4: The Accidental Autodidact, or How to Raise a Nerd

childcraft“Are all of your family like you?” a student asked me.

“What do you mean?”

“Do they all like reading and writing like you do?”

After much laughter I replied, “No. I’m the black sheep in the family – I turned out being a nerd.”

“How did that happen?”

“Well,” I said, “that’s sort of a long story”


The long story begins with how my mom escaped the future of being a poor, country farmer’s wife.

Born in 1947, my mom, Fely Ramos, grew up in a Philippines that had only recently gained its independence from US American rule and was still economically and socially recovering from years of Japanese occupation during World War II. For the Flores family – Mom’s family – times would always be difficult because being subsistence farmers meant struggling against nature and the market. Mom was one of the younger children, out of a large family of nine children living in a one-room, thatched roof nipa hut. As soon as she could walk and hold a broom, she swept the always muddy floors, and as soon as she could hold onto the lead of the family carabao (a water buffalo), she was helping her family plow and plant vegetables in the rich, muddy soil. One time she fell out of a tree and hurt her arm, but her family couldn’t afford medical care. Her mother had to tend to her wounds at home and then, as soon as she healed, go back to the fields.

As soon as she could, Mom started elementary school in the first grade in June, which was the beginning of the rainy season. “Why do they start school in June? It was always so muddy!” Mom would say, shaking her head. “I only had one dress, and I had to wash it all the time.” Mom would be embarrassed, being a country kid, being so poor, in an elementary school that included town kids from San Fernando, La Union. (One of those town kids would be her future husband.) Back then, only elementary school was compulsory and thus publicly-funded, so many rural kids would complete sixth grade and then forego high school, which went from seventh to tenth grade, to return to their family farms. She saw girl students finish elementary school, go home, get married at age thirteen or fourteen, and then start having children for their husbands. She would see girls look old by eighteen, with three young children and pregnant with the fourth.

“I didn’t want that life,” Mom would say, touching her chest where her heart was. “There was something in me, something that wanted more than that life.”

Mom already had older siblings who already escaped that life, through the luck of being supported by her family’s farming work and assistance from other relatives. A couple of her oldest sisters even became nurses, leaving the Philippines entirely for jobs abroad. By the time Mom finished sixth grade, her parents couldn’t afford to send her to high school, so she would have to work to make money. Mom worked in a tobacco factory, bundling up tobacco leaves for processing and getting sick with nicotine poisoning. Mom worked as a housecleaner and maid for gossipy, well-off families, all the while gritting her teeth and swallowing her pride. She put herself through high school and then realized she wanted more.

“I wanted to go to college” Mom said.

Mom wasn’t a strong student – reading and writing didn’t come easily for her – but she was a determined one. She applied to National University, got accepted, and moved in with one of her older sisters in the Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Living with that one particular sister was often fraught with tension because her sister always made Mom feel that she was an unwanted burden. So, to escape that household drama, while studying to become an elementary schoolteacher, Mom worked as a maid and housecleaner until she was able to get some financial assistance from an aunt, and she went to Catholic Mass every day between classes.

A year after Mom graduated with her degree, she was teaching second- and third-graders at a small school and discovered that she really didn’t like it, mostly because of her impatience with little kids.

“Why did you major in elementary school teaching, if you had no patience for little kids?” I would ask.

“Because I didn’t want to be a nurse – being a nurse has too much responsibility for a person’s life. And I didn’t want to be a secretary. So I had to be a schoolteacher.”

Sometimes I would forget that when Mom was in college, it was the early 1960s, and the movement for women’s rights, especially women’s rights in a Third World country like the Philippines, was still in its infancy, as seen in the college and therefore workplace choices of a young woman. It was still expected that once she married, she would quit to become a housewife and mother, that is, a “homemaker.”

Thus, there was plenty of expectation for Mom to marry. Mom was a young schoolteacher when she reunited with an old, hometown friend – Ruben Ramos, my dad. He had come visiting family and old friends while on leave, having just a year ago enlisted in the US Navy through the Philippine Enlistment Program after graduating from an engineering trade school and a short stint teaching high school English. In a short courtship, Mom and Pa eloped in May 1968 (to the great disapproval of her family), and then Pa had to leave, shipping off on the USS Caloosahatchee.

