Brownies at Beit School

1st Choma Brownie Pack of 1960, Beit School, Choma

I thought I remembered that a photo like this existed, but I didn’t know if I still had it or where it was. And then earlier this week when I was rummaging in a container of mostly old high school and college yearbooks, I found it. Yay!

On the back of the photo above are these identifying words (I’m so pleased for having at least this once ID’d a photo!): “1st Choma Brownie Pack of 1960.” While I don’t have vivid memories of being a Brownie while I was at Beit, I do recall a few things:

  • We met weekly, probably in the afternoons after our homework was done and before we were called in for our evening routines. It’s possible the meetings were on Saturdays.
  • We worked for badges, although I don’t remember any specific badges that I earned.
  • Our Brownie troop included both boarding and day students.

My Girl Guides pin (Brownies are a a division of Girl Guides for younger girls)

This caption on the back suggests that this was a Brownie troop for the town of Choma, and not specifically run by Beit School. I’m quite sure, however, that we met on the grounds of the boarding hostel. The photo also suggests that we had Brownie uniforms. I’m almost positive the outfits we’re wearing were not our regular school uniforms. I think, though, that the hats we’re wearing in the photo are our felt uniform hats. My copy of the photo is about 4 1/2 x 7 inches. The size and the three well-posed rows of Brownies tell me that this was a formal picture of our troop. Unfortunately, it is a bit over-exposed, although most of the faces are still fairly recognizable.

The only person in the photo I recognize for sure and can name is the girl fourth from the right in the back row. Her name was Judy and she was one of my best friends. I think she lived on a farm in the Kalomo area, south of Choma, and I’m pretty sure I went home with her for a weekend visit one time.

When I first found the photo this week, what struck me forcefully all over again was why I always felt huge as a pre-teen. In case you can’t pick me out, I am the tallest one, fourth from the right in the back row. I am probably 12 in the photo, in my last year at Beit, and therefore one of the oldest girls. I tower above everyone else, even my friend Judy who was also my age and the second tallest. I was often self-conscious about the fact that I matured physically before other girls my age at school, and this photo helps to confirm why!

Back in April 2013, when I wrote about my memories of growing up as a missionary kid in Southern and Northern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe and Zambia, I wrote specifically about Beit School, a British-run girls boarding school in Choma, Northern Rhodesia (remember, this was before Northern Rhodesia became the independent country of Zambia). The two posts were Can I Pull My Plug? and Movies and Midnight Feasts (“Boarding School Memories, Parts 1 and 2). In the five years since those two pieces were published here on the blog, they have become my second and fourth most popular posts ever, and in the last 12 months specifically, they are the two most popular posts. Why, you ask? Because, I think, former Beit School students have been taking their own trips down memory lane and searching for information about the school; Google searches for “Beit School” turn up my blog posts.

So I’m kind of hoping that one or two (or more) of the girls in the photo will happen upon this post during their internet searches and respond with their own memories of Beit School in general and this Brownie pack in particular. Wouldn’t it be cool if Judy and I connected again after all these years?!


A Ten-Year Tale of Transformation

Actually, 11 years rather than 10 years separate these two photographs, but that doesn’t make for a nice alliterative title! In the first photo, I am dressed in my Townsend High School uniform, probably just before my brother (in his Hillside School uniform) and I left Macha Mission to travel by train to Bulawayo for school in 1961. In the second photo, taken in the summer of 1972, I’m posing in “hippie” clothes with Dale’s new motorcycle in front of our first apartment in Mechanicsburg. The obvious reason for the difference between the me in the first photo and the me in the second one is the passage of time – from age 13 to age 24, from adolescence to adulthood. As I look at these two photos, however, I see more than the normal passage of time; in fact it feels more like a lifetime. Knowing what I know now about myself, I see the transformation of a young and very shy, awkward, innocent, and naive teenager into a considerably more mature, worldly-wise, and self-confident young woman.

