“Always be on the lookout for the presence
of wonder.” ~ E.B. White
Young children don’t raise objections to the improbable.
They haven’t yet been taught realism and the scientific method as the pathway
to knowledge, haven’t yet learned how to be clinical, intellectual, cynical.
In their innocence, they still hear the bell and believe that all things
are possible. Their world is still a miracle: beautiful, magical.
Mark Twain once said, “We have not the reverent feeling
for the rainbow that the savage has, because we know how it is made. We
have lost as much as we have gained by prying into that matter.” Likewise,
children in their raw innocence haven’t yet lost their sense of wonder,
that is, until well-meaning but misguided adults kill it with pedantry,
then drill, drill, drill until the poor children’s natural awe begins to
wane like the moon.
The one year my son Jesse attended school, he was
placed in the Gifted and Talented (GT) program, which just meant he was
deemed more capable of taking on extra work, as opposed to those who could
only handle the basic essentials. His GT teacher called me aside one day
to inform me that Jesse’s IQ test had revealed “genius” status. But I wasn’t
to mention this to him, as his ego would inflate.
During that (one and only) school year, his GT class
researched various scientific subjects to write about. A chosen topic of
my son’s was: What makes a cat purr? It was among the most boring papers
I’ve ever read in my life…something about the vibration of the muscles of
the larynx and diaphragm, the blood flow to the palate, nerves activated
in the voice box....
Contrary to popular belief, the paper stated, cats
do not purr because they’re happy, but because the laryngeal muscles make
the glottis open and close, which cause the vocal chords to vibrate. Jesse
displayed matter-of-factness about the A+ he received on his paper. We never
discussed (as far as I recall) what triggers the cat to purr. But this much
I know for sure: What makes my cats purr in ecstasy is the gentle stroke
of my hand across their fur. Just the sight of me – or any family member
– is enough to make their motors run. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Love
and you shall be loved. All love is mathematically just, as much as two
sides of an algebraic equation.” Of course, cause and effect would be reserved
as a different topic at school, since everything must be so dichotomized
that the forest can’t be seen for the trees.
Society allows children a sense of wonder for only
so long. Before they are force-fed, children are naturally hungry to learn.
There’s no quicker way to kill that sense of wonder in kids than to shove
useless facts down their throats. Facts they no more care about than a shot
in the arm. Facts that may do them more harm than good, as too much boring
data destroys natural wonderment, curiosity, and imagination.
I heard a story about two chemists walking along
the shore, discussing the properties of water: its freezing point, its boiling
point, how solid water is lighter than its liquid form, therefore ice floats…how
just before water freezes at its heaviest it sinks, and that circulates
the ocean water, bringing oxygen down to plants and animals beneath. Then
the two chemists come upon a little girl playing and splashing in the waves.
She sees them pondering the water and says, “Come on in, the water’s fine.”
One of the chemists looks at the child and says, “The water is fine? What
do you know about water?”
Given a choice between learning hard cold facts and
exploring life with the imagination, children would choose the latter any
day of the week. Ask Albert Einstein, who said, “The true sign of intelligence
is not knowledge but imagination. For knowledge is limited to all we now
know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all
there will ever be to know and understand.” Ask yours truly who, as a child,
had an imagination that wouldn’t quit.
Like many children, I was fascinated by the moon.
One night, I said to my big brother, “There’s the man in the moon. See his
face? He’s watching us.” Of course, being older and more educated than I,
he was quick to correct my ignorance. “That’s not the man in the moon, silly.
Those lines are clouds. And the moon is nothing but rocks.” All the while
I’m thinking, oh yeah? We’ll just see about that. So I took me a little
trip to outer space, back when I could still fly.
My only mistake was telling my aunt about it when
I returned to earth. In vivid detail, I explained how I’d flown there and
landscaped the place because it was overgrown with tangled vines, and how
I’d planted a garden of wild roses in every color under the sun. I swore
to her that not every square inch of the moon’s surface was made up of rocks,
but some parts did indeed consist of green cheese, just as real as the speckled
linoleum on her kitchen floor.
My aunt was shocked that any child could fabricate
such a boldface lie, and marched straight to my mother and reported the
incident to preempt any further such tale telling. Mother was deeply disturbed
and promptly applied the rod of correction. They were old school, as depicted
by the headmaster in Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times. “NOW, what
I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone
are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You
can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will
ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up
my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children.
Stick to Facts, sir!” Sadly, most schools (and some parents) still reflect
this headmaster’s model of utilitarian success by force-feeding facts while
banning fancy and wonder.
“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without
any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one
adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery
of the world we live in.” ~ Rachel Carson
Not everyone from my aunt’s generation has outgrown their sense of wonder.
My friend Jane maintains her childlike awe to this day. We met in a writers’
group a few years back, and every time she came to our meetings she brought
her celebration of life with her. It was sort of like show-and-tell when
she’d appear with a new poem about the bossy mockingbirds in her yard nestled
in the woods; or that violet vamp of spring, wisteria; or admonitions like
this: “Believe! Not trusting leprechauns, fairies, or magic is undeniably
tragic.” Thankfully, she has captured her many adventures as a naturalist
in a collection of poems and stories in her book Wilding a Tame Heart.
Jane adores all things with wings, especially hummingbirds that float free
of time. And she still plucks honeysuckle blossoms from the vine and sips
nectar from the stem-straws just like she did as a child.
Full moon nights find her restless, and she’s drawn out of bed and into
the deep woods behind her house. She once persuaded her grandson to accompany
her. “At age five, he was a bit awed by it all: the nocturnal choir, the
shadows, towering silhouettes…but I felt a connection with the luminous
moonlight all melted down by the forest floor. We stood perfectly still
and took in the night sounds around us – awesome! It was a different world!”
In contextual learning, the conversation about the full moon sounds like
Jane: Did you know that I love you from here to the
moon and back?
Stuart: How far is the moon?
Jane: I don’t know right off the bat, but we can find
out together. And did you know that a man named Neil Armstrong once walked
on the moon? I saw him on TV with my own eyes! Some say it was a camera
trick but I don’t think so because I believe we can all fly to the moon
one way or another.
Jane never crammed a lesson down Stuart’s throat. She just sang her song
of wonder about the moon and he joined in, just as she sang her songs of
wonder to her writer friends and we joined in. We didn’t need to know what
makes hummingbirds sing to appreciate their magic, the way they dart every
which way and grace the air like bejeweled fairies shimmering in the sun
and go about serenading the ladies with their musical tail feathers. Spare
us the scientific jargon about how the music is produced…how aeroelastic
flutter is intrinsic to stiff airfoils like feathers and thus explains tonal
sounds common in bird flight. We can research all that if need be. Meanwhile
we’ll remain on the lookout for the presence of wonder, and when it comes
we won’t explain the magic away with too much detail.
Maya Angelou had it right when she said, “A bird doesn’t sing because
it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”
In a former life, Debra Elramey taught in public and private
schools, a school for the deaf, and community college. Her past work in
educational systems taught her what not to do. Now she is an autodidact
and life learning advocate, memoirist, poet, writing coach, contemplative,
and lover of the simple life.