Mom would barely see Pa, as he served on various ships throughout the Western Pacific, even in Vietnam, where he served on a destroyer, the USS Keppler. Meanwhile, Mom continued working as an elementary schoolteacher. Only when his tour on the Keppler ended in 1971 could Pa return to the Philippines and offer Mom to go with him to his next duty station, Commander Headquarters Support Activity, of US Taiwan Defense Command, in Taipei, Taiwan. On that day, Mom quit her job and never taught in a school ever again.

However, Mom’s experiences – as a young student who struggled with money for books and supplies and as a young schoolteacher who struggled to make sure her classroom had enough resources – followed her when she became a housewife and mother.

In Taiwan, a family friend gave my parents an incredible gift, on occasion of my infant baptism – a complete set of the Encyclopedia Americana, including five supplemental volumes: A Treasury of American Literature Volumes I and II, A Treasury of the World’s Great Speeches, A Treasury of the Essay, The Home Book of Musical Knowledge, and The Complete Works of Shakespeare – Kittredge Players Illustrated Edition. My parents also received a ten-volume The Book of Popular Science by Grolier and an alphabetical, four-volume medical encyclopedia set. Mom and Pa put them up in their expansive brand-new wall unit/curio cabinet as shelving decoration, and our home library would travel with us from across the ocean, from Taiwan to Illinois to South Carolina, to Guam, across the ocean again.

By the time I was eight years old, Mom noticed that I never consulted this vast display of reference materials. Even though I was a voracious reader, she decided that I probably was too young for these books. In their spare, monochrome covers, they didn’t look inviting to a grade-schooler used catchy colors and illustrations.

Meanwhile, during the early spring of my third grade year, New Piti Elementary School had a teachers’ strike. My teacher, a guy we students all called Bruce – and I don’t remember his last name because we never called him by his last name – was one of the strikers. It was depressing because Bruce was an engaging teacher, who was funny and challenging at the same time. In place of him, we received a mediocre, barely qualified substitute teacher who just made us copy words off of the glossary in the backs of our books, play too many rounds of “Heads Up, Seven Up,” and sent us home with busy work as homework. When the strike ended by Spring Break, the teachers had lost, and my classmates and I never saw Bruce again.

The substitute teacher stayed, and I felt like I wasn’t learning anything.

Somewhere in that time, when Wendy and I were at school, a door-to-door Worldbook encyclopedia salesman arrived at the house, and Mom bought the 1981 edition of the fifteen-volume Childcraft: The How and Why Library series from him. When we came home from school, Mom pointed to the brightly-colored, hardback volumes that she placed on the lowest open shelf of the wall unit so they were easily accessible to kids my and Wendy’s heights and said, “Look what I bought you!”

I am not over-exaggerating when I say this: Childcraft changed my life.


Allow me to travel through time, into the twenty-first century — and in space, Grand Prairie, Texas. My siblings and I were over at my parents’ house for Sunday dinner in the summer of 2010 (we were and still are fortunate to live within thirty miles of our parents, even as we moved out and became busy with our adult lives). After the dinner and karaoke, Wendy dug through some old boxes stored in our parents’ garage and discovered our old 1981 Childcraft books, with all fifteen volumes intact, if somewhat dusty and musty.

“Here,” she said, thinking of my then nearly-three year-old son. “For Daniel.” Then she helped me load my car.

I have those Childcraft books right now, in my own home library, for the next generation to read.


I didn’t know it then, but Childcraft – a set of encyclopedic anthologies divided by subjects found in an elementary school curriculum like math, reading, science, and social studies – existed in one form or another since the 1930s and was an international phenomenon, translated in many languages and sold world-wide. As a certified secondary schoolteacher and an experienced, degreed professor, I can now recognize what curriculum these books were teaching to my younger self and my siblings. Volumes 1-3 covered reading and language arts. Volumes 4-7 covered the hard sciences. Volumes 8-10 covered social studies. Volumes 11 covered arts, crafts, and recreation. Volume 12 covered observation and non-verbal communication. Volume 13 covered mathematics. Volume 14 covered health. Finally, Volume 15 covered child growth and development (which was meant for parents but I read anyway).

Still, even at the tender age of eight, when I pulled out for the very first time that first Childcraft volume, in 1981 on Guam, its hardback cover a vivid red and titled Poems and Rhymes, I instantly recognized that my family had its own school library, and I was thrilled.