It’s a transformation that didn’t come easily. I’ve told the story before about my “re-entry” into American culture at age 13, and the difficulty of that transition. I came to the U.S. from Africa having spent the previous five years in three different schools – wearing a uniform to school every day, living a relatively regimented and ordered life, not really being allowed to express my own individuality. During school breaks, I was home out in the proverbial boonies on missions stations (three different ones – we moved a lot!), playing with dolls, sewing and knitting doll clothes, reading, playing with my little brother and other missionary kids, riding bike – and largely oblivious to what life was like in the U.S. I was completely unprepared for my introduction to high school in the U.S. Yes, I was prepared academically, but socially I was clueless.

Throughout high school and college, I struggled with self-esteem, and often felt ugly. I tried really hard to fit in, especially in how I looked and dressed, but I had no experience or know-how (and no money), and I was too introverted and embarrassed to ask even my best friends. I learned mostly by watching and imitating. I did not date because no one asked me out, which intensified my feelings of inferiority and rejection. On the positive side, I made friends and did well in school. My parents valued education, and encouraged my school success and pursuit of a career. I made it through high school, college, and graduate school, and got my first full-time job as an English teacher at the high school from which I had graduated only six years before.

Most people would not have had any idea of how much pain I was in emotionally. Sometimes I didn’t recognize it myself. Even when I allowed the pain to rise to the surface, I covered it up and put on a brave front, which I was good at because, after all, I did have some competencies and my mother always modeled stoicism very well!

While I was in graduate school, Dale came into my life. I had known him in college, but the trajectory of my life changed when we started writing to each other while he was in voluntary service in Zambia. Our relationship blossomed over the year and a half  between the time I sent him a Christmas card in December 1968 from my graduate school outpost in Idaho and he returned to the U.S. in August 1970, but I still didn’t know what would happen when he returned and we finally saw each other face to face. Those feelings of self-doubt were very close to the surface as we met awkwardly for the first time as boyfriend and girlfriend (I hoped!) at the old Harrisburg airport. And then the love that had begun in those letters deepened as we spent time together, got engaged, and then married in June 1971.

High school senior picture

That girl in the first photo could never have imagined in 1961 that in a mere 10 years, she would be married and look like the girl in the second photo. My high school senior picture taken two years after “uniform girl” shows the beginning of the transformation, but you can still see the naivety and innocence in my eyes and general demeanor.”Uniform girl” had difficulty blending into American culture in the early 1960s; by the early 1970s, “motorcycle girl” could almost pull it off!

“Motorcycle girl” – in her bell-bottom jeans, sleeveless crop top, and long straight hair – looks like she had almost completely acculturated. Some might think that’s a bad thing – especially those conservative, plainly-dressed folks in my church – but to me it represents an important and positive sea change in how I began to view myself. “Uniform girl” had a generally happy and interesting childhood that I wouldn’t trade for a different one, but I was ill-equipped for the culture into which I was thrown at age 13. I had been sheltered in so many ways. And most significantly and painfully, I felt very much alone. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t know how to talk about what I was feeling, or how to get help. My parents, though I know they cared deeply and understood some of what I was going through, were themselves ill-equipped to help. So I muddled through mostly on my own. A measure of the emotional pain I stifled during those years is how easily I can still feel it. The self-consciousness that was my constant companion then is something I still have to actively work to overcome. I still struggle sometimes with the social anxiety that was so real in those days.

When you’re young, 10 years seems like a long time, but at the age I am now, 10 years doesn’t seem long at all. The 10 years it took me to get through high school, college, the beginning of my professional life, and the beginning of my marriage seemed endless at the time – especially those earlier years when I felt so awkward, self-conscious, and ugly. Now they seem like a drop in the whole bucket of a good life. “Motorcycle girl” and the person I am now owe much to Dale (I probably would never have bought and worn a crop top without his encouragement, for example!), and I’m grateful to him for loving me as I was and as I am and for his part in my “transformation.”

Preschool Lessons in Persistence

Last week’s “Camp Grandma” with the youngest two grandchildren (five-year-old Selena and three-year-old Piper) was exhausting, mostly because they hardly ever stopped moving and asking, “What can we do now?” Dale and I planned various activities, but it’s amazing how quickly you can go through things to do with preschoolers who sometimes have the attention span of a flea. As I tried to keep up with the little girls (or, preferably, stay one step ahead), I couldn’t help thinking of the motto on my current favorite mug: “Nevertheless, she persisted” – or in this case, they persisted.

Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock the last few months probably knows where those words come from: Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s reprimand of Senator Elizabeth Warren. The words instantly took on meme status, as they encapsulated not only the eternal struggle of women to be treated with respect and fairness but also the need for the persistent pursuit of what’s right and honest and decent during what many people are experiencing as a very distressing time in the United States. Persistence feels difficult and almost futile, as undignified and nasty tweets pile upon unjust and damaging policy changes. There’s just too much to persist about, and I find myself getting really tired. However, as I watched my precious little granddaughters, I thought about the nature of persistence and tried to draw just a bit of inspiration from them.

If you want something, ask for it. Piper has a routine list of things she wants to do every time she comes to our house: watch a PBS Kids show on my iPad, have real tea with milk and sugar using the toy tea set, etc., and she’s not shy about asking for the next thing on her list. We don’t always have time for everything, and sometimes she’ll say, “What didn’t we do yet?” or” We didn’t do ___ yet.” One thing she doesn’t want to miss is getting a little “treat” from my supply of candy on top of the buffet cabinet in the dining room, and she wants to get it herself. As soon as I move toward the buffet to respond to her request, she quickly moves a chair over so she can reach the treat all by herself. She makes sure we know what she wants and takes action to make it happen.

Ask nicely for what you want. Selena doesn’t whine when she’s with us (although I’m sure she does sometimes at home – she’s a kid after all), but she is persistent about repeating her requests over and over again. When we went to Lake Tobias Wildlife Park, she was most looking forward to petting and feeding the goats. There were other animals to see on the way to the petting zoo where the goats were. She was definitely interested in all of them and enjoyed seeing and watching them, but she got impatient and would very respectfully repeat as Dale and I lingered at various venues, “I really want to feed the goats.” At home, she knew I had various craft activities for us to do together, so periodically when there was a lull in her play, she would say, “I really want to do a craft,” not in a fussy tone of voice, but a gently effective reminder of what she wanted.

Don’t hesitate to act when an opportunity presents itself. Selena and Piper’s independent play had wound down at one point, and I knew I had to come up with something else for them to do. So I said, “How about we get the little pool from the basement and you can play in the water in the backyard? You’ll have to put your swimsuits on.” The words were barely out of my mouth before Piper had her clothes off. The day before at the pool at Little Buffalo State Park when we went to the cafe for some lunch, Piper wanted ketchup for her pizza. Why wait for Grandma to get it, or give you permission to go get it, when you can dash from your seat to the other end of the cafe and get the ketchup container for yourself? (Never mind that this was a “community” container not really intended to be taken to individual tables!)

When we went to Playland at Paulus Orchards, they both immediately spied the ice cream cone sign at the entrance. I tried to deflect them from thoughts of ice cream, suggesting the food stand might not be open yet since it was still fairly early. Undeterred, Piper marched straight up to the order window to check, and of course there was someone there to ask this cute little girl what she wanted. The answer: “Ice cream.” “What kind would you like?” “Chocolate.” “Do you want it in a cone or a cup?” “I want it in a cup with a cone,” said as though this three-year-old has had years of experience ordering ice cream.

Know the way to the person’s heart you wish to influence. For Selena, I think it’s smiling – her smile is quite simply irresistible. Perhaps she doesn’t consciously know the power of her smile, but she certainly uses it well. I’m also not sure Piper consciously knows what will win my heart, but this definitely did: she was eating yet another helping of my made-from-scratch baked macaroni and cheese, and she said, “When I come again, can you make macaroni and cheese? I like yours better than the kind my mommy and daddy make.” You can be sure I’ll make it for her again, especially since it’s one of the very few non-snack things she will eat at our house!

  • If you want something, ask for it.
  • Ask nicely for what you want.
  • Don’t hesitate to act when the opportunity presents itself.
  • Know the way to the person’s heart you wish to influence.

How do I translate these lessons in persistence from the preschooler context to the larger world in which I am trying to make a difference but feel especially helpless right now? I think my biggest takeaways are that I need to continue to try to be nice and polite, and not resort to nastiness no matter how strong the temptation or the provocation, and I need to persist. I need to keep asking and working for what I want, for what I believe is in pursuit of the common good for everyone. When I’m tempted to throw up my hands in despair at the unparalleled awfulness of what is happening in Washington these days, I should remember my preschool grandchildren and simply persist. I’d like them to say about me some day, “Nevertheless, Grandma persisted” to protect the world and make it a better place for them.

