The Beauty of Education

I read a short story to the kids today and had an interesting discussion with them about it. The story may just be legend. There are different versions of it. Here is one version and the discussion we had about it.

The Story:

“Where to discover your interest and how to amass relevant information are illustrated in the story of an obscure spinster woman who insisted that she never had a chance. She muttered these words to Dr. Louis Agassiz, distinguished naturalist, after one of his lectures in London. In response to her complaint, he replied: “Do you say, madam, you never had a chance? What do you do?”

“I am single and help my sister run a boardinghouse.”

“What do you do?” he asked.

“I skin potatoes and chop onions.”

He said, “Madam, where do you sit during these interesting but homely duties?”

“On the bottom step of the kitchen stairs.”

“Where do your feet rest?”

“On the glazed brick.”

“What is glazed brick?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

He said, “How long have you been sitting there?”

She said, “Fifteen years.”

“Madam, here is my personal card,” said Dr. Agassiz. “Would you kindly write me a letter concerning the nature of a glazed brick?”

She took him seriously. She went home and explored the dictionary and discovered that a brick was a piece of baked clay. That definition seemed too simple to send to Dr. Agassiz, so after the dishes were washed, she went to the library and in an encyclopedia read that a glazed brick is vitrified kaolin and hydrous aluminum silicate. She didn’t know what that meant, but she was curious and found out. She took the word vitrified and read all she could find about it. Then she visited museums. She moved out of the basement of her life and into a new world on the wings of vitrified. And having started, she took the word hydrous, studied geology, and went back in her studies to the time when God started the world and laid the clay beds. One afternoon she went to a brickyard, where she found the history of more than 120 kinds of bricks and tiles, and why there have to be so many. Then she sat down and wrote thirty-six pages on the subject of glazed brick and tile.

Back came the letter from Dr. Agassiz: “Dear Madam, this is the best article I have ever seen on the subject. If you will kindly change the three words marked with asterisks, I will have it published and pay you for it.”

A short time later there came a letter that brought $250, and penciled on the bottom of this letter was this query: “What was under those bricks?” She had learned the value of time and answered with a single word: “Ants.” He wrote back and said, “Tell me about the ants.”

She began to study ants. She found there were between eighteen hundred and twenty-five hundred different kinds. There are ants so tiny you could put three head-to-head on a pin and have standing room left over for other ants; ants an inch long that march in solid armies half a mile wide, driving everything ahead of them; ants that are blind; ants that get wings on the afternoon of the day they die; ants that build anthills so tiny that you can cover one with a lady’s silver thimble; peasant ants that keep cows to milk, and then deliver the fresh milk to the apartment house of the aristocrat ants of the neighborhood.

After wide reading, much microscopic work, and deep study, the spinster sat down and wrote Dr. Agassiz 360 pages on the subject. He published the book and sent her the money, and she went to visit all the lands of her dreams on the proceeds of her work.

Now, as you hear this story, do you feel acutely that all of us are sitting with our feet on pieces of vitrified kaolin and hydrous aluminum silicate—with ants under them? Lord Chesterton answers: “There are no uninteresting things; there are only uninterested people.”

Keep learning.”

Our family discussion about the story:

I began reading the story but stopped and reread this one line to the kids–

“She moved out of the basement of her life and into a new world on the wings of vitrified.” I asked the kids what they thought this phrase meant. Here are their responses:

Paden: She would do her duties as quick as she could to find out as much as she could about that word.

Garrett: She changed from being lazy and sitting around all day to getting up from that and doing other things like going to the library and museums.

Maddy: She went to other places and did other things than just sitting around.

I told the kids I would finish reading the story at this point and asked them to be thinking as I read and tell me if their definitions changed at all.

I came to the point in the story where it said “after much reading, much microscopic work…” and I stopped and asked the kids “what does it mean that she did microscopic work?” At first all the kids blurted out that it meant you looked at ants under a microscope. I asked them what it would mean if it was talking about bricks? The kids said it would mean you look at the bricks under a microscope. So I asked them what it would mean if I was doing microscopic work about Paden?

Paden thought for a second this time before blurting out the same answer and said

“Oh! It means you take something and you go deeper!”

Garrett asked what that meant so I asked Paden to teach Garrett what he meant by that. Paden looked at Garrett and said “It means you learn as much about it as you can. You are looking for specific details that define it and break it down.” I asked Garrett if that made any more sense. He said it did so I asked him to tell me what he thought it meant. He said “It means you learn more about it.”

Later in the story it tells that she wrote 360 pages on the subject of ants. Earlier in the story she had written a 36 page paper on glazed brick. I asked the kids at this point “Why do you think she went from 36 pages on bricks to 360 pages on something tiny like ants?”

Maddy and Garrett: She learned more about the ants.

Paden: She went deeper in.

I asked them if they thought she could have found as much information about bricks if she had wanted to. They all agreed that she could have.

Maddy put it into words this way, “You can learn a lot more than you may think you can at first. When she first started learning about ants she probably thought there was only a little bit to learn about them but she actually learned a lot because she kept searching and finding more information about them.”



At the end of the story it quotes Lord Chesterton as saying there are no uninteresting things; there are only uninterested people. I asked them what they thought this meant.

Paden said “It means you can take something simple and learn as much or as little as you want to about it. There is always more to learn.”


Going back my first question to the kids and asking them to think about if their first definitions had changed at all brought this insight from Paden,

“She left her world of being just a potato peeler and became more than she was by learning about things she didn’t know before. She went from someone who just blamed everything on the world into a person that wanted to know more about things and learn deeper.”


I can now use this story as a reminder to the kids that there is a lot we can learn about and it doesn’t matter how simple the subject we can probably go a little deeper. We will have better experiences as we keep learning.

I think I will have the kids think of a “brick” or “ants” they want to know more about and have them do a little research paper with as much information as they can possibly find on it!

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