The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It


 We had an excellent curriculum in grammar school and I remember that one of my classrooms had a very large Rand-McNally globe of the world that stood on the floor in its wooden pedestal.

Miss Green, our teacher would ask us to come up and identify the different continents and countries on this globe. (This was back in the days when schools saw the value of teaching geography). This was my introduction to the subject. Stamp collecting was my higher education in it.

One birthday I received the most amazing gift. I eagerly shredded the wrapping paper on the present to reveal its contents. It was a six inch thick beginner’s version of a Scott World Stamp Collection album.

In addition to the album, my parents had purchased two packets of world stamps, each containing 1000 different ones from countries all over the globe and sufficient hinges to affix them in their appropriate places. My present also included a complete set of all the flags of the countries which the book contained to paste into the appropriate space by the country’s name. I was as happy as the proverbial pig in manure.

I rushed through my homework to start on my new project. Sadly, my haste had led to waste – and the homework was not acceptable to my parents – so I had to redo it. They had this annoying habit of reviewing my homework. So instead of getting to my project early, I got to it late and only had a small amount of time to start pasting in the flags. I think I only got up to Chile when it was lights out.

Having learned my lesson the previous day I took care in preparing my homework the next evening. Even so, I only made it through Mozambique when I had to go to bed, though the third evening I pasted the last flag in the book – Zanzibar. And now to the work of actually opening the two packets of stamps and trying to find the appropriate place for them.

What a shock. Some of these stupid countries hadn’t written their names on the stamps in English. How inconsiderate of them. How was I ever to find out where these stamps belonged? Had they done this to punish me for some long-forgotten misdeed that I had committed?

So I first attacked the stamps from considerate countries that had written their names in English. That left me with a mere 1600 stamps to put in my album. I had to figure this all out.

First, I sorted out the stamps that were obviously from countries in the Orient. I knew enough to know to distinguish “characters” from writing – though whether these stamps had been issued by Japan, Korea or China was still a mystery to me. But after a lot of trial and error I started to recognize the difference between Japanese characters and those that were Chinese.

I learned that when a symbolized chrysanthemum appeared on a stamp – that was proof that it belonged in my Japanese section. If Sun-yat-sen was on the stamp – I knew that belonged in my Chinese compartment.

Then I attacked Europe. I learned that Magyar was Hungary and Czecoslovensko was Czechoslovakia. Conveniently, Lichtenstein was Lichtenstein. (My thanks to the Grand Duke of that domain for making my life a little better).

Being the curious third grader that I was, this adventure led me to further research. I wanted to know a little about these countries – things like where on the globe they were located and the names of their capitals.

So I turned to my Encyclopedia Britannica and started to get some information about them – which, of course, interfered with my task of putting all my stamps in their proper place. But that was okay. I found reading about these different places fascinating – and the stamps weren’t going anywhere until I was good and ready to find them homes.

As I got down to my last few hundred stamps, I came across one from a country called Azerbaijan. (I think I was the first – if not the only kid – on my block who had ever heard of it).

The stamp had not been canceled (what philatelists refer to as “mint”) nor did it have perforations (those little holes that are punched in a sheet of stamps that make them easy to tear). This stamp had to have been cut with scissors from the original sheet in which it had been printed.

It had one other feature. There was no gum on it. I wondered how you were supposed to put this on a letter. In order to send your aunt a birthday card did you have to come up with some kind of paste made out of yak’s urine and heaven knows what else to get your greeting in the mail?

I have still to figure out the answer to that question – but I will admit that it doesn’t haunt me so much as when I was in the third grade. I had confidence that the Azerbaijanis had figured out a solution to this conundrum.

Does an understanding of geography really matter?

Well, when my landlords, Lester and Maria (post – “The Power of Fuzzy Thinking”) left Chicago and moved to New Mexico, I called the long distance operator to find out the area code for Santa Fe so that I could welcome them to their new home.

The operator on hearing my request said, “Oh, I’ll have to connect you to another operator since you want to place an international call to New Mexico.” I started to respond that New Mexico was part of the United States but she was too efficient for me and made the transfer before I had the chance to point this out to her.

I would have sent her a stamp album so that she didn’t experience that confusion again in the future – but I didn’t have her home address.


Comments on: "HOW I LEARNED GEOGRAPHY" (4)

  1. This is an entertaining and insightful commentary on the dearth of geographical knowledge of an insular nation.

  2. We still have the same America-centric mind set that emerged as a result of WW II.. Sadly, the rest of the world didn’t stop – and are now starting to pass us by.

  3. Stamps opened my eyes to the world when I was about 8, too, and they haven’t closed to it since. Nearly 40 years later, I still collect them. 🙂

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