The Love U Get

  • Elementary
  • High School
  • Middle School
Irene Smith

My father didn’t get to have a mother, and his father preferred to be dead.

May is Mothers’ Day. I am fortunate to have had an amazing mother and a caring father.

Not every child has the joy of experiencing loving parents. Allow me to tell you a story. I promised it has more than a little to do with education.

Wilson John Tolson’s mother was 17, unmarried, and pregnant when his father had someone else tell her that he had died. The grieving “widow” left Portland, Oregon and moved to Oklahoma with her baby.

Photo of Wilson John Tolson as a baby with his daughter's adult image reflected behind.

In 1923 when Wilson was 4 years old, his alcoholic stepfather wrested custody of him to punish Wilson’s mother for divorcing him. Wilson’s young mother remarried and moved to another state.

Because the stepfather didn’t really want him, he was sent to live with different foster families. When he proved difficult to manage because he was used to wandering freely around Omaha, he was put in an orphanage. The quixotic stepfather moved eleven year old Wilson from one situation to another.

Upon arrival at the Omaha Home for Boys, he was introduced to their “pecking order” and forced to fight another boy. As difficult as the other boys proved to be for the diminutive Wilson, he loved the Home’s library. He read Tom Sawyer, all the Tom Swift books, as well as pulp magazines like Doc Savage. Because he was small and loved to read, he didn’t fit in well with the rough and tumble boys of the home.

A reading area in the Omaha Orphanage has a rocking chair and a book shelf.

Despite his love of reading, he was flunked by his fourth grade teacher, who had also been his first grade teacher. He said, “She didn’t like me immediately, and I didn’t like her immediately, and I didn’t do anything for her, and she didn’t do anything for me.” When he got to fifth grade, however, he had a different teacher who he said, “turned my whole life around.” She challenged him to try new things, reading different books, writing essays, but he said, “more than anything else, she encouraged me, saying that I could be successful, and I could be somebody, that I didn’t have to be a failure.” At that point his grades improved and he began to take a real interest in school.

A year later, at thirteen years of age, he decided his situation was intolerable, so he struck out on his own. He traveled with the railway hobos, and Bonus Army of that era, under the fictitious name Jimmy Finklestone. After being robbed and abandoned at the Whatsoever Community House in Kansas City, he had a life changing encounter, arranged by one of the countless, nameless people who make an effort to connect people who need help with those who can help them.

1932 photographs of disheveled young man next to another photo two days later of him smiling.

He met “a beautiful man,” Charles Haun, the person he would name his first son for. Heine, as everyone called him, had become involved in helping boys and young men after working as a parole officer. He worked with a boys’ home and ran a camp that provided safety and learning, and most importantly, for Wilson, loving interest and genuine caregiving.

A group ofSmiling Bohoca Camp boys are posing for a photo with Charles Haun.

Haun ran a year around Boys’ Camp, called Bohoca (Boy’s Home Camp,) and worked with young people to help them. At Bohoca, my father was introduced to Irene Lash, the woman I am named for, who was a full time teacher at the camp during the summer. She put her arms around my father and hugged him. This human contact was one of the first affectionate experiences my starved for love father had had in years. He stayed at Bohoca for three years, attending school and learning much about the outdoors and nature. He also learned industrial arts and built crystal radio sets, including one on which he listened to Admiral Richard Byrd at the South Pole in 1934.

When Bohoca closed, my father went to live at the Andrew Drumm Institute. At first he didn’t want to go. He had just started studying electricity, and the Drumm Farm required the study of agriculture and lots of hard farm work. He decided he would set out on his own again, but his mentor, Heine, told him, “You can’t keep running away from the responsibilities of life. You must do what you have to do. I want you [to go there.]” Because he trusted Heine, he agreed to go.

A stately mansion is the center of Andrew Drumm Institute.

The work at the Drumm Farm was challenging and often not of interest to Wilson. However, the stern manager of the farm found many opportunities for him to do any electrical job needed. The teachers at the farm encouraged his interests and provided opportunities for him to achieve. They made sure that Wilson was able to complete high school and become prepared for Kansas City Community College. Eventually he was able to earn a degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Missouri at Columbia.

