Sylvia Ashton-Warner Linda B. Osborne - Essay

Linda B. Osborne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In I Passed This Way, Sylvia Ashton-Warner writes of her "innate disposition to become other people … their feeling became my feeling contagiously." As an educator she had the ability to listen to her students and to elicit their deepest concerns. Now, in her autobiography, she is both listener and voice, drawing freely on memory and feeling to illuminate her life and work. (p. 32)

The remarkable strength of her inner life shows itself even in the shaping of her autobiography. She concentrates on feelings and personal growth, on family and important friendships rather than external events. Though she writes of the period from 1908 through 1978, there is little mention of both world wars, and only briefly of the Depression as it separates her family. She does not describe the births of her children or the death of her mother. Nor does she discuss most of her students individually, or detail the writing of her famous books Spinster [and Teacher]….

Rather, she builds her self-portrait through a series of images that hold for her a special meaning. It is autobiography as art, selective and visionary, grounded in impressions, memories and dreams as much as fact. This is in keeping with her work in "organic teaching," and her emphasis on the "key vocabulary" of a person or group—listening for, searching out those words that "'touch the true feeling,'" in a child, supplying "the conditions where the native, inborn imagery of our child can surface under its own power to be captioned or named, harnessed, put to work" for reading, learning and growing.

Ashton-Warner is concerned with what is essential to people, what moves their spirits, fuels their imaginations and encourages their potential to be lively human beings. (pp. 34-5)

Linda B. Osborne, "Organic Teacher," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), January 6, 1980, pp. 32, 34-5.