Volume 1, Poems and Rhymes, consisted of short verses like traditional nursery rhymes and contemporary poems, which I’d read aloud to my siblings. While most of the poems were standard little-kid stuff, like “Old Mother Hubbard” and “The City Mouse and the Garden Mouse,” I found interesting the “Poems and rhymes set to music” section because I had started piano lessons — Pa had bought a Yamaha organ and, being the oldest child, I was the first one inflicted with lessons — and was learning how to read music. Since I already knew what the songs sounded like (“Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “The Farmer in the Dell,” “Frère Jacques,” and so on), I would sometimes prop open the book on the music stand, slowly read the staff notation, and hunt-and-peck the notes as part of my piano practice.

Volume 2, a lime green book, was Stories and Fables, and it was exactly what the title said it was. It had children’s moral stories, folk tales, and fairy tales by authors such as A. A. Milne, Hans Christian Anderson, Aesop, and the Brothers Grimm. It introduced me to Greek myths like King Midas, Pandora, and Persephone. It had folk tales from other countries, like “Why the Kangaroo Hops on Two Legs” from Australia. However, as much as I liked the stories in Volume 2, I loved the stories in Volume 3.

Volume 3, a magenta book, was Children Everywhere. Like Volume 2, it was an anthology of short stories, but this time they were contemporary children’s short stories from international authors, translated into English. From Ireland to Iran, each story about a modern kid somewhere else in the world fascinated and enlightened me. For instance, an Israeli story titled “Call Across the Border” by Devora Omer was about a young Israeli boy discovering that he can’t communicate with a group of friendly Arab kids across the River Jordan — and may never be able because of a war – which made eight-year-old me incredibly sad, even though I didn’t know where Israel was on a map and didn’t know what war Omer was writing about.

Volume 4, a Smurf-blue book, was World and Space. This was one of my favorite Childcraft books because of the nascent space shuttle program. A month after the end of the teachers’ strike and three days before my ninth birthday, the first space shuttle, Space Shuttle Columbia, was launched. For kids of my generation, the Space Shuttle program was like the Gemini-Apollo program of the previous generation. Just like many of those kids twenty years ago, I was entranced with the idea of going into space someday — I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. So World and Space, which covered the basics of earth science and astronomy, was my first official instruction in that childhood dream. I especially paid attention to the last section, “People Who Study the World and Space,” which explained careers like geologists, volcanologists, oceanographers, and astronomers. Fortunately for my astronaut dreams, I liked science and math. Unfortunately for my astronaut dreams, I would soon develop major myopia and astigmatism in both eyes.

Volume 5, a light tan book, was About Animals. As expected from its title, it covered everything about animals in a kid-friendly way – sort of like the PBS show Wild Kratts in illustrated book form, minus the narrative storyline. It also covered extinct animals like trilobites, dinosaurs, and mammoths. In retrospect, this book was introducing me to animal evolution and animal conservation without using those fancy words.

Volume 6, an avocado green book, was The Green Kingdom. Similar in format to About Animals, it covered everything about plants – from algae to bristlecone pine trees — in a kid-friendly way with appealing illustrations and photographs. It also covered extinct plants, explaining the evolution of plant life on Earth, and the origin of coal from “coal forests” – the plants and trees that grew, died, and became coal today. As cool as it was to learn that, what fascinated me was, of all things, slime mold!

Volume 7, an ocean blue book, was How Things Work. As a science-minded, antsy kid, this was another of my favorite Childcraft books, as it covered the physics and chemistry. Besides explaining concepts like inertia, simple machines, the stages of matter, and electricity, it included mini-stories of scientific discovery, like Marie Curie’s discovery of radium, and plenty of “try this at home” simple experiments, like a lemon battery. Trying every experiment in that book would keep me busy well into middle school.

Volume 8, a bright orange book, was About Us. It explored the different customs and manners of people all over the world via side-by-side comparison. In other words, it was kid-friendly comparative anthropology and multicultural studies. It compared everything from eating habits to schooling to religious practices. Reading this book was like visiting different people in their homes, all over the world, without ever leaving my living room.

Volume 9, a rose pink book, was Holidays and Birthdays. It was another comparative anthropology of people all over the world, except this time it was their holidays, which often included historical people’s birthdays. Most of the book was organized by month, from January to December, and each “month” chapter was organized by day, from the first day to the last day of the month. However, I really liked the first chapter, which included the origins of the names of the days of the week – the sun, moon, and Norse gods! – and the different kinds of calendar systems in the world, like the Islamic calendar and the Chinese zodiac calendar.

Volume 10, a yellowish-brown book, was Places to Know. As a Navy kid who had already crossed one ocean and an entire continent twice, I was already a travel bug, so reading what was tantamount to a gigantic sight-seeing book of the entire planet was great fun. Okefenokee Swamp (it’s still fun to say), Lake Titicaca, Ayers Rock, and so forth – it was wonderful to imagine going there.