Graduation program from 1938 shows four young men with Wilson in top left corner.

From time to time, he was able to correspond with both Heine Haun and Irene Lash. He later married and eventually had seven children. I am his fifth child.

LESSON #1 Consistent and fair rules help children feel comfortable and secure.

                My father got mixed messages from a variety of caregivers. Young people feel more confident when they know what is and isn’t allowed. Some children continually test boundaries to see if the adults in their lives will cave or stay committed to the reasonable rules they set. When you are used to chaos, it takes a while to feel safe anywhere.

LESSON #2 Reading can provide an escape from a difficult life and prepares you for a better future.

                Because my father developed a love for reading, he was able to endure bullying and harassment. His reading not only provided an outlet for him, it opened up a world of opportunities and possibilities.

LESSON #3 Every student deserves respect.

                If a teacher shows intolerance to a student, that student usually recognizes it and won’t perform well for them. Resistance and obstinacy are the inevitable result. My father found ways to openly and passively rebel. It may have been self-defeating, but for him, it preserved his dignity.

                Conversely, even if a wonderful teacher’s name is long forgotten, their words and influence can have left an indelible mark on a child’s mind. When my father realized that someone else believed in him, he began to believe in himself. He had more patience with himself and was able to regulate his intense emotions.

LESSON #4 Connections matter. For children they matter most.

                 In some of the places my father lived, he found people who seemed to care for him but when he proved too “incorrigible,” he was sent away. As teachers we know that kids with ACEs (Adverse childhood experiences) test and challenge authority. Whether it’s because they’ve been neglected, or abused, or otherwise traumatized, most don’t naturally trust others. As a result, they often resist any outside control and typically don’t know how to regulate their own emotions to control the negative behaviors that get them into trouble. If we want to make a difference, we have to be willing to address unwelcome behaviors with patience, understanding, clear boundaries and expectations.

LESSON #5 Teachers should consider students’ individual needs and interests to help them discover purpose and enjoy accomplishment.

                My father was encouraged in a field in which he showed aptitude. Schools and teachers can point out ways young people are achieving and help them find a sense of purpose. Perseverance begins with recognizing that effort brings outcomes. My father discovered along the way that sustained hard work brought results and a great deal of satisfaction.  It provided him a sense of accomplishment and eventually a livelihood he enjoyed for the rest of his life.          

Some of the places my father grew up are still actively serving young people. They have adapted and evolved over the years to provide pretty amazing opportunities for at risk children and young adults. I was recently able to visit them. The Drumm Farm’s executive director, Brad Smith, said something that sticks with me. He said, “We provide Hope and Love and Opportunities for kids.”

How to best help others seems rather controversial these days. It seems simple to me that when there is a problem, you do the best you know how to help. You get involved.

When it’s a child, what they need most is unconditional love and genuine interest in their well-being. Sometimes that person is a child’s mother, and we can celebrate that. We can also celebrate the many wonderful women AND men who nurture children regardless of biological or legal parentage.

May is also Teacher Appreciation. Educators provide the education that will open doors and opportunities. They wipe noses, put bandages on skinned knees, challenge apathy, mourn with students’ sorrows and celebrate their successes, write recommendation letters, and so much more.

My teaching philosophy is intrinsically tied to my father’s experiences as a child. The people who influenced him unwittingly influenced me, his over 50 descendants, and probably many others he encountered through the years.

In the early 1900’s after Andrew Drumm remarked to a friend that there seemed to be a lot of homeless boys with no sense of direction in Kansas City, his friend asked him, “What are you going to do about it? If anyone could do something about it, you would be the one.”

We can each be the one for someone.

  • Alternative education
  • Equity
  • Reading
  • Social Emotional Learning
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Irene Smith Board

National Board Certified Teacher at Discovery Lab School

Irene Smith teaches middle school Language Arts and Social Studies to clever, interesting, and energetic students.She is married to her best friend, Brad, and they have five grown up children.She loves backpacking on the Olympic Peninsula, spending time with her grandchildren, reading and writing books, and going to Shakespeare plays.

Twitter: @TeachLearnHope