A Brief History of Learning

Once upon a time…
In the beginning…
It was a dark and stormy night…

When telling a story, one must determine the beginning.

Knowing where one began helps to not only understand where one currently is, but also to understand where one might be going. Examining these experiences can also remind us of one of the keystones of learning and education: everyone starts somewhere.

Here’s where I started.

1. Reading

The origins of an English Major typically begin with a book. It might be an old book, with yellowed, crinkly pages and that smell. It might be a new book: shiny, with a scent cleaner than fresh linen; the kind of book that one might feel guilty about cracking opening.

A sampling of my books, young and old. Photo CC by H. Atterbury.

My mother handed me her own copy of White Fang when I was in the third grade, and I read it. And then I read it again, and again. It’s a favorite childhood book, although I haven’t picked it up in years to see what I think of it now; its yellow pages and tattered paperback cover were too fragile to travel across the state with me. I was in fourth grade when my father gave me a copy of Watership Down, and I read it. And I read it again, and this time I realized I somehow missed the epilogue. At the time of that discovery, I wished that I had missed it forever. Over time, however, I came to accept and understand the final scene, loving it as much as I’ve always loved the rest of the book.

A common thread throughout my childhood reading experiences was the adults around me. While I was, for the most part, allowed to peruse the bookshelves to my liking, many books that I ended up reading as a young person were either recommended or given to me by my elders: parents, teachers, relatives, even the occasional family friend.

Reading is, typically, a solitary activity. At the end of the day, it’s just yourself and the book. Yet, what I’ve learned as both a child and as an adult that reading – the love and excitement of it, anyways – is kept alive through community. It’s not about what we take in for ourselves; it’s also about what we pass on to others.

That’s true for learning as much as it is for reading.

2. Writing

When one becomes a reader – voracious, curious, stalking the shelves of the local library – it often becomes the case that one will become a writer.

After all, Stephen King once said, amongst other things, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write.”

While I think that it is hardly destiny that an avid reader must become a writer, or that a “bad” reader must be fated to be a poor writer — critical consumption of content, in my opinion, rather than (dare I say it) a strict diet of books and literature crafts the writer — my reading habits led me straight to my writing.

For the record, only the two notebooks on the left are completely filled. Photo CC by H. Atterbury.

For me, however, writing was much more than a natural response to reading. I was a quiet, timid child, too nervous to speak in class. A trait that, while much improved, has stuck to me like an irksome burr throughout my life. Coming up with something to say in class? Pass. Writing an essay? No problem.

Writing gave me a voice where I’d had none before, and a chance to say what I meant to say clearly, without fumbling or my heart scrabbling like a frightened rabbit into my throat. The desire to be able to communicate, to express ideas and emotions and thoughts, was a driving force of my learning. And, nowadays, the difficulty is getting me to shut up.

Writing helped shape me into a focused, goal-oriented learner. Everything, I learned as I read and listened to teachers and professors, is fuel for writing. Everything is relevant, and so one must be willing to listen to and to observe everything. It’s helped me a lot to be able to look at the big picture; much of education is learning to make connections between concepts. For example, learning about different types of rocks might not be entirely interesting on its own, but when one is constructing a fictional world that information might become relevant. Or it might not, but the trick is to consider the possibility that it might.

3. How It’s Made

There will be no country music on this blog, FYI. Photo CC by Ian Kershaw

I’m fairly certain that it was an episode of How It’s Made that my younger self was enraptured by one day in the third grade. I recall with certainty, however, that the item being made was a tractor. Or, at least, part of a tractor.

I remember watching the construction, my mind sparking with this electric curiosity. All of those parts fit together to make a whole, and something about it was so wondrous to me in that moment. Everything that is whole is made up of parts.

This idea provides balance to a “bigger picture” way of thinking. No, one does not have to know about the axles, the pistons, and the other parts I’m listing off the top of my head to understand the function of a tractor. But breaking something down to smaller parts and examining those pieces is often a fantastic way to better appreciate the whole of that something.

For me, that something could be a poem. For you, maybe it’s the human body, or the way organisms function in a group. The universe, as I’ve learned, is not miraculous for the infinite nature of its entirety (although that’s pretty sweet). It’s amazing because that entirety is composed of an infinite number of parts.

4. Freshman Year

My freshman year of college was a journey in and of itself — a spiritual, emotional, mental, and educational journey. To say adjusting to college was a difficult journey would be an understatement. Learning to be part of a bigger world, challenging preconceived beliefs, and how to be far from home were all challenging.

But I learned a helluva lot about myself that first year. Lessons that were hard and at times immensely painful to learn, led to the discovery of truths that I wouldn’t take back.

Photo CC by Tim Abbott

Sometimes learning is scary, inside and outside of the classroom. That’s what freshman year taught me; how to deal with this fact is something I’m still learning today. There will always be ideas that challenge my own, different ways of looking at the world that I will resist. Perspective is a frightening thing to engage in because it holds the potential for change, and sometimes change doesn’t feel safe. Humans, like other animals, don’t do well with uncertainty. The titular character of White Fang, upon exiting his cave, tumbled headfirst into the fear of the unknown and did not enjoy it.

