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  • Writer's pictureShelli Owen

Life Outside of School

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

“Ears that hear and eyes that see—

the Lord has made them both.” (Proverbs 20:12)


What is real and what is not? All my school years, especially in elementary and middle school, I didn’t consider school as part of my “real” life. It was real enough, but it was often painfully so, and something I wanted to keep at arm’s length. I didn’t consider it part of me or who I was. Real life began after school and continued on weekends. Besides the tomboy life I’ve already described, these are some of the home activities that were a large part of my life in my youth.


You’ve probably been asked this question before, too: Who has been the most influential person in your life; besides Jesus—if you’re a Christian—and besides your parents)? My parents enrolled me in piano lessons with an exceptional teacher, “Sister” Bement. She was this kind of mentor for me. She was a member of our church and in our “ward,” and she had earned a reputation as an excellent teacher. She not only influenced my musical life greatly and beautifully, but she also helped me in numerous other invaluable ways.


She taught and encouraged me in self-discipline by insisting on and rewarding realistic, intentional, and focused practice. She helped me to develop group skills, which included getting along with sometimes lazy or inept piano partners (all our lessons were in pairs)—which required a great deal of patience and learning some compassion on my part. We also had group lessons with other students as well as piano recitals, through which she challenged me to rise above my own level rather than try to compete with others. By her example, she taught me there is such a thing as a balance in being both firm (disciplined with set rules or boundaries so things can work and go forward) as well as kind (empathetic, gentle, and loving) at the same time. This doesn’t mean I ever mastered this lesson, just that she set a good example.


For a short time, I worked for Sister Bement, house cleaning, to earn a little spending cash; and while doing this, I saw her cleanliness, planning, and organization in everything she did. Her example made a huge impression on me; over the years I have adapted what I saw her do to my own life situations.


In our hectic home, as the oldest, I used the organizational skills I learned from Sister Bement to create job charts for all of us kids. Sometimes my siblings appreciated this—I wouldn’t have known, but they told me later. And sometimes they did not—I noticed resistance was less at some times versus others; and eventually, I learned results were largely dependent on my own attitude and manner of implementation.


Sister Bement taught me, in one of our discussions while I was cleaning her house, another social lesson that I have pulled out of my toolbox on many occasions. Her observation went something like this:

A person is like an oak tree (the trees lining the pond in her backyard); and good, solid friendships and relationships are like roots that ground a person and help a person to grow and stand firm and tall (reach their potential). One single root or shallow roots won’t do when strong winds and storms come.

Sister Bement may have been encouraging me to make friends, as I was an introverted loner, or she may have been warning me off spending all my time with only one boyfriend—or both. I don’t remember. But I have remembered and tried to apply this essential lesson, especially after moving to a new place.


In all, I took piano lessons for six or seven years from Sister Bement. One major disappointment I caused her was that I never outgrew my shyness about playing solo in front of people. In fact, I determinedly cut my piano lessons short of finishing the whole series she had us working through by one year or so because of my fear of what seemed the inevitable next step: playing the piano or organ for church after graduation!


Because I failed Sister Bement in this way, which was important in her estimation, my gratitude for all the good things I’d learned from her didn’t seem to count much to her. It might have helped if I had expressed my thanks to her, which I’m not sure I did. However, as thankless as I probably was, it didn’t lessen her impact on my life for good.


Besides piano lessons and practice, I began keeping a diary or a journal as I got older. This was in obedience to one of our LDS prophets who counseled us to do this for the sake of our personal growth and posterity. My dad journaled faithfully, and I learned to do it too. Writing was a great way to get relief from or at least be able to express my ever-changing thoughts and feelings. No one else was supposed to see what I wrote. Later, once my emotions or hormones had settled down—when I was saner—I could, if I wanted, tear out and burn or destroy pages. I think this was a far better idea than the current trend of expressing one’s youthful (or emotion- or hormone-induced) anxieties, insecurities, or assessments of oneself or others, immediately, irrevocably, and for “all the world” to see on social media! A thousand times—ouch or ugh!