Volume 11, a navy blue book, was Make and Do. A multi-topic arts and crafts book for kids, this was Wendy’s favorite book and where I learned how to sew by hand and drive a nail. Papier mâché, finger paint, baking soda clay, rock and shell sculptures, hand-sewn ponchos, woven tapestries, home-made puppets and costumes, rules for outdoor games like “Statues” – these were only some of things Wendy and I made and did from this book, for we did them all – well, almost all. We couldn’t do the woodworking projects because our parents wouldn’t let us use a cross-cut saw, and we couldn’t find the coping saw.

Volume 12, a dark pink book, was Look and Learn. It covered symbolic communication like trademarks and the various meanings for colors, depending on the situation (for example, red can either mean “I love you” or “Stop!”). It also explained non-verbal communication, like facial expressions and clothing choices. I was surprised by how much I needed to know about the history and complexity of social, economic, and artistic cues in the Western world.

Volume 13, a harvest gold book, was Mathemagic. Like World and Space and How Things Work, this was yet another favorite Childcraft book of mine, when I dreamt of being an astronaut, studying science and math. It wasn’t a math textbook or math workbook; instead, Mathemagic explained the history and theory behind the numbers, with a lot of symbolic logic and puzzles thrown in. Math was not boring! For instance, I learned how to make an abacus, discovered where the modern numerals came from – Arabia! – and read excerpts from books The Phantom Tollbooth and Flatland.

Volume 14, a light-blue book, was About Me. It was a cross between a kid-appropriate health and child development book. It was rather comprehensive, considering the topics it had to cover. For example, I saw illustrations of the human skeleton and major organs and read what they did. I saw growth charts, learned how the body heals itself, and saw a photo illustrating that our faces are asymmetrical. I learned how to make a family tree and where babies come from (without the gratuitous details).

Finally, Volume 15, a dark purple book, was Guide for Parents. It was basically the adult version of About Me, but framed as a parenting book. The first section covered child development from birth to adolescence. The second section covered special topics, like adoption, divorce, and disabilities. The third section was an alphabetical medical guide, from “Abscess” to “Whooping cough”. The fourth section was titled “Guide and Index to Childcraft” and read like a guide for a homeschooling parent using Childcraft as the textbooks. What’s funny is that my parents never read this book, while I – precocious kid that I was — read it cover to cover, looking up the words in a bound dictionary that we had when I didn’t understand.

By the time I had gone through these fifteen volumes, I had more than made up for my lost third-grade spring semester. With my head full of knowledge, I entered my fourth grade classroom in September 1981 like a chattering encyclopedia. Mr. Paulino, my teacher, delegated me as one of the “fast” students and thus was tasked to tutor any struggling classmate when he was helping someone else. I didn’t mind: I made friends and wasn’t bored when I finished my classwork early. I really don’t recall learning anything brand new in what would be my final year in Guam, other than finding out that Mr. Paulino liked the band Air Supply so much that he would play the band’s records on the classroom’s record player during quiz and test times. Childcraft introduced me to the concepts, and Mr. Paulino just embellished what I knew.

When Pa got the orders to report to Naval Air Station Dallas, Texas, by July 1982, I knew that my family’s four wonderful years on Guam was over. It was hard leaving a house that actually felt like a home for a change, leaving people who felt like family, and leaving kids that were friends – even best friends (I’m talking about you, Mary Wegryzn, wherever you are). It was hard not finishing elementary school at New Piti. But our home library was coming with us, especially those Childcraft books that still remind me of my rather idyllic childhood on Guam. That softened the blow of leaving, if only a little.


I credit the Childcraft books — more than any other early educational experience — for making me the autodidact that I became back in third grade and still am to this day. Schools and teachers would come and go (which often happened in a military family), but Childcraft was stable and forever.

Yes, the photos are old. Yes, a lot of the information is also dated. (And, yes, one can see more up-to-date information on the web.) But having the wealth of knowledge that a child can actually FEEL in his or her hands, knowledge that will not get lost in hacked servers, 404 errors, and power blackouts — a wealth of knowledge that is just for that child and only that child — is a treasure beyond measure.

I will always be grateful for our parents for giving me and my siblings the gift of knowledge. I am grateful for my sister for giving the Childcraft books to me, for my son.

This is something that Google just can’t touch.





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