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A Life: Barbara Barnes, 1923-2018; ‘She Insisted People Commit as Much as They Could’

  • Barbara Barnes wears several name tags during a gathering for the Upper Valley Educators Institute's 40th anniversary in 2009, an organization Barnes founded. (Courtesy Upper Valley Educators Institute)

  • Barbara Barnes returns from Ridgewood Island, in Little Sebago Lake in Maine, The island has been in Barnes' family for more than 100 years. (Famly photograph)

  • Barbara Barnes lifts hay while working as a farmhand, around the summer of 1943. (Family photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, April 02, 2018

Norwich — On Oct. 4, 1957, a bright metal sphere rose up from the Soviet Union and carved an elliptical lap around the Earth, making it the first successful satellite to be made by human hands.

Though the sphere, called Sputnik, was less than two feet across, its impacts were great and many. For one, it caused a shift in education throughout the United States, including in the Upper Valley: The federal government, mortified that it had been beaten to the punch, wanted more and better-trained teachers in schools, especially science teachers.

In the Upper Valley, the person behind much of those post-Sputnik educational changes was Barbara Ragle Barnes, a longtime Norwich resident who died March 7, 2018, at the age of 94. A woman of strong opinions and practical values, Barnes was fond of saying that learning — learning that was real, not rote — was “in the doing of things,” recalled friends. Some colleagues even called it her mantra.

And Barnes’ life was full of the “doing of things,” whether it was standing her ground at a School Board meeting, fixing a dock at her family’s island in Maine, harvesting enough vegetables from her garden to feed a small country, reading economics for her Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Dartmouth class, loading a truck with mulch at age 92, or enjoying her martini — extra dry — with the evening news.

That mantra, which was also a way of life, stretches back to at least 1960, during that post-Sputnik science push. As a new teacher at Marion Cross School (then called Norwich School), Barnes took on a leadership project whose scope was unusual for such an early-career educator: She, along with two Dartmouth professors, developed a new science curriculum for the school, one that was founded on the idea that learning is best done hands-on.

Today we might take for granted the importance of experiential learning, said Milton Frye, a former principal at Marion Cross School and a longtime friend of Barnes, but in those days the idea was “pioneering.” The model was a hit, and soon other area schools started to borrow from Barnes’ teaching philosophy.

“That was one of her favorite stories to tell,” and one of the only stories she would tell about herself, said Page Tompkins, the director of the Upper Valley Educators Institute, or UVEI, the Lebanon-based teacher training program Barnes eventually would found. UVEI requires its trainees to complete an in-classroom apprenticeship, because in Barnes’ mind, learning how to teach was like learning anything else: Only through experience could one appreciate all the variables.

“I continue to feel, even at my ripe old age, that that is important,” Barnes emphasized in a video interview she did with Tompkins a couple of years before she died. “You can’t read about how to teach. You can’t take classes in it. You can learn by doing.”

Such matter-of-factness was classic Barnes, Tompkins said with a laugh. “You know, I literally can visualize how hard her chin looks when she’s making an argument,” he said.

On their regular lunch dates together, “she was absolutely never shy about asking really hard questions about how I was thinking about things. It was always: How was I going to make this practical? … In fact, one of the last times we had a conversation in late February, I was working on an idea for a new project and that (epitomized) the very thing she said: ‘This has to make a difference in the actual experience of teachers and students!’ ”

Behind her staunch resoluteness was the fact that Barnes was a force of nature. The summers she spent on her family’s Ridgewood Island — a tiny parcel of paradise in Maine’s Little Sebago Lake where, as a young girl, she built her own cabin — had helped make her strong. Being a working mother of three daughters in the 1960s and ’70s, with a husband whose far-off work meant he was rarely in the picture, made her stronger.

But with this strength came an aversion to expressing vulnerability, said her middle daughter, Hilary De Carlo, of St. Johnsbury, Vt. In her mother’s last days in hospice care, when De Carlo would lean down to kiss her head or stroke her hair, Barnes would wait patiently for her to stand up before saying, “OK, I’m going to get up now.”

Her mother did soften somewhat with age, she added, but friends and relatives said Barnes tended not to talk about herself, instead steering the conversation toward other people, or issues she cared about. Because of this reticence, she continually surprised friends she’d known for years: Barnes and Tompkins had been quite close, but he never knew, until he read her obituary in the Valley News, that she’d originally planned on becoming a doctor.

De Carlo also thinks it was partly the era her mother grew up in, “where it wasn’t cool to talk about your feelings,” she said. After all, for Barnes, it wasn’t about the feeling of things, but the doing of them — though De Carlo said that as a kid, she sometimes wished her mother would find more of a balance between the two.

“I totally, totally know she loved us,” her daughter said, but Barnes’ high expectations could, at times, feel more like demands. There was no sleeping in or goofing off under Barnes’ roof. Instead, there were goals. Activities. Plans. De Carlo groaned, recalling the question her mother would always ask her: “What projects are you going to do today?”

