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Buggies, Cubbies and Cuckoos — A tribute to Finland’s Centennial: Part 3

By Ruth Elaine Jutila Chamberlin

Observer columnist

Published on January 9, 2018 4:33PM

Finns (and other Nordics) nap their babies outdoors in all weather, give children lots of outdoor play, and make twinkle-lights in winter. Nature. Quiet. Simple beauty.

Finns (and other Nordics) nap their babies outdoors in all weather, give children lots of outdoor play, and make twinkle-lights in winter. Nature. Quiet. Simple beauty.

“Is a baby in there?”

The baby carriage sat outside the café, wheels in snow, curtain down, no grownups around. We knew Finnish babies napped outdoors in all seasons — at home, that is. But like this, in public? Finns trusted each other this much?

(That was Helsinki, 1987. Forty years earlier, in far-north Minnesota, my Finnish-American Mom tucked Calvin into our baggy buggy — the bottom sagged into a sleeping hollow — and Calvin, piled with quilts, napped outdoors as Morris and I had, before him, as Dale did later. I still like to nap under quilts.)

Finns do trust each other and take care of each other — officially. In return for high taxes, Finland’s citizens receive cradle-to-grave benefits. Every newborn gets a decorated cardboard Baby Box filled with infant items, a stuffed animal, and a mattress for the box, which becomes the baby’s first bed. The child grows up with free healthcare, free education through college or vocational school (43 percent of high school students attend vocational school, preparing for existing jobs), income despite illness, disability, job loss, or old age.

Finns (and other Nordics) believe everyone deserves a decent standard of living. What if Americans believed this?

We do. Or claim to. We’re all created equal, we say. How then did we form such a confusing, stress-inducing, piecemeal, hit-or-miss mosaic of human-care that favors the rich and forces individuals, including the vulnerable, to find answers on their own, at all ages?

Finnish-American Victoria Stoppiello, occasional Chinook Observer columnist, asks in print, “Why not be more like the Finns?”

Indeed. Why not?

‘Less is more’

Finland’s primary schools are the best in the world, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competition Report, 2016-2017. American schools test “average.” What’s different in Finnish schools? Finnish students play more. In “How Finland’s youngest learners obey the rules — by fooling around in school” (The Hechinger Report, Jan. 8, 2017), Fulbright grantee William Doyle describes standing in a school hall in eastern Finland as fourth-graders burst from a classroom, stocking-footed, laughing, hugging, practicing dance steps, even handstands, while the bearded, professorial director of Finland’s teacher training, Heikki Happonen, smiles and gives students high fives. Happonen views all children as “gifted and cherished individuals,” adding, “Children’s brains work best when they are moving.” Until high school, Finnish students get 15 minutes of outdoor play after 45 minutes indoors, regardless of weather.

Finnish students have “less.” Less homework (thirty minutes, if any). Less pressure (no standardized testing until end of high school). Less change (teachers move up with students for six years, or three). Less labeling (all students, regardless of ability, are taught in the same classroom). After spending time in Finnish classrooms, Fulbright grantee Kelly Day, an American 7th-grade math teacher, sums up Finland’s educational policy as “Less is more.” Americans, Day observes, “believe ‘more’ is the answer to all of our education problems — everything can be solved with more classes, longer days, more homework, more assignments, more pressure, more content, more meetings, more after school tutoring, and of course more testing! All this is doing is creating more burnt out teachers, more stressed out students and more frustration.”

(Only 40 years ago, Finland’s schools were lagging. Concerted plans put child-centered reform in motion, country-wide, and made teaching a highly revered, well-paid profession. It’s not too late for the U. S.!)

Sherry, 11, Anna, 11 and Katie, six, attended Finnish schools for a year. They had kind teachers, friendly classmates. Sherry recalls walking to school (a winding path led from our two-story Espoo apartment house), playing while the Finnish kids had tests, giggling in an igloo. Anna loved the arts and crafts, skiing, skating, studying Finnish while Finnish friends studied English, “sticking out like a sore thumb” with her dark hair. In Finland, school starts at age seven, prime time, Finns say, to begin formal learning. Thus, Katie went to preschool. Beautiful! Cloakroom of glowing birch. Cubbies hugging jackets and small boots (Finns remove shoes at home and school). Homelike classroom, soft lights, warm colors. Couches, pillows, toys, a puppet stage. Katie says her year was a “tactile experience with lots of play,” magnetic wooden trains, red material bunk cots that folded out of white cupboards for naps. She calls her time in Finland “very special.”

