Wednesday, April 14, 2010

You Have Five Billion Years to Live. What Are You Going to Do?

During one instance at Guilford, there was a short delay in my tutoring of a student because she was busy writing down “I will not [insert offense here]” some fifty times on a sheet of paper. I asked her whether or not she enjoyed doing the task (though after I had asked it I realized that, duh, no middle schooler would ever like writing down penitential admissions of wrongdoing), and she said, obviously, “No.” The line that got me, however, was, “But I have to.”

When kids at Guilford prepare for National Academic League games, they repeat facts over and over. Each of them has a packet full of information on various school subjects from literature to chemistry (yes, chemistry, in middle school of all places), and the process of memorization comes in the form of intense and rapid fact drills that would make any Jeopardy contestant (maybe even Ken Jennings) bow his or her head in shame. In the event that a student got a question wrong multiple times, he or she was obliged to write down the correct answer over and over again on a page.

In observing this exercise, one can only wonder why knowledge of all academic subjects need be learned in such an orderly, repetitive, and mundane manner. The practice almost seemed a bit ridiculous to me as the idea of writing down facts harkened back to the “old” days when a student had to write “I will not ________” multiple times on a chalkboard (except that now, we’ve ditched the chalk and opted for pencil and paper). It seemed too old and silly a teaching method to be utilized in the 21st century.

The respective books of Bill Bryson and Maira Kalman, however, deal with exactly that part of human existence: the mundane, the boring, the so-used-to-and-common-place-that-I-don’t-even-recognize-it’s-there. Like Bryson, I was the outsider coming into this world of Guilford Elementary Middle School, and having gone to school in a totally different environment, I didn’t know what to expect, but as it was school, which, (I hope) I’m familiar with, I thought I had some sort of idea of how things would be. So when I saw that these kids were practicing the cliché of writing corrective sentences some fifty times in a row, I thought I had aged some fifty years. Did people actually do this? It must have been something similar to how Bryson felt when he talks about beach outings in “A Day at the Seaside” and how his wife says that “No, it will be great” (125) even though they’ll have to “set off at the same time as thirty-seven thousand other people and get in such a traffic jam” and their children will “pass the time in back sticking each other with sharp objects” (126). Personally, that doesn’t sound too great to me, but like Bryson’s wife who felt inclined to have the outing, the girl I was tutoring felt an obligation to complete the monotonous, disciplinary task. The result of both of these observations seems to be a question regarding why we put up with certain “norms,” with what is expected, with what we have come to accept as part of the “everyday.” Bryson manages to make that clear with his humor and sarcasm, and while I didn’t view the situation at Guilford with humor, it did appear ridiculous.

This whole idea of why we do what we do also appears to be what Kalman is addressing in her Principles of Uncertainty. One of the most moving quotes in the book for me was, “The sun will blow up in five billion years. Knowing that, how could anyone want a war. Or plastic surgery. But I am being naïve. And the unknown is so unknowable. And who is to judge? Really” (220-222). Like Bryson, Kalman finds purpose in the little minutiae of life, dedicating pages to an elderly woman with a huge, butterfly-like bow, to tassels in rooms, to hats and sinks and the extinction of dodos. In showing us visually and verbally how there are so many things to observe in the world, she ultimately creates this sense of urgency (which is even more enhanced by the fact that she organizes her book based on time and seasons (also like Bryson)). It is almost as though she is asking, “Is five billion years enough to see everything there is to see?” And if it isn’t, what do we do with that time? Do we allow ourselves to find significance only in a select few and leave the rest to become commonplace, to become the mundane to the point where to consider them as more than that is ridiculous? Or do we strive to experience everything as a significant part of creation and human existence, and is that even possible?

These are the questions that make me wonder why the students at Guilford feel like they have to write such-and-such one hundred times in order to get it into their heads, or to what purpose doing so can help them in the future. Of course, this isn’t to say that this orderly, meticulous, repetitive process is a bad thing. The students do it and they shine at games because the process lets them know their stuff. And no matter how many times they have to re-write a fact in order to get it right, they still have fun, and there are always laughter and energy at every practice and at every game. Perhaps the fact that this learning process, though in my eyes a painful and mindless task, still generates laughter and community within the Guilford National Academic League just goes to show that like Kalman and Bryson, we can find meaning in everything and anything. Humor can help us see that; and if we try to view every part of life as possessing of a purpose, maybe that asserts that we must be possessing of our own too and that that particular purpose may even be to help others discover their purposes (wow, that’s a lot of purposes. Significance abounds!). Nonetheless, Bryson and Kalman show us that every facet of life has meaning and relevance and deserves our attention. After all, we’ve got a seemingly infinite amount of things in life to appreciate and only five billion years to live. The first thing on my list to admire? Repetitive school exercises. They might come in handy on Jeopardy one day.

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