wisdom: nothing to teach
I become the expert when I quit trying to be the expert
There is a certain type of English teacher who loves the subject, not because of the power of the written word, but because words can feel like a candy store or a trendy coffee shop where you are part of the in-crowd if you never make the mistake of using “your” instead of “you're” and they give you high-fives and fist-bumps for ridding the world of dangling participles.
There is a certain type of math teacher who loves the subject, not because of the power and practicality of numbers, but because it feels fun to live life by an algorithm and have a binary set of yes or no answers dividing through the messy mystery of life.
There is a certain type of science teacher who loves science, not out of the acquaintance with life and death, but because it is fun to feel like you're in the smart people camp and talk research and data and laugh at those who believe in the lyrical poetry of Genesis (the book and not the once-popular power ballad band of the eighties).
There is a certain type of history teacher who loves the subject, not because of the power of story and the danger of ever-shifting public memory, but because it is fun to dress in Civil War regalia and imagine a nostalgic glory day that never existed and it is convenient to use dead men as talking points on a crusade of indoctrination.
It's novelty, affinity, perhaps even comfort, but it isn't love. The subject is a warm blanket or a cozy pair of slippers or, on the best days, a golden lab that wags her tail and tells you that the world is not as broken as it first appears as long as knowledge remains manageable and measurable and tidy.
At some point, if a teacher is attentive, the paradigm changes. Perhaps the English teacher is in a conversation and finally realizes that words shape reality. The math teacher sees the loaded, often political reality of data-twisters and now math becomes terrifying. The history teacher sees an event effect the "people from below" and grasps intuitively, the sense of connection with the larger human story. The science teacher smells death for the first time - real death, unleashed, outside of a jar, lacking any scent of formaldehyde - and sees the life cycle, not as a diagram, but as a vapor.
It is in these moments that the teacher realizes that the knowledge is not bound to a textbook or a set of standards or a curriculum map. It is a mystery, not in the New Age, “let’s light some incense and play Enya” kind of mystery, but in the jagged, uncomfortable, “adjust your tie since it makes you sweat and tremble” kind of way.
When I first began teaching, I viewed the subject as exactly that – a subject, a slave, something that could be chained down and tamed.
* * *
I introduce our school counselor, who was a few blocks away when the 9-11 terrorist attacks happened. She shares the human side of the story - the fear and anguish, the unity that ensued when people welcomed strangers into their cars. She mentions the white powder that covered everything and warns us that she the real white powder covering everything now is the way we have trivialized the event with action movies.
She never gets sentimental and her delivery is a bit unemotional, but a few of the kids begin to cry when she talks about the classmates she lost. "New York might be a big city. But everyone knew someone who died in the World Trade Center." When she leaves, one girl remarks, "I thought I knew about 9-11, but all I knew was the overall causes of it. I never knew what it was like for a regular New Yorker. I think I'm beginning to understand the even when I admit that I don't understand it."
When I tell Doyle this story, he responds, “I've wondered how the rest of the world sees it--everyone here knows of someone lost or a relative who lost someone. I spent the day on Liberty Island waiting for wounded that never came. I fear we will make a cartoon of it before much longer, just as we now have cartoon versions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Thomas Jefferson, and Christopher Columbus. We're good at rewriting history, even as it happens. And that might be the biggest lesson of all on September 11.”
If my students learned anything that day it is to come to terms with the fact that knowledge begins when they face their own ignorance, by humbly stepping down from the expert role.
* * *
Joel asks if we can do an experiment. His latest favorite phrase is "let's test a hypothesis." It can be anything, really. "Will the remote work without batteries, Micah? My hypothesis is no it won't." or “If daddy tries an olive, will he hate it? My hypothesis is that he won't like it.” So, I ask him what we should test and he explains that we should test what floats, so he goes on a scavenger hunt for items that will and will not float.
“This lemon will not float, daddy, it's too heavy.” When it floats, he looks shocked. "It's heavy and it doesn't have air in it. Most things that float have air in them."
I drop in a paper clip. "How come the paper clip sinks and the lemon floats? The lemon is heavier."
How do you explain buoyancy forces to a four year old? How do you explain the forces of friction? The truth is you don't have to. The power is in the process and not in the lecture.
“I'm not really sure how to explain it.”
“That's okay, daddy, neither do I,” he answers.
He pauses for a second and asks, “Will more things float if it's salty water?”
“I don't know.”
“You're joking me, right?” So we try it with salt water. He then asks about Jello and chocolate syrup and hot lava and each time I have to admit that I don't know. I can't think of the last time I've used that phrase with students.
So, Johnny is enrolled in our local university, sitting in a dorm room when he tells me that he thought he was an expert until he reached college. “I became really good at finding the answers, but I also learned to lose the questions.” I get it. If I want my students to pursue a real education, I don't need high test scores. I need scientists asking why things float or citizens taking the time to draw out the story from a tragic event or a child who admits that they haven't figured out the universe. I need my students to embrace the mystery of what they are learning.