But De Carlo was also a student in her mother’s class at Norwich School, and she remembers the wonder that Barnes’ project-based lessons would strike in her and her peers — like when the class kept monarch caterpillars, and watched them weave themselves into chrysalises, and emerge all bent and unbeautiful, and, at the end of the unit, flutter away.

“That was really impressive,” De Carlo said. “But I’ll tell you, it was really not cool having my mom as a teacher. And you can print that.”

Yet Barnes played an important role for her students, and had a particular soft spot for those who showed great potential but also faced great challenges in reaching that potential — students like Lillian Englund, who was in Barnes’ very first class at Norwich School.

Englund’s family was poor.

“But Mom really believed Lillie had a special gift and was very bright,” De Carlo said. “Those are the kinds of kids Mom would really nurture and take under her wing and support.” She and Englund remained close for the rest of Barnes’ life.

“Other people have written about her work history, her commitment to education, her role as a teacher. But it’s her value system that always carried me,” said Englund, who eventually earned her PhD in early childhood education, and taught at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas until she retired in 2015.

The fact that Barnes saw a spark in her, and went out of her way to advocate for her, helped Englund realize her financial means did not define her, she said, adding that Barnes’ belief in frugality made Englund feel validated in the way her family had to live — that there was dignity in it.

When Barnes did step in to help Englund, she did so in a way that maintained that dignity: hiring her as the family babysitter, encouraging her to consider college, and helping her apply for financial aid and loans when she did decide to continue her studies, despite her father’s disapproval. And when Englund was a teenager, and needed significant and costly dental work, Barnes was there.

“It was really obvious that it could have been a real stigma. It was that kind of thing,” Englund said. She thinks that Barnes, “rather than saying ‘oh, let me take care of this for you, honey,’ ” spoke to the dentist ahead of time and arranged for a more affordable bill. She instructed Englund to pay what she could, and Barnes would help with the rest.

“That was her. She insisted that people commit as much as they could,” Englund said. Even after she moved away, Barnes’ mentorship continued to guide her: “You know how you’re always thinking, what will people think, but it’s really only that one person?” she said. “That’s Barbie. … She’s the voice in my head. The voice behind all my decision-making.”

Barnes’ fierce and lifelong loyalty might be part of why she kept so much of herself under wraps, said her 26-year-old grandson, Ivan Pickett.

“If she was incredibly open, she would have opened herself to people who weren’t as loyal and honest as her,” he said. He thinks this partly might explain her affinity for animals, whose companionship is of the purest kind. She always had at least one dog, often two or three. She loved horses, and rode them as much as she could, for as long as she could. When Frye was moving out of his house and had to get rid of his animals, Barnes offered to take in his two donkeys; she was probably 85 at the time, he said.

Pickett, and his cousin Devon Cole, recalled how much of a vested interest their grandmother took in their futures, especially in regards to education. Englund was one of many of Barnes’ mentors who could say the same. So was Tompkins. So was the Cornish gardening writer Henry Homeyer, who, as a junior at Dartmouth, needed a place to stay, and found one with Barnes.

“She befriended me when I was just a kid, really,” he recalled. “She was the first person who treated me as an equal.” They remained friends for more than 50 years. Long after he’d stopped living with her he kept coming around, pretending it was to prune the apple trees in her vast and diverse garden, but really because he liked her company. Her strong opinions, and her tendency to inform herself about nearly everything, made for smart and spirited conversations.

“Even in last week of her life, we were talking about (President) Trump and what was going to happen to (former Secretary of State Rex) Tillerson,” he said. “She was very political.”

Few things gave Barnes more joy than seeing a student thrive. Cole, who is working toward her PhD in geology at Yale University, remembers how much of a vested interest Barnes took in her work.

“She wanted to know all about my research and would ask really specific questions,” she said. “She would insist on me sending her scientific research papers I’d published in these specific scientific journals. I’d (say), ‘Let me send you something that’s sort of more for the general public,’ but she was like, ‘No, I want to read it. I’ll just read it really slowly.’ ”

And, because she was a doer, she did. As a child on Ridgewood Island, Barnes had loved to poke around among the rocks and pebbles, investigating the different compositions of the stones and where they appeared.

She liked the tangibility of science, De Carlo said. “You can explain that things happen because of this, and this, and this,” she said. “Even to some extent with unknowns.”

De Carlo thinks the idea of the unknown was also part of why, though Barnes appreciated all the sciences: She was deeply taken with astronomy. She took classes on the subject, long before becoming an Osher regular, and “would make references to the fact that there was magic in the night sky,” De Carlo recalled. It produced in Barnes something like faith.

And so, when Sputnik soared into space in October of 1957, the launch was of more than just a satellite. It was the launching of a new way of learning in the Upper Valley, and a new way of teaching.

And it launched a whole lot of doing of things.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.