested ourselves of our parents’ belongings as they die, then suddenly the lesson comes home: the stuff is just stuff.
  • 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 my having these sneakers or my 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. I should have it. I’m entitled to it.” So when the rug is pulled out from under, they don’t have the resources or the resilience to manage on less.
  • I have had kids who compare the cost of things they bring to school, their little widgets and toys. They actually compare: “Well, my backpack was $100.” It makes me sorrowful. In the event that they are ever financially poor, they will be emotionally poor, too, when their ego and their self-worth are wrapped up in objects.
  • What can we learn from children? Children are so beautifully unique in their spontaneous joy and their instantaneous gratitude if they are not jaded by having so much stuff. 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 the book “Polar Express” to the children. And I bought a little bell and tied a ribbon around it, and at the end, 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, poorer neighborhood. I read the story with enthusiasm and gave them the bell. They were like, “A bell!” They were ringing it and wearing it for two weeks afterward. They were appreciative, because they didn’t have so much that they couldn’t see the joy in simple things.
  • So what are we teaching our kids when the simple, most joyful thing, they don’t even see it?.
  • Children live in the moment. They are right there, right now. Hurts are big and joys are big. The highs are high and the lows are low. When you only have eight, nine years of life experience under your belt and you lose your jacket, it’s horrible, it’s a devastation. Or if someone offers to sit with you at lunch or shares something with you, it’s just a delight. Or tells you you’re good at something. As an 8-year-old, I remember someone said to me, “You have a lovely voice. You can sing.” That told me for the rest of my life that I could sing. I felt like yes, that switch was turned on instead of off.
  • I have this student who last year would come to me every day at the end of the teaching day. He would make eye contact and look me in the eye and say, “Mrs. Ulmen, thank you for teaching me.” He made sure I heard that. Finally, I asked him, “Did your parents teach you to do that?” He said, “No, I just thought I should do that.” I said, “Thank you. I wait for you to come.” And then one week, he was sick. I noticed on the attendance roster, he was sick and I said to the class, “Oh, no, he’s sick. Who is going to say ‘Mrs. Ulmen, thank you for teaching?’” And so at the end of the day, they all said, “Mrs. Ulmen, thank you for teaching!” All because of that boy.
  • They have that ability. They are the new fruits of humanity, the sprouts coming out. They are good from the get go. It’s what we allow to be put into them that bends and breaks them.
  • They are spontaneously generous. If there is something out there they can do, they will. A few years ago, we ran a service project for Heifer International, (a nonprofit that donates livestock, training and skills to poor families). And we were collecting money for the animals, and the children were beside themselves with what can we do? If we do penny drives, the pennies just come in. They are without-boundaries generous.
  • If we can stop the sense we have to have so much stuff. There’s plenty to go around. There’s enough for everyone, if we don’t all take more than our share.
  • One of the things about children that we all had when we were little is that excitement of learning something new. Learning how to ride a bike, what a thrill that day was. We are all going to learn something new, and it doesn’t have to be a devastating disaster for us to learn how to live a new way on this planet. It could be an exciting, door-opening experience, instead of doom and gloom.
  • Right now, 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, like the fall of Rome and what happened to the Roman Empire, point by point. Everything that caused Rome to fall, we can see parallels now — overspending, over-strapping their military.
  • The one thing kids see in history is that wow, things could be so much worse. Things have been worse. And human beings have endured a lot and still stand up and carry on.
  • Each kid has a cardboard little figure they’ve created and they name them. We have Cedric and Simon. Matilda and Griselda. There are quite a few Johns. They chose medieval names. I have a list of the most common medieval names, and they chose off of those. They have all these names they’ve picked out – first names, because they don’t need last names until after the Battle of Hastings
  • The characters are paper dolls, made out of cardboard boxes that they brought in from cereal boxes. We drew a little paper template and glued it to the cardboard and we cut it out and dressed it with fabric bits. Mostly, they wear peasant gear, because they are all farmers mucking in the muck. But once in awhile, if a kid does something amazing, like a lot of research, the Queen will give them a boon. I’m Queen Elizabeth. It’s so much fun.
  • The characters are up on the wall. There are big cardboard villages glued up on the wall. As they research what their person does, they have some space to build a smithy or a mill that they can put on the wall behind their character. So the village is getting a few buildings now.
  • They have little journals and they write the story about the 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. We’re going to live in Ulm, because there is an Ulm in Germany, and Ulmen came from Ulm.
  • So the character has to flee North, and they write in their journals. We embed all these lessons of history into writing and thinking about what’s going on and doing the mechanics of making the journals. We find if they have this little character, they are so much more imaginatively writing because they are not writing about themselves. They are inhabiting this other little person.
  • Always, always, always their character survives. Charlemagne opened schools, but only for the boys. The 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 figuring out ways around dilemmas, with the constant attitude they will survive, that they will figure it out. They never give up. 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. All of a sudden, the problems you think you have? All of a sudden, coming down the Spokane River we have a Viking long ship and a bunch of people who are going to take your children and burn your home. Things have been way, way worse.