Lessons from the Suitcase

I’ve been delving into family history lately, occasioned by an event and a suitcase. In November 2015, Harriet Bohen Bert, my mother’s last remaining sibling and for whom I was named, passed away at the ripe old age of 98. My father’s siblings are all gone too, so Aunt Harriet’s death marked the end of a generation.

Some years ago, Aunt Harriet wrote her memoirs, and recently one of her sons loaned his copy to me. I read the memoir with interest (each typewritten page carefully preserved in a plastic sleeve and inserted in a binder), especially the sections where she recalled her early life with her grandparents, parents, and siblings, including my mother.


My paternal great-grandmother, Sarah Heise Steckley (1860-1953)

Following Aunt Harriet’s death and the family reminiscing that ensued, I took temporary possession of a vintage suitcase of old photos that my brother has had ever since we cleaned out our parents’ home at Messiah Village many years ago. The photos were not organized in any way, just stuffed into the suitcase for safekeeping and because it didn’t seem right to throw them away, so my first order of business was to sort them into categories: my mother’s side of the family; my father’s side (two categories here because of the number of photos – his mother’s Steckley family and his father’s Sider family); my immediate family (my parents and siblings); school and other photos of their six grandchildren (my children and nieces and nephew); and random/unknown people and a few smaller categories. Some of the photos I could easily identify, some had names written on the back, but quite a few were unidentified in any way. The oldest photo I found was of my paternal great-grandmother, Sarah Heise Steckley, which was probably taken around 1871 when she was 11 years old (see photo).

Some observations and lessons from the suitcase and the photos it contains:

  • sevengenerations

    A treasured photo combo: seven generations of Bohens. Top photo (circa 1914) from left to right: Walter (my grandfather), Herman (my great-grandfather), and Jodokus (my great-great-grandfather), with my mother Gladys Bohen Sider on her father’s lap. Bottom photo: My mother, daughter, granddaughter, and me at my dad’s funeral in 2003. Almost 90 years separates the two photos.

    I am fortunate in knowing from whence I came. On both sides of my family, I can trace my ancestors back to Germany. My father’s side: According to the genealogy book, Two Hundred Years with the Siders, a man named Georg Seider arrived in Philadelphia from Germany in 1752. His son Jacob, thought to have been born about 1758, married Maria Wenger, a Mennonite woman, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. In 1788, Jacob and his brother-in-law and their families became part of the first generation of River Brethren (later Brethren in Christ) and emigrated to Canada in 1788. I am a direct descendant of Jacob; he is my quadruple-great grandfather. My mother’s side: Jodokus Theodore Bohen was born in Germany in 1827 and emigrated to the United States in 1854, settling in Illinois. After his wife’s death, he moved to Kansas, where he lived with his son Herman until his death in 1917. Herman’s son Walter was my mother’s father (see four-generation photo, top left).  My maternal grandmother’s Book family ancestors emigrated to America in 1769, also from Germany. The Book family, including my great-grandfather Adam Book who was born in 1858, lived in Lancaster County until 1877 when they moved to Kansas. Clearly, I have a strong German heritage!

