Seeing past the surface

Blue crab

Blue crab (Callinectes sapidus). Image: Bob Peterson CC BY

One summer long ago, my grandmother took me crabbing at South Creek, a tributary of the Pamlico River. We knelt on the weather-beaten pier, tied a long string of twine to a raw chicken neck, and lowered the bait into the murky green depths. Grandma anchored the loose end of twine to a rusty nail jutting out from a piling.

“Now we wait,” she said. “But keep your hand on the string so you can feel when a crab starts nibbling.”

Being a novice, I was sure I felt a crab nibbling right away. I pulled up the length of twine ever so slowly, only to see the fleshy chicken neck. I released the twine. The bait plummeted out of sight again. Within minutes, I was positive I felt nibbles. Reeling in my string, I found only the bait once more.

Grandma chuckled. “You have to be patient. Give the crabs time.”

“I thought I felt nibbles,” I said in my own defense.

“You feel the bait drifting. You’ll know when it’s a crab.”

I waited, my mind wandering. The day was bright; Grandma’s sunhat cast a ruffled shadow on the gray boards, warm and splintery.

Next thing I knew, there were erratic tugs on my line.

“Easy,” said Grandma, sensing my excitement. “Pull slow and easy or you’ll lose it. Pull so the crab doesn’t realize you’re pulling.”

Bit by bit, I inched the twine up through the water to find not one but two – two! – blue crabs picking at opposite ends of the chicken neck. Holding my breath, I pulled until the crabs were just below the surface of the water. I dared not move as Grandma scooped them up with the dip net.

As the crabs scuttled inside a galvanized tub, I tossed the slightly-gnawed chicken neck back into the water, observing: “It would be a lot easier if we could just see to the bottom. Then we would know when we have a crab.”

“Well, isn’t that the fun of it?” asked Grandma. “Not being able to see what’s there, but pulling until you can?”

Decades later, I sat listening to a group of fourth grade intervention students rereading a script.

“You’ve all come a long way with your fluency, recognizing words automatically without needing to self-correct. I can hear some great expression,” I commended them. “I have one question: What is this scene really about?”

As students tossed out random answers, images of a weather-beaten pier, twine, and raw chicken necks came to mind. “Wait, you guys. You’re all skimming along the surface, just seeing the words. There’s a deeper meaning you’re not seeing; it goes past the words into the ideas behind them.” I told them of my long-ago crabbing days, how I knew the crabs were there, hidden from my view, and how I had to watch, feel, and finally pull them to the surface. “Reading is like that,” I told the kids. “There is more than what you see at first. To infer, you have to take your time, go back, and try to feel what’s not actually said before you can grasp the meaning. Some words give you more clues than others, but a deeper understanding is always there. Sometimes you have to wait, think, and work to pull the meaning out.”

Until that moment, I hadn’t imagined crabbing as a metaphor for reading comprehension, or, for that matter, teaching. The students often come to us with their backgrounds, experiences, struggles, and gifts hidden from us at first. The depths can be murky, indeed; how easy teaching would be if we could automatically see everything that each child needs to be successful. The best way to start is by throwing out the greatest “twine” we have: the love of learning. Keep your hand on the string, Grandma said. You’ll know. Pull easy so you won’t lose them. Be patient. 

To me, the true joy of teaching is first hooking students with a love of learning, then watching myriad treasures rise from those depths, especially when students start pulling on their own.

Reflect: Where can you strive to see past the surface of experiences and relationships to something deeper, of value? What unique exploration can you share with a child?