Lee’s Stories

Lee’s Stories

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posted on July 22, 2016 | Other
The Silver Dollar


The Silver Dollar

When I was a
little boy in Dunsmuir,
the mountains of northern California,

both sets of grandparents lived in Medford,
less than a hundred miles away across the
Oregon border.
Medford wasn’t a real city. Not by
any means, and it still isn’t.
Not like Portland, San
or even Redding, fifty miles below us
at the northern end of the Great Central Valley.
Medford had sidewalks and some stoplights,
and there were one escalator and
a few elevators in town.
made it a city to me.

In Medford’s Buster Brown
shoe store
I encountered the fluoroscope,
a now-extinct machine that blasted Xrays up
through people’s feet
onto a flourescent screen, where
they could see their
toes wiggle right through their shoes.
Grandma Gass took me back there many times so I could
watch my toes wiggle.
Who knows what the Xrays did
to my developing testicles? Of course that’s why
they made flouroscopes illegal, but if you
want to 
read up on it you’ll see
that it took a while.

Medford was exotic
and mostly unknown
from my
child’s-eye perspective,
but it was also a
safe place for children.  M
y grandparents lived
about 8 blocks
apart  on a busy street and a quiet
and none between them had much traffic at all.
When I could walk that far, we started walking
between them
when we were visiting, and
they let me go it alone
for the first
time when I was about five.

While I was
in training for the big event
and practicing,
parents lagged far behind,
observing my behaviour, inferring my thoughts,
and wondering how to improve them.  My first solo
must have been tightly planned:
parents and
grandparents at both ends,
aware of time
and timing
and ready to switch
into rescue mode.

They supported my
without interfering
in it,
and the rules soon loosened to
allow me to explore.
How that loosening
as Mom and I reconstructed it later,
reveals something important about how people
learn, I think,
and most of what I’ve written,
spoken, or done in teaching & learning
relates to those insights in
one way or another.

I remember nothing
of my first solo trip
and little but
momentary flashes
of any of the others:
Clean-looking gum on sidewalk. Study it
thoroughly. Proudly decide to leave it in place
and move on.” 
But one thing is clear.  While the
loosening of my rules
for navigating between elders’
homes in Medford
was governed by my parents,
in the sense that they didn’t let it get out
of  hand,
they in no way caused
my horizons to expand.

I did that by myself
as they loosened constraints
they had placed on my action. Loosening
constraints was
neither free nor easy in that
If I wanted more freedom I had to make
the case that I was ready for it. 
In addition to the
sense of freedom
that I experienced daily in familiar
stomping grounds at home,
navigating in that
strange place offered
the excitement
and the thrill of exploring the
incompletely known.

My instructions
were clear,
but seldom specific
or detailed. 
Usually, they were incomplete
or ambiguous
in one or several ways and I think
that’s significant. 
Ambiguity demands interpretation.
Interpretation demands engagement. Engagement
demands mindfulness
and decision
making is the richer for it.

Pay attention. Keep
my wits about me. Know where
I am at all times.  Be prepared to make
hard decisions. 
Have fun. 

I couldn’t even
complain about instructions.
I had to make many of
them up myself! 

She’d say
What do you expect?
I’m not going on your adventure.
You are, so how am I supposed to know
where you’re going, what you’re going to
do when you get there,
or when you’ll
be back if you don’t tell me?”

All I need
is an idea. 
If  have to
look for you, I need to know
where to start and don’t
want to guess.”

“What’s so hard
about that? 
Just say what
you’re going to do
and do it.  If you
change your mind,
change it.  But
give me
an idea where you
might go next



That was in Dunsmuir.

Both places, rules
were ways of
navigating, not maps,
lists, plans,
or routes.  The most effective of them
were both clear and ambiguous.  They
included all
important details,
no unimportant ones, and conveyed
both a Big Picture and a sense of purpose, or what
my expeditions
would be about. She often sent
me off with things like
“Keep your wits
about you.  I’ll see you when
you get back.”

In the Medford
navigation problem,
simple rules boxed me in, kept
from getting lost, and
protected me from
heavy traffic on two streets.
The rules boxed
me in
and gave complete route-finding
within that box.

There was only
one rule, actually – – do
go outside the box.
 Don’t cross Columbus
Main, don’t cross Peach, don’t go north of Palm.
My grandparents lived near opposite corners of
that box,
and its 12 square blocks offered
much to explore.  That’s a lot of
houses and front yards
to look at.

I could turn right,
turn left,
or go straight at corners. 
I didn’t have to plan ahead at all, even if
I’d never been there before. 
Little kids being
what they are,
I might have taken forever
within that rule, so it took
another rule to get me there:
Don’t backtrack.