  • My active involvement in the Brethren in Christ Church is not surprising, given the fact that my maternal and paternal grandfathers and great-grandfathers were all ministers in the church, with my two paternal great-grandfathers also serving as bishops. Letters from my Grandpa Sider to my father after he left home are filled with church news (see my blog post, “The Grandfather I Never Knew”), and a 1919 letter I recently discovered in the suitcase from my Grandma Sider (written only about a year before she died) to her sister in Pennsylvania also includes church news. Both testify to the important place the church and Christian faith had in their daily lives, which continues for me.
  • I wish I had asked more questions when I had the chance, when my parents were still living. My dad wrote his memoirs (focusing on his missionary career), so I have some of his perspective on his life, but I wish I had asked my mother more about her early life and her perspective on how her life unfolded. She might not have told me the whole truth, because she would have worried about how what she said would affect other people, but I should have asked. I wish I had recorded some of their stories. I especially regret not having either recorded or written down a story my mother used to tell about her family’s move from Kansas to California in 1923. She and her two oldest siblings traveled with their father by car, while her mother and the three youngest children traveled by train. She used to describe in graphic detail the harrowing aspects of that car trip, including doing her 12-year-old best to keep her brother quiet so he wouldn’t bother their dad with persistent questions while he drove, a motel fire one night, and the meager amount of food they had for the journey (they were very poor). She also talked about how they arrived at the Upland Brethren in Christ Church in California on Thanksgiving Day looking quite bedraggled and dirty, and how the church people welcomed them warmly. Fortunately, my Aunt Harriet wrote a short account of the family move to California which preserves many of the details, but it’s still not the same as that first-hand account I could have recorded from my mother. These regrets are a reminder that I need to write more of my stories as a legacy for my children and grandchildren (and perhaps a nudge to them to ask me questions!).
  • Photographs need to be identified by date, location, and the people in them! While some of the photos in the suitcase had information written on the back, many of them didn’t, and I’ve had to rely on my own family knowledge or consult with family members who are still living. Identifying printed photos is one thing, but one also wonders what will happen to all the hundreds and even thousands of digital photos we store on our phones or upload to our computers. They’re easy to access and share now, and in many cases are floating out there in cyberspace, but what about 50-100 years from now, when my grandchildren and great-grandchildren are wondering about their ancestors? One thing I’ve starting to do with old printed photos that I scan to the computer is include a description in the file name and documentation, but I still have a long way to go.

Did my parents wonder whether their children would ever care about this suitcase of old photos? I know I wonder sometimes how much my children will care about all the mementos of the past that I’ve saved, and whether they care as much as I do about our family history.

I have been amazed at how Alecia, my oldest grandchild, likes to figure out and know where she fits in the extended family. She’s able to understand complicated family relationships that stump many people (like second cousin once removed, etc.). Recently, I was showing her a photo of a large group of college students in 1932 that I found in the suitcase. I had not been able to identify anyone in it until I did some research. I couldn’t even find my own mother in the photo because the faces were so tiny and difficult to see. Within seconds of looking at the photo, however, Alecia correctly pointed out my mother. So maybe there’s hope that the family legacy will continue! (See this blog post on the Brethren in Christ Historical Society’s website for information about the photo.) Maybe Alecia’s name – a form of Alice which is my middle name and the name of my paternal grandmother – is a sign that she will be the one to continue to preserve family history! Can I bequeath that responsibility to her?

Do We Overprotect Our Kids?

Last fall I posted a picture on Facebook of Dale and me with three of our grandchildren at Cherry Crest Adventure Farm in Lancaster County. The toddler was in a stroller. Dana (the toddler’s mom) commented, “My baby is not strapped! Caught you!” No, I had not belted Selena into the stroller. She was in and out of the thing all day, and I didn’t think it was necessary to strap her in every single time we moved a few yards from one farm attraction to another. Dana’s comment made me feel a little guilty, but also a little defensive.

What person my age hasn’t said multiple times, “It’s a wonder we survived,” as we observe and enforce all the safety precautions that are intended to protect our children and grandchildren from harm. In my childhood, there weren’t any seat belts or car seats, bike helmets and knee/elbow pads, or playground equipment standards. Even when my own children were young, the car seats we used weren’t that good and I would often hold (and even nurse) my baby on my lap – in the passenger seat, of course.

When I was a child growing up in the Rhodesias (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), I did many things that today would likely be considered dangerous. All of us missionary kids loved to climb and play on the rocks at Matopo Mission. I can picture spots among the rocks behind the main mission house at Matopo that required a fair amount of scrambling to reach but were challenges we just had to tackle. I imagine we often climbed barefoot, and I’m sure there were skinned knees and stubbed toes. I rode my bicycle by myself around the mission stations, coming and going from our house pretty much at will. My brother and I played in the dirt, building roads and towns for his toy cars. We sat on the ground and moved the dirt with our hands–dirt where people walked in bare feet and where who knows what animal or insect had been. When Rich was still sucking his two middle fingers (which he did till he was past four), he would periodically stop his play and put his fingers in his mouth – no hand-washing first. It bothered my mother, and I’m sure he ingested all kinds of germs, but he didn’t get sick.

