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Anna Cummins

When I look back on my love for school as a child and then beyond, I can pinpoint a few exceptional things my parents did to inspire my love of learning. The first is one I can only tell stories about. The second I can emulate, now that I am the parent of a 4-year-old girl. And the third and most important one simply has to be lived.

First: My father created the school that I attended. It was a school called Crossroads, in Santa Monica, Calif., It was built upon the philosophy that kids are unique learners and beings, all with their own way of expressing themselves, and making their own contribution to the world. Early on, he met my musician mother, one of the most passionate teachers he’d ever met. Our household was a revolving door of teachers, parents, alumni, visitors, mentors and more. Family dinner was a staple, guests were the norm, and my younger sister and I were encouraged to participate. My home life and my school life were inextricably linked.  

Second: From day one, my parents lavished us with their love of books, literature and writing. Both of them read to my sister and me every night. My father took us to secondhand bookstores or the library to spend leisurely Saturday afternoons treasure hunting. I became a bookworm, building secret forts to hide away with a stack of books and a flashlight. And though I had extracurricular activities – violin lessons and sports (softball, fencing)--I also had plenty of unstructured time to read, wander, daydream and just to be.

Third: My parents model their belief in pursuing passion and meaning in work. They both love their work wholeheartedly, and are dedicated to education, community and justice. My father has always been an admirer of the poet Robert Frost. I remember him sharing these lines when I was young, and explaining their meaning:

“My goal in life is to unite my avocation with my vocation, As my two eyes make one in sight.”

And while I realize today that this is a blessing, that not everyone has the fortune or the luxury to pursue meaningful work, this left an indelible impression on me. I was always encouraged to follow my heart, a path that led me to pursue sustainability--and also to pursue learning for my own sake.

Nelson Cooney

Mother was my lifeline for early learning in our family. Father wasn’t too involved. It was because of her that I took piano lessons and played duets with her when she played the violin. Other cultural pursuits included visits to museums, art galleries and concerts. To nurture reading she would walk us little tots the two miles to the public library for story hour every Wednesday. Even in sports, it was she who took my brother and me on the bus to swimming lessons in summer at the public pools, and to an ice skating rink in winter to learn skating and ice hockey. She also took us to boxing lessons and dancing school.

Fortunately for us, mother was a tomboy at heart and an early feminist, gaining a foothold in a man’s world by administering anesthesia in the operating room. After marriage, she accepted the traditional role of at-home mom, and devoted herself to providing opportunities for her two sons.

Alexandra Bennett Cannady

Growing up in New York, my parents and uncle showed me our home through tourists’ eyes.  History came to life during family field trips to see the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and New York’s museums.

One year my Uncle Ray drove my aunt, mom, four cousins and me from Dothan, Ala., to St. Petersburg, Fla. He made a detour a couple of hours out of our way, not a good scene for three adults and five kids cramped in a station wagon.

When we arrived at his destination, he pointed to a statue erected to honor the boll weevil. He explained that if the insects had not destroyed cotton crops, farmers wouldn’t have diversified. My cousins and I just shook our heads. We may not have appreciated it then, but my gratitude for my parents and uncle has grown and come full circle.

On my way home this past Thanksgiving, I took a detour to Tuckahoe, Md., to show my 5-year- old son the birthplace of Frederick Douglass. He’s been to the Capitol, The White House, and the Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. By the time he was 3, he had started reading and could name the planets and the presidents.

I want to instill curiosity in him, as my uncle did for me. I hope it will propel him forward and also will take him back to see where history was made.


My mother drove home the value of education by example. She loved to read, so we would see her on the living room couch reading a history book. She volunteered at school, and several of the elementary school teachers my brother and I had became lifelong friends of my parents. (My first-grade teacher traveled 200 miles to attend my wedding.) Mom also was an active college alumna, and I remember the college president visiting our home. The importance—and fun—of education was crystal clear.

We also saw Mom writing a lot. She kept a diary, wrote many notes and cards to friends, and recorded all kinds of information in the “baby books” she kept on all four of her children. It’s probably no surprise that both my brother and I chose writing careers.

Of course, Mom read bedtime stories to us, although it was not unusual for Dad to tell us stories that he created on the spot.

Finally, and perhaps most important, she built up my self-confidence. She took an interest in my schoolwork and other activities, praised my efforts, and complimented me on any successes. A lot of my own behavior as a parent was modeled on hers.


When I was growing up, my mother worked long hours as a nurse and sole provider for the family, because my father was a disabled veteran. Neither of my parents went to college, and they married fresh out of high school.

Times were especially hard during the years when they were divorced. It felt like my mother was always at work or crying about missing an important event in my sister’s or my life at school.

Because of these hardships, both my mother and my father put a huge emphasis on the importance of education for their children. I can remember from the very start of elementary school when they would tell me to do well in school so that I could get a scholarship to go to college.

Right before I entered high school, things began to change. My parents actually remarried, and my mother decided to enroll in college at the age of 40. She went on to earn not only a bachelor’s degree, but master’s and doctoral degrees as well. The timing of her pursuit of higher education was particularly appropriate, as it occurred when my sister and I began to worry about SAT scores and college applications. My mother became an exemplary model of pursuing higher education regardless of age, and heavily influenced my path to success in school. The academic and career achievements that I’ve made couldn’t have been done without her guidance. My sister has earned two bachelor’s degrees and is currently applying to medical school. As someone about to graduate with my own bachelor’s degree and enter “the real world,” I look forward to the future knowing that my mother will always have my back, no matter what.


My father has always trusted my choices in school. So when I decided to be an environmental filmmaker and not take a more conventional path such as the one he took in earning an MBA, he never worried. He understood that I am hard working and determined, just like him. When I would come home from college for visits, I would share with him the many interesting topics I had learned about. We would get caught up in conversations about GMOs, carbon footprints, geo-engineering and the like. He would always question the facts I was quoting and say, “Well that’s not what I read.” He would send articles to me at school and I would send articles back, trying my best to prove my point. But it was his skepticism that really pushed me to learn more and succeed in my field. It was those difficult questions and doing the extra research to respond that made me excel beyond the classroom.


When I was in elementary school, my father drove me to school on his way to work as an executive at Kodak. Roadwork was being done along our route and I felt sorry for the men digging ditches in the bitter winter cold. My father asked me, rhetorically, “What's the difference between those men and your father?” He then answered, “They didn't work hard in school and they didn’t go to college. I did, so I work in a warm office. It’s your choice what kind of a life you want to live, and you’ll be making that choice at school today.” For months he asked the same question as we drove to school, and it made a huge impression on me.


One of the most fundamental things my dad did to help me thrive in school was to provide a secure home environment. As the primary earner for my family, the roof over my head and the food on my plate were directly related to my dad’s hard work and dedication. This stability was a key factor in giving me a stress-free childhood, and one that allowed me to focus my attention on school and homework.


My dad usually introduced some form of competition into whatever we were doing (probably because he was a college athlete). One example is a tradition we had when our family went out to dinner together. My dad would quiz my brother and me while we waited for the food to arrive. He usually did multiplication tables, shouting “six times eight!” or “three times seven!” It was a race to see who could figure it out in his head and answer the fastest. My younger brother is much better at math than I, so getting the answer faster than he did was difficult. But I was always willing to fight for my pride.

Over the years, our learning through competition took different iterations. Playing along with “Jeopardy,” completing crossword puzzles that had been clipped from the newspaper and floated around the house, or, now that we’re older, playing trivia at the local bar, my dad always found a way to make learning fun. Not only did it help me pass third grade by mastering my times tables, it brought me an appreciation for learning that I carry with me today.