Following those
two simple rules
increased my
increased my confidence,
increased my competence, and
expanded me in many ways.
Here’s an example.

Reading house
numbers and street signs
helped me “see” where I was at all
like I was walking on a map. One
day, walking and imagining the map,
I “got”
something that astounded me. 
As long as I
stayed inside the box and didn’t backtrack,
all routes were the same length.  If
I walked them at the same speed
they took the same time.
How exciting!  

Another interesting
realization relates to
a contradiction
between two
geometric principles that both
seemed true. 
All routes are the same length and
take the same time if walked at the same speed.  B
and everybody knows it, the shortest distance between
two points
is a straight line. I could draw that shortest
distance on a map but I could never walk it, even though
it was shorter
than any real route I could take because
I had to stay on streets and sidewalks
and couldn’t
cut across.
Thinking about the simple rules that
kept me inside the box
helped me think
outside that box,
and outside
boxes in general.

Dealing with
contradictions is a key  part
learning to think. 
Thinking about puzzles
like those
helped me think about others. Here’s one
that followed from that contradiction. 
On the road
back to Dunsmuir one day, I realized that 
the crow flies”,
taken literally, works
only in flat places like maps.

With all the
mountains in the way, the
shortest route between Medford
and Dunsmuir
would be all tunnel!
We’d go right under the Siskiyous, the Big Rock
Candy Mountains
where Pussy Sue got lost for a
few days and I saw that graffiti, Shasta Valley,
the towns, and the rest of our regular trip.
And the shortest route to the other
side of the world
would go
through the red hot
centre of it.

That’s all
just background for
what I want to tell you — it
a stage that gives some local colour and

gives you a feeling, hopefully,
for the feelings
I felt
navigating inside my box in Medford.  How
free I felt,
how trusted, how much a real person,
and how proud. 
What I want to tell you
happened inside the box but it isn’t
about the box. 
It’s about
the feeling
and all
that can flow
from it.


The Silver Dollar

On the way to
Grandma and Grandpa Dale’s
on a sunny day,
I found a silver dollar
on a sidewalk. 
To me, they were big shiny fun
things to play with, with interesting pictures on both
They were heavy enough to throw high in the air,
made great loud sounds when they bounced, and were
easy to find in the grass when you lost them. 
pants sagged from
the weight when I jumped
or ran with one in my pocket. I’d never
had one of my own.  F
or all those
reasons and more,
I was
happy to
play with it
all the way

When I
opened the screen
with the dollar in my hand,
my mother’s older sister
confronted me

did you get
that dollar? 
got it from your mother’s
didn’t you?
You stole it!

“I didn’t
get it from Mama’s
I found it on the
and picked
it up.
It’s a silver

“I know
it’s a silver dollar,
and I know you stole it!
You’re in big trouble now, Buster,
because stealing and lying
are bad things
to do!”

“I found
it on the sidewalk
and picked it

where did
you find it then? What
street was it on?” 

That scared
me even more.
I couldn’t
read very well yet or
what street it was on.
While she stood
waiting for me to lie to her again, I
tried to rewind my memory back
finding the dollar
and read
the sign once again. 

Which way was the sun shining?
Where were the shadows? What were
the houses like? Were there big
or little trees? Which side
of the street was
I on?

What street was it?
What was its name? What was
its name? 
I blurted out Court Street!
I found it on Court Street!” 

“You couldn’t have
found it on Court Street, you liar!
Court Street is way over on the other
side of town. You stole that dollar
from your mother’s purse
and I know it!”

Just then,
Mom came in the room
and asked what was
going on.

“He came in here
with a dollar in his hand.
When I asked him where he got
it he said Court Street.
He stole
it from your purse and he’s
lying to cover up!”

kept her cool
like she always did.

She said something like
“Let’s go see where you found
that dollar, Lee,
just you and me.
Can you show me where
you found

That was
great!   I knew I could
show her and we went out the
She kept her cool all
the way
and I got to keep
mine and get my
dignity back.

We were on a mission.

We got to
the place,
then walked
beyond it and returned
to re-
enact my discovery and re-experience
my joy, and we celebrated that. Then we
walked to the end of the block
and read
Myers Court, not Court Street, on the
and I learned from my error
in reading and remembering.
Later I reflected on
the language.


many kinds of
difference can a word make?
How many meanings can it have?
Courts are short, quiet streets with little
traffic, or square expanses of pavement, some-
with statues in them.  Not like the highway
we lived on,
or boulevardsavenues, or main
(I didn’t know about Broadways back
In some towns, Court Streets have
courthouses, but not Medford. 
found it fascinating
to play
with words that way
as I learned


On the way
back to the house,
said something like the following:
“Don’t pay any attention to her. She gets
pretty mean sometimes, and she accuses
people of things.
Don’t argue with her.
Just let her rant.  Pretty soon
she’ll get tired of it
and stop.”

