University of Life; School of Hard Knocks

The 4th in a Series on my Family Tree

Prompt: Education


Education can take a variety of forms. Not everyone is designed to learn in the same way. Put a dreamer in a classroom with a more linear thinker and try to teach each according to the learning style of the other and frustration, for students and teacher, is bound to ensue.

Many of my ancestors were dreamers. The kids, if you will, who gaze out the classroom window while the teacher is droning on about algebra. (Hand raised here.) Either by choice or circumstance their imaginations took them boldly into new adventures often at great physical, mental, emotional, and financial cost. The Irish Palatines, for example, were farmers with a trade, i.e. blacksmith, carpenter, as a side hustle. The United Empire Loyalists were landowners, magistrates, businessmen before the American Revolution and having lost everything thereafter were forced to make peace with the wilderness and adapt to the pioneering way of life.

As artists and artisans their creative sensibilities couldn’t help but be enmeshed with nature. Great aunt Margaret (Belton) Cox (1887-1978), a trained milliner, turned her creative talent to painting (even taking lessons from Charles Russell, noted artist of the American West). She also sculpted, using driftwood and other natural items. She was noted for her apple head dolls.

Nature was the classroom of my forebears; the elements a calm or calamitous teacher. They were pioneers for a greater purpose; for the promise of a better future, sacrificing much in pursuit of the higher ideal. They endeavoured to stand on their own two feet while contributing to the community-at-large. The tests were harsh. Some fared better than others.

School of Hard Knocks

When my great-grandparents William Alexander Gordon and Jane (Robson) Gordon left gentrified Motherwell, Scotland in 1927 for the pioneer life of northern Alberta they had no idea what challenges lay ahead. They learned “on-the-fly” how to adapt to and engage with a mostly untamed environment. And with all their resources invested in building the new life and surviving the blight that was the Great Depression, any aspirations with respect to a higher education had to be abandoned. The children learned, instead, to negotiate the trials and travails of life at the School of Hard Knocks. As seen in the following extract from an account by my grandmother, Alice (Gordon) McDonall (1916-1994), there was nothing to recommend the lessons on offer:

Source: Memories of Sunniebend, Alberta ~
The Gordon Family (an excerpt) ~ Family Archives

The Final Word

Recent generations, of course, have had the opportunity to participate in the formal education denied our ancestors. Still, the character, work ethic, and compassion formed and fashioned in the School of Hard Knocks by those who came before laid a firm foundation. My own education has been a fly-by-the-seat-of-my pants endeavour, less formal but no less thorough. Indeed, life on the farm these past several years (I was born a city girl, but you can’t help what’s in the genes) has given me a better appreciation for the hands-on learning such an environment affords.

It’s my understanding that the family was always proud of their ability to work with the land, attend to the needs of their animals, and live a robust life in the process. And why wouldn’t they be. The farm was their university, and a way of life. ❦

Stanley Lewis McDonall and daughter, Jean on the family farm, Larkspur, Alberta ca 1946. Photo: Alice (Gordon) McDonall
Source: Family Archives

©Dorothy E. Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2023 … Aimwell CreativeWorks

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