  • We’ve done a thing in years past, right before Christmas, called a hunger simulation when we do a unit called “point of view.” 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 tablecloth, a table for themselves, a lamp, silverware. It’s all laid out there nicely, a beautiful setting, like you’d have at Thanksgiving. One kid sits there with this huge pile of Oreos. And the seven Third World kids are on the floor in the dark part of the classroom in a little area that’s about 6-by-7. 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 I had a kid just eat it. He was like Idi Amin. He just ate it and it was gone. The other kids nearly killed him. He was just so embarrassed. He didn’t realize that instantaneous greed had taken over his judgment.

  • At Christmastime, we’ve had a lot of kids come back and say, “I gave my Christmas money to Heifer International.” We do a whole survey of how much stuff do you have? How many shirts? How many pair of shoes? How many TVs in your house? Then we do this hunger simulation and they see the huge amount.
  • Part of the hunger simulation is a college entrance exam. We use the statistics from the Web site: “If the World Were 100 People.” But then I have to shrink it down to 25. There’s one kid who represents the haves of the world. I give them the SAT to get into college, which is to fold a paper hat. They draw lots coming into the door. There’s only one kid who is a First World child in that group of 25. That child sits at a table with a lamp, with multiple pieces of paper, with the directions for the origami and a tutor, if they need help. The Third World kids have a piece of torn up newspaper which isn’t even adequate in size to make the hat. And the directions are all black, you can barely read them. And yet, they will sit there and they’ll take that little piece of newspaper and cut it into teeny, tiny identical squares, and they will make seven little identical hats and try to put them on. I say, “Oh, that’s lovely, but you failed the test. You have to be able to wear the hat. And those hats are obviously too tiny, you can’t wear them.” And they are just devastated, because they can’t go to college. Even when they have the intelligence to solve the problem. They can’t, because the resources aren’t there. If the village is 100 people, one kid goes to college. That kid in the First World is the kid.
  • What do I hope the children take away from this? An eye-opening sense of gratitude and also responsibility to use the things that they have well.
  • One spring I walked out of the school, and I noticed this one tree had pink blossoms. It’s a locust tree and locusts have white blossoms. I walked up to it and noticed in the crotch of the tree, about 10 feet above the ground, there’s a whole rose bush just in that. That one little rose seed, pooped out by a bird or something, got in the crotch of the tree where there’s a little bit of dirt and urban smudge and bloomed and grew and is still growing. It’s still there. Every spring we wait for it. It’s in the middle of an asphalt jungle. It’s just streets, sidewalks and parking lots and a rose bush growing in the middle of a tree. Life is persistent.
  • My grandmother lived to be 97. When she was in her 90s, she would walk over to the nursing home to take care of the lonely old ladies. Most of them were in their 70s. She just had that heart that would make sure if someone needed something, she would be there for them. Dave’s mom constantly lived on “Things will work out.”
  • Best advice I’ve received in my life? One was don’t give advice. Unasked for advice is criticism. When I ask for advice, I don’t mind hearing what you might think. 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 for that?” That empowers them. It’s back on you. You can do this.
  • Never stifle a generous intention. That came from my grandpa. If a child wants to give all Christmas money to the poor, don’t say no to them. Don’t stifle their generosity. Or if you yourself want to do something amazing, don’t say no to yourself. You say, “Oh no, no, no, don’t do that for me. It’s OK.” No, let them. If you are the giver, you’re the one in power. If you’re the receiver, occasionally it’s good to be on the receiving end, instead of always the one in the driver’s seat.
  • One more advice treasure that helps one stand back and take a new look at dealing with children (and people): Love is needed most when it is deserved least.
  • When I was first student teaching, my master teacher at Salk said, “Even on a day when you feel grumpy, crabby, tired, achy, go at your topic with joy and enthusiasm. And they’ll bounce it back to you. They’ll carry you.” And they do. If you approach a topic with “This is so cool!” and you have whimsy and joy and enthusiasm and excitement, you can carry yourself and them through. You can teach boring topics and they’ll remember, if you just carry the joy with you. It’s not just teaching, but anything. If you walk in the door of a meeting and you’re saying, “We’re going to do this!” You just carry people.
  • Advice she gives: Listen to your insides. How is it feeling for you? Does it match who you are? Whatever decision you are making, does it fit well on your shoulders? Are you happy in the deep part of inside of you? Listen to yourself.
  • When you find a person whose goodness just shines out, make efforts to incorporate them into your life. Every once in awhile, to refill your cup, make time for these life-filling people to be part of your life.
  • What will happen with this economy? I think we will learn how to live, but we will have to change how we live on this planet. I hope it’s not a huge crisis. I have to think we will continue on, but with different values.
  • What will happen to those Colorado mansions? One response is bulldoze them and turn them into more simple houses where people can sustain living and have a garden. But then all those resources are wasted. I don’t know. Somehow, they are just an anathema. They can’t stay. It wouldn’t be too bad if there were a fire and firemen don’t respond. And that all becomes open land again, back to farming.