Integral to our home life was my dad’s classical music, which he would play on his large reel-to-reel tape player. He started out with the best equipment for his time for playing recorded music. He had good, large speakers on separate sides of the living room. When he put the music on, he would take turns sweeping one or the other of us children up in his arms and then dance around the room with us, swaying and twirling. My favorite pieces of music were

“The Flight of the Bumble-Bee” (I could easily picture the bees in flight) and “The Grand Canyon Suite” (I could hear the donkey clip-clopping down the canyon trail). As I got older and rock-n-roll became the sound I wanted to hear on my personal transistor radio all day, I decided for a time I was too cool for this dancing-to-classical-music scene and avoided it. But I never moved completely away from it. Now I love a great variety of music genres and styles from classical to classic guitar, from jazz to some bluegrass, from Medieval to Celtic, and more. My taste has surely been influenced by my dad’s love of good music reinforced by his dancing with his kids.


We didn’t have videos or DVDs or live stream shows or movies. We didn’t even get to watch much TV. My dad limited the time our TV was allowed to be on, so we fought over which shows to watch. Usually, the older kids won. We had our ways of “convincing” the younger kids. Over the years we looked forward to regular shows like The Addam’s Family, The Munsters, and Bewitched. We loved the family life depicted in The Andy Griffith Show, The Bradey Bunch, and The Partridge Family. And we had other favorites as well, especially Gilligan’s Island, The Beverly Hillbillies, Hogan’s Heroes, The Bionic Man, Charlie’s Angels, and eventually Happy Days.


On Saturdays, we’d watch cartoons like Scooby-Doo, The Flintstones, Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, and others. These, and the newspaper comic pages, we fought over the most. We could only watch one cartoon show on a Saturday—and there was only one large “funnies” page on Sunday. On Sundays, we’d often get to watch the longer specials that would come on the Disney channel or The Wild Kingdom—not both. Besides the animated Disney movies, I loved Swiss Family Robinson, Parent Trap (with Hayley Mills), Mary Poppins, The Gnome-Mobile, Blackbeard’s Ghost, The Love Bug, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Apple Dumpling Gang, and The Shaggy D.A.


Occasionally a classic movie would be scheduled to play on TV and everyone in the family, even my dad, when he was home, and mom would watch it. These were special events and we planned activities around them. Our favorites were The Ten Commandments, The Sound of Music, and The Wizard of Oz. At Christmas we never tired of watching—every year without fail—the claymation movie Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer.


The Olympics on TV was a rare and exceptional treat. My dad would let us watch them almost endlessly, though I only remember watching them a couple of times while I lived at home. I was fascinated by every sport, but my favorites were ice skating and gymnastics. Those were two sports I had tried through school programs and was excited about.


Going to the movies at a theater—indoors or drive-in—was a special and rare treat. With such a large family my parents couldn’t afford the time or money to take us very often. But then an unignorable opportunity came up. The Boulder community offered a regular series of free (or hugely discounted) matinee family movies at various theaters. For several years, every week in the summer, my mom or a friend’s mom would take us kids to go to these movies. The theater we went to was part of an outdoor mall. Along with every movie we watched, I loved the cool interior after the heat. But, by the time the movie was over, I was seeking the heat to get warmed back up. We sometimes brought money for candy and popcorn to eat during the movie. Other times we snuck our snacks into the movie theater, and I would feel alternately triumphant or guilty—which eventually was tiring and not worth it. I loved going to these summer movies. My siblings did too. It was a bonding time between us; something we could all enjoy doing together without fighting.


