What Marty Really Needed

Sandra Dodd

I have a teenaged boy now who can drive and who has a great computer he bought himself. It's a good combination for me, because while Kirby is driving himself the places I used to have to take him, I can stay home and play on his computer.

One Saturday night not long ago, I was playing on the computer in Kirby's room, and Marty came in. Marty was fourteen. By the time this is read, he might be older. But he was fourteen, it was Saturday, and I was playing something on Neopets.

Marty came in and said, "Mom, you know what I really need?" I didn't know. Had I been pressed to guess, I might've thought maybe he wanted the new Nickelback CD, or maybe a hamburger, or to win the lottery. Though his question had been more hypothetical, mine was real:


"A map of the New Mexico Territory when Arizona was a part of it."

I might never have guessed that one, so I'm glad he told me. This was pretty exciting for me, because I figured I had such a map. So I led Marty right up to the library which is full of my life's packrattish collection of books. He helped me move a pile of blankets and pillows and I pulled out my cache of New Mexico history books. One was New Mexico in Maps and three were school textbooks from years ago. There was a trivia book and a "roadside history," but the map book was the star of that show.

Feeling like an efficient librarian, I told him the textbooks were outdated and not to trust them, but the maps should still be good. I asked if he knew each had an index (to which he gave the impatient "YES, mom," because I was talking too much).

I went back to my game, feeling a little giddy that I had had what he asked for right in the house already.

After half an hour or so, Marty came back. He seemed kind of giddy himself. He told me that if Zachary Taylor hadn't died, New Mexico would've become a state sooner, and a bigger one, instead of waiting 'til 1912. And when he told that I had just a slight feeling that I'd heard it before, but it was nothing I "knew." Now Marty knew it, because he cared.

But alas for my library career, the maps I had weren't good enough. They didn't show that bit of southern Colorado. They were just modern maps with different markings.

Marty said, "I need to go to the state museum in Santa Fe."

"Palace of the Governors?"

"Yes. Hey, did you know the guy who wrote Ben Hur was governor of New Mexico?" (He had just read that, in one of my books.)

"Yeah. Did you know he wrote it in that building, while he was governor?" (He wrote some of it in Indiana, but finished it in Santa Fe.)

Here is why Marty wanted a map: He was designing a cowboy-themed role playing game. He wanted to know which towns were around in territorial days, after the railroad came, and how people got between them. It was the same kind of historical research people do to write historical novels or movie screenplays.

I knew he wanted more than just a map. He wanted the best kind of history—factoid and trivia. So I reminded him of three human resources he has access to in his life. Pati Nagle is a friend of mine and former housemate who has written several novels about the Civil War in New Mexico. Jeff Cunico's grandfather and great grandfather were Italian coal miners in Trinidad, in southern Colorado, when it was part of the New Mexico territory. Jeff is a history buff, and he's Marty's godfather. The next door neighbor at our old house, Mo Palmer, was photo archivist of Albuquerque for years before she went to teach history at a private school. A font of cool trivia and anecdotes, Mo has the interesting trait of knowing the history of buildings and sites. She grew up in Albuquerque and knows the history of every building, and what was there before anything was built.

Life being what it was that month, I couldn't easily go to Santa Fe, so I convinced Marty to try the Albuquerque Museum first. There, in the Civil War section, was the map Marty needed. "I want this one." Sure he did! It was published in 1857, in England. He said it was the perfect map for him, though.

In the gift shop there was a different territorial map for sale, an engineering proposal for a railway. It's not where the railroads ended up being, though, so Marty didn't want it. They didn't have a copy of the English map.

I hoped to surprise Marty by finding a copy of that map he liked and buying it. No such luck, but I found it online with a "zoom" feature. We could look at it, but not own it.

With Google.com, I found a map dealer in Arizona and ordered two other maps for Marty that way. They cost less than $20 with shipping, and the dealer e-mailed saying he would refund me part of the shipping since those two were small. I wrote to thank him, and told him about Marty the homeschooled gamer saying he really needed that map. I got this in reply: "Oh-oh, If you're not careful, your son may have a future as an underpaid history teacher—or worse: a map dealer! Thanks for the background!"

A homeschooler wrote recently and asked how I fit learning opportunities into our lives. At first I had that feeling that I didn't understand the question, and then I thought of it another way. Can I describe how our lives are lived so that learning happens so effortlessly? I can try, and the first answer is simple. We just have fun.

Marty still wants to go the state museum in Santa Fe. Maybe we'll find a census or something that lists the towns in some snapshot way for Marty's gaming purposes. I've been informed of map archives at the engineering library at the university here, and so I have some transportation hours ahead of me!

The cool thing is that on the way to these places, Marty and I will get to talk about all kinds of things. Holly will probably go, and learn something cool, but I couldn't possibly predict what it will be. We'll have lunch in Santa Fe, and see the yellow aspens, and fresh snow on the mountains, and will probably make a memory or two that will last us for many years.

Nobody would encourage a child to spend hours at online role playing games with an "I need a map" result in mind, but that is one of many natural outcomes of my letting Marty do what he wants to do online.

"One thing leads to another." I've said it myself many times, but what I'm coming to believe is that with the addition of joy and encouragement, one thing leads to five or ten things, and each of them to five or ten other things, and so the whole world can open up from one map of territorial New Mexico, or from any other fun thing. Whatever is treated as an interesting portal to the universe can become one.

While you're living your life, open as many doors as you can.

This article first appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of Home Education Magazine.

The photo of The Palace of the Governors is by Jon A. Speck, and is used with his permission.
There are some other photos of New Mexico (two with mouseover changes) on his site ...[gone, in 2021].

A Great Moment: Liam Needs Maps



Other people's typical unschooling days.

Articles by Sandra Dodd