We also played in the river. I vaguely remember a caretaker (not my mother) who would go with us sometimes, but I’m pretty sure I went by myself too. The river was some distance from our house, so no one could watch out the window or from the back porch to make sure I was okay. It wasn’t the Susquehanna River, and depending on the season, the river sometimes wasn’t much more than a trickle, but it was a body of water nonetheless where I played without adult supervision. I loved climbing trees, going up as high as the branches would allow. We also had rope swings hung from high horizontal tree branches – two ropes connected to a board about five inches wide for the seat. I would swing as high as I could (sometimes at the highest point, the ropes were close to being parallel with the ground), or I would sit on the seat and twist the ropes as tightly as possible and then twirl rapidly as the ropes unwound, making me so dizzy I couldn’t walk! Again, all this was without adult supervision.

I was much more vigilant with my own kids, but permitted things I’m not sure I would be comfortable with today. Some years, they walked to or from school (some years they rode the bus), and one year Dana and her friends roller-skated to school with no helmets, elbow pads, or knee pads until their principal decided he didn’t like them bringing their skates into the building. Dana and Derek and their friends on our block rode their “Big Wheels” down the sidewalk hill in front of our house, with the strong possibility they could have missed the turn at the bottom and gone right out into the street in front of a car. I did worry about abduction, so when they were playing outside or with friends, I always tried to make sure I knew where they were and who they were with. And in hindsight, I actually wish I had been more vigilant about certain things.

Now when we take care of our grandchildren, we are very careful – partly because we would feel absolutely horrible if anything happened to them while we’re responsible for them, but also because we are so much more aware of all the potential dangers that we didn’t even think or know about when we were growing up. Raising children these days can be a scary proposition. Some of the dangers are sinister and horrific – like school shootings, drugs, sexual predators, child abductions, internet-based crimes, fears of being accused of child abuse or neglect, or freak accidents. The media often portray the world as a dangerous place, with potential disaster for children lurking around every corner. Some parental (and grandparental) vigilance and attention also comes from the pressure to measure up to other people’s expectations and to make sure we are actively and constantly giving our children opportunities to learn and experience new things, so we won’t be accused of being lazy, neglectful. and unengaged and so they will have as many advantages as the next kid and won’t be deprived or lag behind their peers.

What sparked these musings was an article I came across from The Atlantic, The Overprotected Kid.” The article describes a new kind of playground that encourages and allows free, imaginative and unsupervised play, unlike what has become the norm for so many families. The author, Hanna Rosen, notes that at one point, when her daughter was about 10, “my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.” It’s a lengthy article but well worth the read.

Then there was also the recent incident of the mother who was arrested and jailed because she allowed her nine-year-old daughter to play in the park alone for three days while she was at work. The daughter had a cell phone so she could call her mother in case of an emergency. The mother worked at McDonald’s and couldn’t afford child care, but she didn’t want her daughter to sit inside all alone for hours all summer when she could be outside playing. Whatever else this story illustrates, it surely points out that for all our concern with protecting our children from dangers real or imagined, we don’t do very well at protecting ALL children: there are still far too many children in the U.S. who don’t have access to good quality child care, live in poverty (in fact, the child poverty rate in Pennsylvania increased three percent from 2012 to 2013, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation), live in neighborhoods without adequately-funded and well-run schools, are in danger of being the victims of gun and other kinds of violence, or don’t have parents or other caregivers with the time, skills, resources, or perhaps even the motivation to pay attention to their children’s most basic physical, social, and emotional needs.

Do we overprotect our kids? Clearly, it seems to depend on whose kids we’re talking about. Perhaps a better question is to what extent in our efforts to protect our own kids, we are protecting ALL kids. Even as we must acknowledge that life is not risk-free and it is unrealistic and potentially crazy-making to think we can prevent our own children from ever being harmed, there’s nothing wrong with doing our absolute best to protect them. At the same time, let’s not forget the children who also need people to protect them and to advocate on their behalf when and where we can.

Oh, and I don’t feel all that guilty about not belting Selena in her stroller. We had eyes on her the whole time!