Ruby Lou and Me: Childhood in 1950

By Peter Gray Ph.D. / Freedom to Learn

Ruby Lou and I were children when children were free. We reunited recently.

I opened Chapter 1 of my book Free to Learn with the following paragraph:

I’ve learned from hundreds of great teachers over the course of my life, but if I had to pick the single greatest it would be Ruby Lou. I met her the summer I was five and she was six. My family had just moved to a new town and, at my mother’s suggestion, I had gone door to door, by myself, up and down both sides of the street, knocking and enquiring, “Do any children about my age live here?” That’s how I found her, right across the street. Within a few minutes we were best friends, and we remained so for the two years that I lived in that town. Ruby Lou was older, smarter, and bolder than I, but not too much so, and that’s why she was such a great teacher for me.

I then continued on, for a couple of paragraphs, to describe some of what I learned from Ruby Lou–how she taught me to ride her bicycle before I had one (she told me to start at the top of the little hill on the street between our houses, so as to pick enough speed to keep upright as I learned to pedal), how she inspired me to climb higher in the evergreen tree in my yard, how I learned from her my first serious lesson about death and its impact, and how we took adventures together on our bikes after my parents bought me one. My point was to show what a normal childhood was like back around 1950; or, really, what a normal childhood was like throughout human history until the last three decades or so. Children, even five- and six-year-olds, were allowed to play outdoors freely with one another, and go on adventures, without adults present; and in that way children acquired confidence and learned skills that cannot be taught by adults and are hard to learn when adults are around.

A few weeks ago, I met Ruby Lou for the first time in 68 years! Here’s how it happened. Dick Gallien, who lives in southern Minnesota and has been a regular, inspiring contributor to the Comments sections on my Psychology Today blog, decided, after reading Free to Learn, to make a project of finding Ruby Lou. He learned from me that the little town we had lived in was Trimont, Minnesota.  (Actually, when we lived there, it was Monterey, Minnesota.  Later on it joined with the neighboring town of Triumph to become Trimont). So, he went to Trimont and asked around. I had no idea what Ruby Lou’s last name was when I knew her, let alone what it might be now. So, all he had to go on was her unusual first name and that she would have been about 6 years old in 1950. Amazingly, he found someone who knew someone who might know her, and, indeed, that person did know her. That’s how the contact was made. She is now Ruby Lou Wolens (though she usually drops the Lou now), living in a suburb of Minneapolis.

Once contact was made, Ruby Lou and I shared memories by phone and email. I was relieved and delighted to find that she remembered things pretty much as I did. The one thing that differed is that she did not recall a hill on the street between our houses, where I remembered her teaching me to ride her bike by starting at the top. She said, “That whole town was flat as a pancake.” I immediately went to Google Earth and located our old houses and the street between them, and it looked to me like there was at least a slight slope on the street.  So, she drove to Trimont to check it out and, to my great relief, replied: Yes, there is a small slope there!  My memory distortion may have augmented the grade of the slope, but didn’t invent it.

Finally, this August, we met and went together, along with her husband Richard, back to Trimont to reminisce. I had been invited to give a talk at a conference of educators in southern Minnesota and eagerly accepted, partly so I would have this chance to visit Ruby Lou and Trimont. What fun! The town has barely changed. Our houses and yards are pretty much as I remembered them, except the big evergreen tree we climbed had been cut down. The slope on the road is definitely shallower than I remembered it to be, but steep enough to increase at least somewhat the momentum of a bicycle going down it.

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