It was on one of these movie outings that I started collecting key chains. There was a gift shop next to the movie theater. After the movie, while we waited for my mom to show up, I would browse this store. I talked my mom into buying the first key chain, promising I’d pay her back. I brought my own money (from my “allowance” or that I had earned) with me for the next couple of key chains I bought there. A friend had begun a collection of spoons and another of teacups, which I thought was predictable and boring—though of course, I didn’t say that to them. I can’t remember how I got the idea of collecting key chains, but it stuck.


The first key chain I remember having was attached to a tiny (around an inch in size), rectangular, green plastic box that contained a full deck of miniature playing cards. A few times, my sister and I played games using them when we traveled or when we were waiting somewhere. Over the years, knowing I collect key chains, traveling friends and family brought back key chains for me from Russia, Japan, China, Poland, Australia, Honduras, Papua New Guinea, and other locations. When we went on trips, I’d be sure to find a key chain from our destination. I still do this. I have a fair collection now. Not valuable, but sentimental.


Another collection I had was of pictures of pretty teens and women from magazines, which I had cut out and made into collages that decorated my bedroom walls. I chose pictures with hairstyles or makeup styles that I especially liked. I also made a collage of only eyes, ears, noses, and mouths rather than whole faces just for fun. I also loved to make collages using photos of beautiful places.


Besides creating collages, I had a pretty good eye for drawing and I had a few requests from friends to draw their portraits. I never attempted a self-portrait. I was shy about my own looks and person. I also loved to draw with ink, and I did some artwork for a few school event brochures in junior and senior high and a poster of a guy skiing (taken from a photograph) for another friend. Once I made a huge cut-out of a beautiful castle and pasted it on a blue poster-board backing. That was one of my favorite projects and took a lot of time. Creativity could easily flourish in our mostly unstructured (unless I structured it with my organizational skills) home environment.


In my late childhood and teens, I often resented our disorganized home life; I didn’t realize that it was, at the same time, the soil and nourishment for the abundance of creativity that grew up and thrived in myself and my siblings. My mom would lose track of time, she was so completely absorbed in a project. This left all of us kids the time, space, and inadvertent example to do the same. My mom’s creativity seeped into us by osmosis. She's still one of the most naturally creative people I know.


My mom was very brave and let me learn to sew on her Bernina sewing machine—with only a few initial tips from her. So, at first, I learned mostly by trial and error. In the beginning, my creations were mostly unwearable (patterns weren’t on my radar). Once I did learn how to use a pattern—after a friend’s mom gave her and me a few lessons—I went for the most complicated outfits I could find. Later, I took a tailoring class in school and learned how to make my own patterns. By the time I was in high school, I was sewing my own homecoming and prom dresses—usually adapted from bought patterns. At that time, I thought I wanted to be a clothing designer. I loved the idea of original creations, though I was very much influenced by the fashions of the time and didn’t have a single original fashion thought in my head. This desire didn’t last past high school. I had so many other interests.


I enjoyed reading as well and spent hours lost in various books. This was another thing I learned mostly by example from my mom, though she did read aloud to us some when we were little. She often used to spend what seemed like hours and hours in the bathroom (absorbed in a book). I started with some classics, like Heidi and The Secret Garden. Unfortunately (because it ended up being a poor influence on my soul), as I got into my teen years, my reading began to lean toward the “hot” romantic fiction I had found in the Good Housekeeping magazines that I was cutting up for my collages. When I quickly ran out of that reading material, Harlequin romances began to be my steady diet. When I finally began to tire of the unoriginal sameness of those, I moved back into “real” literature and began to read the classics and other worthwhile books again. Besides our school libraries, our home was filled with good books that I could read if I chose. As I think I’ve mentioned before, a love of reading has ended up being one of the greatest influences for good in my life.


All these activities filled my after-school and summer hours and engaged my interest when I was young. But none of them would direct the course of my life like something just below the horizon I wasn’t seeing yet, pre-fourteen. Something that deserves a chapter of its own.


“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.”

~ W.E.B. Du Bois


“[LORD,] May your deeds be shown to your servants,

your splendor to their children.” (Psalm 90:16)


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