Then Katie praises her American teachers. “I have to say that Mr. and Mrs. Huffman at Yale Elementary would give any education system anywhere in the world a run for their statistics and money … The impression they left me is by far one of the most memorable.”

Kathy and John, this is for you! In Mount St. Helens’ valleyland, you taught Sherry, Anna, Katie, and Ben with warm attention! And with music — applause for Kathy, pianist with busy fingers! And athletics — whoop-whoop for Coach John! And art — joy for Julia, resident artist! Special help from Alice, gentle teacher, Becky, able aide. Neighbor visits to Lelooska Lodge, firelight, button blanket dances, myths told by Smitty, Chief Lelooska, carver of clapping masks. Nature studies, stage productions involving every child, Seattle trips, lots of outdoor play.

Katie speaks for generations of Yale Valley kids, calling John and Kathy and Huffman two of the best teachers in the WORLD!


Finland was wonderful. But I was homesick. In the U.S., I’d felt Finnish. In Finland, I felt American. I missed American casualness, the contrasts and clash of ideas, urgent urbanity, open spaces, classic movies, Motown, Charlie Brown…

The Kalevala and Fulbright led to Finland and back, and to links to family history. In Finland, I saw Elias Lönnrott’s Kalevala notes, lyrics gathered from eastern Finland — where Dad was born. In the U. S., Finnish cousin Mari and I bounced in a boat beyond Battery Park, the only passengers, whomp, whomp over waves. When the domed towers appeared, I yelled, “This is BIG!” At Ellis Island, we donned hard hats for a personal tour of reconstruction, balanced on planks on dirt, gaped at the cavernous Great Hall, climbed steps that once tested the wind of immigrants, including my toddler father, stood where inspectors rejected Aunt Celia due to crossed eyes but, faced by an irate Grandma Jutila, who didn’t speak much English, allowed Celia through.

Small bird, tiny vocabulary

If this Finnish-American narrative needs a mascot, it’s the cuckoo. Eric Friberg, Kalevala translator, called the cuckoo the joybird of Finland. In the Kalevala, the cuckoo shows up in nearly every story, the “clear-voiced greeter,” singer of ”joyous rapture,” “crying joy, joy in the morning, joy at midday, joy at sunset!” The third golden cuckoo is more-so. He sings “Joyance!” in every circumstance — for a lifetime.

Rantasalmi, Finland, 1987. We hear a cuckoo! A bell-shout from the woods: ”COOK-coo!” Startling! And emotional. I’d been sad, missing Burt and the others at home. The cuckoo’s call makes me grin.

Bellevue, Washington, 1992: Walking at lakeside, I’m again missing Burt, who’s on a business trip. I wish I could hear a cuckoo. Silly wish! We don’t have cuckoos in the Northwest. Just then — I kid you not — a cuckoo calls from the woods! “COOK-coo!” I gasp, laugh, look around. No one’s there, no one’s playing a joke. Later I call bird experts. Yellow-billed cuckoos once thrived here, but their song is a clicking, not “COOK-coo.” Mystery Bellevue cuckoo!

Back in 1960, in midtown Manhattan, Burt, seminarian, and I, nursery school teacher, sing in a Christmas madrigal chorale, “From out of a wood did a cuckoo fly, ‘Cuckoo!’ He came to a manger with joyful cry, ‘Cuckoo!’” The night of the concert, we COOK-coo indoors, in a parlor draped in burgundy velvet, then outdoors in a Dickensian courtyard — carriage lights, visible breath, snow. We laugh silently, COOK-cooing (men squeaking falsetto), afterwards grieve silently, far from family. We hold hands, COOK-coo to each other, and smile a little.

Many mornings, Burt sings, “COOK-coo!” and makes me smile. Just now he COOK-coos to a grandbaby. I checked, and, yes, they’re both grinning away.



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