Getting in

Keep your eyelids up

And see what you can see.

-Dr. Seuss, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street!

Any writer knows how important it is to be a noticer of things. All things. To catch a sudden spark of inspiration, to fan the flame of an idea until it’s spent.

Around the elementary school where I work, for example, there’s plenty of intriguing things to notice. In this old building a careful observer can find some obsolete oddities.

Such as the dumbwaiter that connects the first floor of the media center to a second-floor loft that, once upon a time, must have been an extension of the library. In my time here the loft has been a computer lab. Until this year. With the arrival of new Chromebooks and iPads in classrooms, the computer lab was disassembled to become the shared space of instructional staff; three colleagues and I are housed there now. The dumbwaiter stands in our space, appropriately silent and still, long out of use. It must have been created as a lift for sending stacks of books or old overhead projectors up and down in decades past. I cannot think of another explanation for its presence. If it were ever opened I’d halfway expect to see Harriet the Spy hiding in there, making her anecdotal notes.

Downstairs in the main lobby, a colorful, student-painted mosaic wraps around the exterior of media center, disguising a flat metal drawer in the wall—an old book depository. As books are now returned at the circulation desk, the handle of the depository was removed years ago so that students wouldn’t keep putting books (or anything else) in there. Every day, throngs of students come and go without ever noticing the plain metal plate embedded in the mosiac artwork that overshadows it and draws the eyes away.

Except for one particular pair of eyes, that is.

One morning, as I stand at the back of the lobby greeting students arriving from buses as usual, I notice that a boy is over at that book depository. I’ve never seen a student acknowledge its existence, so I just watch to see what he’s up to. His back is to me. He’s doing something to the drawer. The lobby has cleared except for a couple of boys who realize something’s going on. They linger to check it out. Next thing I know, the two bystanders are bending over with laughter:

“He opened it! He opened it!”

That’s when I walk over to see. The bystander boys scatter. Sure enough, the first boy has the drawer open. He’s so immersed in his task that he’s unaware of my presence.

“So,” I say, “how’d you do this?”

He starts a bit, automatically hands me two opened, extended paperclips. He’d worked them into the two little holes where the depository handle used to be.

“Where’d you get these?” I query, the mangled paperclips resting in my open palm.

“Upstairs,” he says, somber-faced.

And he shuts the drawer, takes off.

I watch him go, marveling.

He’d planned this.

Who knows when he first noticed the depository and wondered about it, whether it could be opened. When he saw the two holes or when he went to find two paperclips to fashion his own handle. How long it took him to think all this through.

And I wonder about him, whether he pays attention in class or gets in trouble for being off-task, if he’s motivated academically. One thing’s for certain: He’s a critical thinker. This book depository experiment is problem-solving at its finest. The greatest thing a learner can possess, perhaps, is curiosity: What if . . . 

As the tardy bell rings, I walk upstairs, wondering what he expected to see when he opened that drawer, pondering what I saw, just before he relinquished his improvised tools.

He was writing with his finger inside the depository. In the dust of the ages, lying there undisturbed for so long. I caught just a glimpse before he shut it away, and I couldn’t quite make it out, so only he knows exactly what he wrote. I’m pretty sure part of it was a smiling face. This much I know: he accomplished his goal. He got in. He made his mark and there it will remain  for ages and ages hence, or at least as long as the building stands.

One day, perhaps, someone else will come along and notice the depository. And wonder what’s inside. And figure out how to get in, and discover that someone was there before. Likely the boy and I will be long gone by then.

And just now, as I write, I think about books themselves as depositories of thoughts, ideas, and images, places where others have gone before, leaving their marks behind from time immemorial, waiting for us to find them. Indelibly marking us, when we finally get in.

Now as for that old dumbwaiter . . .  don’t even think about it, Harriet, it’s permanently sealed . . . .

To dream, to write, perchance to connect

Connection

“Connection” by Dylan O’Donnell

Henry is sound asleep on the sofa, his head on two throw pillows, snoring like a middle-aged man.

He is my family’s  endearing, shamelessly-babied Lab-Pit mix. Three years old and in his mind, he owns this sofa. It exists solely for him.

We don’t tell him otherwise.

Within moments, Henry’s breathing changes. His smoky gray body shakes; his white paws twitch. He whimpers at a higher pitch than he ever does when he’s awake.

“He’s dreaming,” we humans say to each other.

That whimper. It sounds puppy-like. Afraid. Vulnerable. Nothing like the rumbling from deep within his chest when Henry “talks” to us (translating to “Hello, I want something, so drop what you’re doing, pronto, to do my bidding”).

Which leads me to wonder: What is he dreaming about?

He is a rescue dog, found wandering the streets. He was timid for a long time before attaining his current level of confidence (and world domination).

Is he reliving a scene from his early life? Was he mistreated? Abandoned? Did something frighten him badly when he was a puppy?

Do dogs really dream like humans do?

The answer, according to Live Science, is yes: “Dogs likely dream about waking activities much like humans do.”

I am the one chasing a rabbit here: Captivated by the article,  I keep on reading beyond dogs to rats to flies—yes, says a cognitive scientist, even flies may dream in some form.

Sounds like something straight out of fantasy . . .

