We began our homeschooling journey in Illinois in the fall of 1990. One of our main PE activities that year was playing marbles. Our children practiced marbles, they demonstrated marbles around town, and in the spring they geared up for marbles competition.
Marbles? Really? It all started like this. The previous spring, our son John had brought a flyer home from school. It announced that the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette was sponsoring a local marble tournament. First prize was a trip for two to the National Marbles Tournament in New Jersey. The newspaper would give that prize to the top boy marbles player and the top girl. The editor of the newspaper had been a marbles champion himself in his youth and wanted to revive interest in the game.
The flyer also encouraged children to come to workshops to learn how to play marbles. John was interested, so we began taking him to the workshops. On the day of the tournament, Ray took John, age 11, to the tournament. Bethany, age 8, and I had an all-day activity that Saturday, so our younger daughter, Mary Evelyn, age 6, tagged along with her dad and big brother.
When Bethany and I got home late that afternoon, we headed up the steps and found a sign posted on the back door: “Home to both marbles champions! On to New Jersey!”
Ray and John quickly explained what had happened. About 14 boys had shown up for the boys’ tournament, and John had come out on top. Only one little girl had come to compete in the girls’ tournament. A tournament organizer had coaxed Mary Evelyn to give it a try. Neither girl knew much about playing marbles. After a long game, the score remained tied. Finally, the official decided to have the girls “lag” to break their tie. In a lag, players roll their marble toward a line. Whoever gets closest without going over the line is the winner. Mary Evelyn won the lag — and a trip for two to the tournament.
When time for the tournament came a few weeks later, we paid for Bethany’s airline ticket and all five of us flew to New Jersey. When we got to the tournament, held on the beach beside the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey, we all felt like country mice visiting the city mouse for the first time. Other teams had lots of experience; some even had coaches. Here we were, our little family of five with only a few weeks’ experience with marbles!
The tournament organizers treated the players wonderfully with free sports bottles, bags, and tickets to boardwalk activities. Our children were out of their league in the competition, but the newspaper had us send reports back to the hometown paper. We called in our daily sports reports on old-fashioned pay telephones so the newspaper could publish them. We were thrilled when John received the tournament sportsmanship award and when the Associated Press picked up a photo of Mary Evelyn, the youngest participant in the tournament. A friend’s parents saw her picture in a newspaper in Pennsylvania!
When the tournament was over, we returned to Urbana. Over the summer, we made the decision to leave the public school and begin homeschooling. We began helping the newspaper to encourage children to play marbles. Our children gave marbles demonstrations at local events. Our daughter Bethany started practicing, too.
When time came for the next local tournament, John, Bethany, and Mary Evelyn all competed. That year John won the boys’ tournament, and Bethany won the girls’. However, the newspaper’s efforts to increase interest in marbles had not been successful. Participation in the local tournament was even less than the first year.
Other teams in New Jersey had more than one competitor in the national tournament, so the organizers allowed Mary Evelyn to compete as well. We asked the newspaper if they would give us mileage money instead of airline tickets for the 1991 national tournament in New Jersey. They agreed. After the tournament, where the children all did well, we made our first trip to Maine and to the rest of New England. The mileage money, combined with careful penny pinching, made that trip possible.
We saw the rocky Maine coast for the first time and drove up to Kennebunkport. An American flag flew over the Bush’s vacation home, indicating that then-President George H.W. Bush was there that day.
The newspaper had tried for two years to get children playing marbles. They decided not to sponsor the tournament after that. We laughed and told our friends that they were tired of sending the Notgrasses to New Jersey. Actually, we appreciated God giving our family with our limited income two surprise vacations. The story of our brief entrance into national marbles competition became one of the many outlandish stories about how we took our children to each of the lower forty-eight states.
Years later, after we had moved home to Tennessee, time came for our daughter Bethany to graduate from homeschool. We headed northeast for her senior trip. In her choices of where to go, Bethany included places we had gone when she was a girl, including a visit to the marbles rings on the beach in Wildwood.
This time, instead of a quick foray into Maine, we drove all the way through it and into Canada. One morning we drove to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park to watch the sunrise. On a near-dusk drive through a vast Maine woods, a moose stood by the side of the road. For us Tennesseans, finding a real moose was a dream come true.
Every good thing given
and every perfect gift is from above,
coming down from the Father of lights,
with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.