But if he didn’t leave that cave — if I didn’t take that class that terrified me (read: Acting this semester) — he wouldn’t have experienced the world. And sometimes it’s not a nice world. Sometimes it doesn’t feel fair and sometimes you get hurt.

Learning to acknowledge this, however, and to realize that everyone else is struggling too, makes these facts a little more bearable; the universe may be infinitely big, but none of us inhabit it alone.

5. A Circle in Perspective

I’m enrolled in beginner’s drawing class this semester, and on the very first day my professor said something that caught my attention.

“An ellipse,” she said. “Is just a circle in perspective.”


An ellipse brought to you by the Public Domain

I was like, “Yeah! That sounds deep! That sounds meaningful!”

…I’m not exactly sure what it means, or how exactly I will apply it, but it’s there.

Perspective is, I’ve decided, going to be the Key Word for me this (my last) semester. Perspective is a concept that has shaped – no pun intended – my learning, and I want it to be a renewed focus in these next four months — and beyond.

It’s not just about taking the world around oneself and tilting it, of turning it upside or flipping it over, of shaking it and seeing what comes loose. Perspective is also something that can be applied inwardly. It’s not just how the world looks to us, but how we look to ourselves. This, I think, is going to circle — uh, pun intended — back around to everything I learned freshman year about the world and about myself.

Because if there’s one thing all of these five parts of learning have taught me, it’s that for me, the whole of learning boils down to one big picture:

Never stop questioning.


11 thoughts on “A Brief History of Learning

  1. First of all, you are a wonderful writer, and I loved reading your post! I can tell that each of your learning experiences are meaningful to you, and yet many of them are easy to relate to. I especially liked what you said about reading and how “it’s about what we pass on to others.” That’s such a cool way to think about it. Thank you for sharing your story!


  2. I may need to take some writing lessons from you! I am not an English major, but every person that I have talked to in that major says that one single book ignited their passion. I also believe that the better reader, and more you read, the better writer you are. My passion for reading has sort of been lost since I entered high school and now college. I feel like that has taken a serious toll on my writing. Thank you for sharing your learning journey. I admire that you believe that the whole of learning boils down to the statement, never stop questioning. Questions need to be asked more often!


    1. Aw, you’re too kind! 😀

      “My passion for reading has sort of been lost since I entered high school and now college. I feel like that has taken a serious toll on my writing.”

      I totally understand! I have almost no time to read for myself nowadays, at least as far as books go (online short stories have kept me fueled in this time of drought). It gets rough, and I haven’t yet cracked the code as to how to have time read actual books again. Someday, though. Someday.


  3. I too absolutely loved reading when I was a kid and I still do. Reading shaped a lot of my life. I ended up in a teen volunteer program at our local library and that ended up with me getting a job there. It’s great finding other people who enjoy it as well!


    1. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully break down and examine just how much of an influence reading has had in shaping who I became, and who I’ll become. And I love that every person who loves reading pretty much says the same thing.

      That’s fantastic about your library experience! I was more of the craft-oriented volunteer who made posters and paper-cranes. Libraries are wonderful; they’re like my equivalent of a church nowadays.


  4. Watership Down is one of those watershed reading experiences for me too. I think I can start crying just sitting here thinking about that final scene! I am trying to get my son ready for a Watership Down read-aloud, but it may still be a little too complex for him to fully follow. I really like what you say about learning being scary. If we only stay inside our comfort zone, we’re certainly comfortable, but I’m not sure how much we learn.


    1. I can’t wait for the next time I have a little bit of free-reading time; I’ve been itching to read it again. I’m especially interested in what I’ll notice after four years — well, three and a half, I guess — of being a Lit major; I don’t think I’ve read it cover-to-cover since before I started college. I hope your son enjoys it as much as we have!


  5. First off I would like to say, you are really an amazing writer, Holly. I was absolutely astounded by this entire blog. A few things I would like to say are… 1) I agree with you that reading and writing go hand in hand. When one learns to respect and understand reading… the comes the miraculous adventure of writing. 2.) I appreciate your thoughts on how we are not alone in this crazy world as my family has been going through the sticks lately… its nice to be reminded that we are not alone. 3.) From one reader to another, what are some books that you believe are must reads!! I believe we are always learning from one another’s perspectives… I used your word there. Good luck, Holly!!


    1. Thanks!
      Books that I think are must-reads? That’s a complicated question! I’ll answer that with books that are some of my favorites! I definitely recommend Watership Down, if you haven’t read it. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender is one I devoured (pun intended) and has an emotional poignancy to it that I’ve been longing to revisit; A.S. King’s Ask the Passengers is one of my go-to comfort reads, and while it’s not a novel, Richard Siken’s poetry collection Crush is where I go to sharpen my teeth for poetry.


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