Saturday, January 23, 2010

Happiness is a Warm Harp

Do you ever read a book and feel like it relates so well to homeschooling, even though it has nothing to do with homeschooling? For me, my latest read, Harpo Speaks!, read like life and times of an unschooler.

Harpo Speaks! is the autobiography of Harpo Marx, the silent member of the Marx Brothers. Harpo led a remarkable life. The book itself is like stepping into history--Turn of the 20th century life in NY tenements, Tammany Hall politics, the Vaudeville circuits, the Roaring Twenties, the formation of the USSR, the Depression--there is so much here, I could go on and on! Most of the stories Harpo tells about the times and people he's met are so funny I was reading large sections of the book out loud to my kids. (Luckily, unlike what I've heard of Groucho's autobiography, Harpo's book is child-friendly for the most part. There are some references to things like bordellos that some parents may not want to explain to younger kids, but the stories themselves seem written as if he imagined his children would be reading them.)

What struck me the most was the second chapter, The Education of Me. Harpo had a tough time in the NYC Public Schools. He was literally thrown out of school by classroom bullies countless times before he finally got up and decided not to go back. He was, at the time, halfway through his second year of second grade. He goes on to explain how he learned to read from reading the signs as he roamed the city. He tells of his grandfather, who taught him German and who he considered his first real teacher. His second teacher was his big brother Chico, who taught him more practical things, like playing the odds in dice and poker. Chico himself ended up dropping out of school when he was twelve and started applying the laws of probability to gambling and the laws of physics to the poolroom. Eventually the whole family would be sucked into their mother's plans to help them make it big. Harpo's family was close knit, something he didn't think would have happened if their mother hadn't pulled them together and taken them on the road to fame and fortune.

My favorite quote from Chapter 2: "I was good only at daydreaming, a subject they didn't give credit for in the New York City school system."

Because Harpo was a listener, he sees the world in a unique way. He was very much an optimist and enjoyed whatever was sent his way. And he would have many teachers in his life. Some, like Alexander Woollcott, would be with him for a long time. Some, like his son Billy, he would have to wait a while for. Along the way, he played and lived a lifelong childhood.

Considering the closeness of his family, I'm surprised how long it took for Harpo to settle down. He was in his forties before he married Susan. They ended up adopting four children together. How he handled explaining the adoptions to them was beautiful. He and Susan turned it into a wonderful adventure that showed their children just how special they were to their parents.

He lists his family's rules in Chapter 23: Life on a Harp Ranch. I have many favorites here, but I will quote this one: "You can work at whatever you want to as long as you do it as well as you can and clean up afterwards and you're at the table at mealtime and in bed at bedtime."

One neat way I enhanced my reading the book was to have a four day Marx Brothers marathon. I would point out some interesting facts to the kids as they watched. (Now my kids look for the "Gookie" whenever they watch!) I'm also struck by the different types of humor each brother brings to the table to make such a unique style. Chico, just as Harpo wrote about him, uses accents and is the fast talker. Harpo is the ultimate pantomime clown. Groucho shows his bookish youth in his intellectual wit. With those three leading the way, it isn't hard to understand why Gummo and Zeppo, the youngest brothers, decided to eventually find another direction in life. But they also had their successes. Gummo was a dress manufacturer and then partnered with Zeppo in a talent agency in California. Zeppo would have the golden touch as an entrepreneur, always ending up richer after each investment.

There is so much in this book, I feel I can't even do it credit in a review. I hope some of you will take a chance on this book. I find biographies interesting because every life is interesting and no two lives are alike. And when you find a life story that really speaks to you, that is a wonderful treasure.


Stephanie said...

This sounds wonderful! It does sounds like a strong testimonial to unschooling, long before the term was coined. :-)

Kez said...

That's fascinating. I have to admit to not ever having known much about them.

Tonya @ Live the Adventure said...

Stopped by from the Carnival of Homeschooling and really enjoyed reading your post. I find myself wanting to know more about this fascinating 'unschooler'. Think I'll have to order some Marx Brothers videos from Netflix. Thanks for sharing!:)

Laura said...

Oooh, I'll totally check this one out!

Karen said...

I am always ripe for a good book suggestion. We will have to seek this one out!

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