“If she asks
you a question, just
tell her the truth, like you
did with Myers Court, no matter
what she says.
If you have to cry, cry.
But there’s really no reason to, no matter
how mean she gets.  And
because you
know why?
It’s because you know
the truth and you know
you told it to

“If you’re wrong
about something, say
so.  But if you’re not wrong, or
don’t know you are, don’t admit any
thing to anyone.
If you’re not sure, say so.
But give the best answer you can and don’t
worry about it.
This time, you don’t need to
say you mixed up the streets.
If she asks, tell
her you made a mistake. But I’ll talk to her
and I don’t think she’ll bother you about
it anymore. 
If she does, though,
don’t let it get under
your skin.”

Obviously I made
that speech up. 
Mama said
something that made me feel better,
happier about my Silver Dollar, and more
able to deal with difficult people,
and that’s all I
can know for sure
after all this time.  Much later, as
we reflected on the incident as adults, Mom said she
did say something like I said she said.  She said
things like that all the time.  In this case,
all we remembered was the feeling
of what happened.

Several things
may be worth mentioning.

The accusations
about my behaviour linked
several ways to characterize my
person: they  labeled me as a liar, a
thief, caught, and guilty.
are assertions about facts and can be
refuted by evidence.
tions are labels we may wear
forever despite the

immediate response
paid no attention at all to the
characterizations.  They didn’t faze
her like they fazed me.  She either assumed
they were invalid
or saw no reason to discuss
them until she knew what had happened.
She addressed them indirectly, not by
defending me against them but by
helping me discover a mistake
I had made and talking
with me about it

On a closely
related topic, it has always
interested me that
“sticks and
stones can break my bones
names can never hurt me”
is such a strange thing
for kids to say on

It is even
more strange that adults
teach them to say it to themselves
and other people,
and keep telling them
more and more when when they’re so
obviously already hurt
and teasing
worsens every time!  My parents
never told me that, and I don’t
remember telling my kids
that.  But I’ve heard
parents say it
to their

Do they mean
socially inflicted pain
doesn’t matter?

I didn’t
understand that
then and I still don’t.
What I did understand then,
and still understand now, is that

characterization hurts so bad
that I’d prefer
sticks and stones!

That’s one side
of a coin. The other is
if a
kid I thought was a chicken
me a chicken,
it didn’t matter and I
really didn’t care.
But if a kid I
thought was brave
me a chicken,
it broke
my heart.

is asymmetric in social
systems.  It hurts more in one
direction than the other.

I hate negative
characterizations with a
passion.  I’m similarly suspicious
of positive ones, though
I’ve been
accused on occasion
of being
addicted to them.

I didn’t
write any of this
down until 7½ years after
Mom died.  We talked about it
several times over the years, usually
in relation to my work as an
educator and to our roles
as parents.

This story
simplifies the real layout of
streets in Medford in three ways that

simplifying my challenge.  First, one home
was in the middle of the block of Palm just east of
Peach, so I had to walk half a block just to get to the
box that fenced me in. Second, blocks in the north
half of the box ran east-west and those in the
south ran north-south.  Only Columbus ran
clear through from north to south.  That
made for interesting jogs in streets
and some short streets like
Myers Court.

Third, it
would have been interesting
to explore alleys, but they
were forbidden. 

Here is the
real map if you’re

Silver Dollar story
ends with ‘
the feeling of what
‘, which is the title of Antonio
Damasio’s book about consciousness that’s very
much worth reading. 
I use the phrase in
ways Damasio might not  agree with
in several other stories, especially
Jorstad’s for Breakfast, a
collection of stories
about animals.

Damasio developed
his ideas specifically with
respect to humans, though they
rest fundamentally on neurophysio-
logy, and I apply them more
broadly than that.

Gendlin’s Focusing,
an approach to emotional
healing, is similarly rooted in “the
meat”, in what he calls “bodily felt
meaning”.  Again, I apply his work
more broadly.  In that case, ideas
that help emotional healing also
help people learn, cognitively.
Things shift when light
go on.

My story
A Gem of a Contribution
refers to a feeling that can
develop in classrooms.


Written September 12, 2003.
Edited February, 2021

2 thoughts on “The Silver Dollar

  1. Loved the lessons in this story and both the way you learned them and your mothers way of teaching them.

    1. Thanks, Jo-Anne. I think she taught all of us in the neighbourhood the same way, as well as the kids who visited her Weed Elementary School library.

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