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An Odd Apprenticeship: A Belated Mother's Day Reflection

Joy and Matthew Steem

For many trades, the practice of apprenticing has been an established method of imparting instruction from expert to apprentice. The learned takes the initiate under her or his wing, and over a period of time, something is imparted to the apprentice. Whether this is knowledge about gardening, mechanics, pottery or something else, the apprenticing system has proven successful when a skill has been imparted.

But what about apprenticing for personality traits and characteristics? Like, say, gentleness, softness or compassion? Well, I argue that this type of apprenticeship can take place, providing both parties are willing.

In my case, I was apprenticed by a Fern. Now anybody who knows flowers and plants understands that a fern can be a rather delicate plant. They don’t like bright lights, they need the right amount of water, and they don’t appreciate windy locations – ever seen a fern hanging out in the middle of a field? You have to travel a little way into a cozy forest to find them.

My teacher, the Fern, happened to be easier to find. She was (is) my mum.

Historically speaking, child and parent can make for the perfect arrangement for apprenticeship: on the parent/teacher part there isor should be—love and a desire to see the apprentice succeed. On the child’s part, there is—or should be—a natural inclination to respect and follow the teacher/parent. Whatever skill the parent has, she will impart it to the impressionable child. Day in, and day out the child learns, by repetition, what to do and how to act. After many years, the apprenticeship is considered complete when s/he has mastered the same skills as the teacher.

My first five years of apprenticeship under the Fern took place close to the Yukon border in the middle of nowhere: three hours from the nearest town—where there was one set of stop lights —and in a location where there were still no power or phone lines. This part of the Alaska Highway was very undeveloped. The only people crazy enough to live there were trappers and hunters and odd religious types. Needless to say, it was not my mother who wanted to move there. (And at the time, my father didn’t know that the area appealed to the aforementioned kinds of individuals.)

Lesson one: kindness and gentleness is always in order.
If you have lived on the farm or raised livestock of any type, you will know that animals, like politicians, can be inveterately stubborn, stupid, and sometimes mean. This despite how nicely they are taken care of. While living in the sticks we had a number of animals. You think roosters are cute? Not Leghorns with an attitude! They don’t care about the delicate skin of a three-year old’s shin.

They want to maim it. My mother and her broom were the only thing between me and a serious bit of gouging. Also, there is a reason for the scriptural reference that goats go to hell and sheep don’t; while sheep are stupid, goats are conniving little creeps. My poor mother had her garden and flowers regularly raided by sneaky goats.

Now it’s easy to be gentle to a fluffy baby gosling that waddles around after you while you are weeding the garden—or trying—beside your teacher: anybody can do that. But after the greedy goat has fallen prey to getting tangled in a barbed fence (to protect the garden, so that the family can eat during the winter) and you see your teacher with the utmost of care and sweet murmurings extricate said goat, you take notice that something unnatural is happening. Especially when the teacher takes great pains not to let her husband BEAT said goat, but instead defends its wicked goatish behavior as, merely “natural.” From my teacher I learned the value of tenderness, especially when it is unmerited.

Lesson two: just because something is of no use to you doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to be treated well and helped if it is in need.
My teacher at the time was horribly—deathly, really—allergic to bees. And considering that the nearest tiny half hospital was three hours away, she had reason to be cautious. However, if there was any bee that found itself trapped or lost, my teacher took the greatest of care to save that little insect. Carefully trapping it to set it free outside or providing sugar water to revive it. Once, my teacher found me while I was in the process of destroying an underground wild bumble bee nest. After seeing her cry I was instantly changed.  I think that it’s possible that if we intentionally observe a good person in his or her goodness, we can be transformed. My teacher also would never leave an animal, tame or otherwise, in a position of hurt, wherever it might be found. As a child and later on into life we had cats, a wild duck, birds, and other critters that were rescued and then temporarily homed. And while wild things do carry disease, it was far more important that they be helped. It may sound funny, but even plants were to be treated softly. “Would you want someone pulling your leaves or petals off you”? I hadn’t thought of that. But through a guiding teacher, I soon did. Garden pansies as well as wild buds were alive, and thus were owed respect.

Lesson three: a soft answer breaketh the bones.
My teacher was given to softness in almost everything, not just in action but in letting it spread to a compassion which is actively searching where it might be needed. Likewise, words were things that had to be employed with care. And not just the word, but tone too had to be considered. Now some would argue that people just have to grow a thicker skin. My teacher would ask with all seriousness, “why”? isn’t it in everyone’s power to just be proactive at being gentle?

Lesson four: be on the lookout for how to be merciful.
After being bullied, my teacher would ask, “I wonder how bad his home life has been”? I wanted justice, but she was willing to look a bit further. If I cried, “that animal bit me!” “well,” she would gently say, “it was probably trying to defend itself. It didn’t know what your motives were.” A bee once crawled in my bed—my bed, mind you—and I woke up with a great throbbing. I went to my teacher—whom didn’t mind being awoken—wanting some pain relief and also looking forward to some justice. After having found the bee in the sheets, my teacher pointed to how the stinger was pulled out and it would now die.

“Good,” I said.

This was reasonable justice.

Then she asked, “but don’t you think you might feel sorry for the bee who first got separated away from her home, then got lost in a house, then trapped in your sheets, and then pummelled about by giant legs”? New information dawned on the apprentice’s mind: a different perspective really can make a world of difference.


Generally, an apprenticeship takes less than five years. To be adept at gentleness, and the like, however, takes a lifetime of practice. And I still find myself learning lessons from the Fern. After all, apprenticeship for character never really does end, does it?