You may visit the site to read about the rats and flies yourself, if you like, but here are the article’s big clinchers for me: That sleep “adds something” to the process of learning and remembering, that sleep is “a sort of categorizing of the day’s activities” and a chance for the brain “to explore in a consequence-free environment”:

The idea is that, in sleep, the brain is trying to find shortcuts or connections between  things that you may have experienced but you just hadn’t put them together.

Cognitive scientist Matthew Wilson, “What Do Dogs Dream About?” Live Science

Categorizing of the day’s activities . . . yes, this often happens to me as I fall asleep. Reliving moments, subconsciously archiving them in specific mental folders for future retrieval as needed. A subliminal attempt at order and organization—how I appreciate that. The brain is an indescribable marvel, the ultimate computer. I envision lines arcing this way and that along a grid, an image of our brains actively searching, reaching, connecting and grouping things, while we rest.

My uncle once told me he could sleep on a problem and before he woke, the solution would materialize in his mind. Some mornings, in the transition between sleeping and waking, I can “see” the day’s events before me, and a detail or an approach will offer itself in a way I hadn’t thought of before. This has a name: liminal dreaming. 

But as I am awake, here is where I very consciously, intentionally, connect some psychological dots.

As Henry lay dreaming, prompting me to wonder about his background and the stuff of his dreams, I happened to be reading Ruth Ayres’ new book, Enticing Hard-To-Reach Writers. It is a must-read for educators, whether one teaches writing or not. Ayres has a lot to say, from firsthand experience, about the brains of children who’ve suffered extreme trauma and neglect. She also has a lot to say about the power of writing, of story, to heal and to save . . . I cannot help thinking now of the thirteen Turpin children in the news and the discovery of  their “hundreds of journals” which officials speculate may have helped them survive the unimaginable at the hands of their parents. If this is true, we’ll soon know.

But as for my dog, his dream, a website, the book in my hands . . . they all converge on the work of the brain:

When I write, I realize new ideas. I make connections. I figure out what I need to do next. When I write about what’s happening . . . something significant happens: I begin to see things from a new perspective. This is how learning happens. This is how growth happens. 

-Ruth Ayres, “Writing Always Gives More Than It Takes,” Enticing Hard-To-Reach Writers

To sleep, to dream, to subconsciously categorize, make connections, problem-solve . . .

To wake, to write, to consciously realize ideas, make connections, problem-solve . . .

Revisit the child in the photo at the top of this post. He’s immersed in water, a symbol of life, an expression of contemplation on his little face. He’s absorbing the experience. The world is big. Sometimes alarming. Not always fair. When he lies down to sleep, what dreams may come? Will they haunt or heal? Hold him back, or help him overcome? He is at the mercy of his dreams. As are we all.

But to wake, to write, is to immerse in thought, to gain unexpected perspective, to remain open to questions, to answers, to possibility, to wonder, to hope.  Dreams, in all their mystery, come and go at random; their meanings and value often elude us. When we write—an equally mysterious process—we actually take hold of meaning. We continually unfold it, one layer of thought leading to another, branching off in directions previously unseen. To write is to go both deep and wide, to actively broaden the scope of one’s own world, to expand one’s sphere of interest, to explore what’s within to better relate to what’s without  . . . to connect.

I mark the page in my book and reach over to rub my quivering dog.

“Shh, shh, Henry. It’s okay. I’m here.”

At the touch of my hand he eases. He lifts his head, regards me with bleary eyes. His tail thumps. He readjusts, curling himself into a tighter ball there on his sofa.

He sighs.

The sound of satisfaction, of being connected, of being safe.

Imagine

Central Park

On a Central Park pathway, near the Strawberry Fields memorial to John Lennon.

A group of fifth-graders sits in the hallway, making a poster about the human nervous system. I stop to admire their work:

“Wow, that’s a really vivid brain you have there.” It is, in fact, neatly colored with the brightest neon pink.

“Thanks,” grins one of the girls.

“We forgot the cerebellum, though,” says another.

“Yikes! That creates a problem for your diagram-person, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, with his balance and movement and stuff.”

One of the boys turns away from his work drawing . . . something. “Do you know who Albert Einstein is?”

Struggling to keep my face composed, I reply, “Yes, he’s my favorite scientist.”

“I was thinking how we only use about ten percent of our brains and as smart as Albert Einstein was, just imagine what he would have done if he could’ve used the other ninety percent.”

“Fascinating, isn’t it?” I muse. “For all of us. If we could use our whole brains, we might be something like superheroes.”

The kids nod sagely.

“So, here’s my favorite Einstein quote,” I tell the kids, who pause in their illustrating. Expectation is clearly written on each face. They truly want to know what this brilliant man had to say. “When a parent asked Einstein how to raise a child to be a great scientist, Einstein replied: If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

As their brains process this thought, the young faces look ethereal. Unblinking, gazing somewhere beyond the immediate surroundings, bathed in a light from an unseen source.

Especially the boy who mentioned Einstein.

“Whoaaaaa,” he finally says.

“Think on that a while. Later you can tell me what you believe it means.” With that, I leave the children to their work.

Imagine.

As I walk down the hallway,  my own brain is ajumble: Cerebellum. Balance. Einstein. Intelligence. Fairy tales . . . fiction. A conversation with an esteemed colleague at a recent meeting returns to mind.

I am glad to see greater focus on nonfiction writing, she’d said. After all, these children won’t be writing fiction in college.

It took my breath away.

Perhaps none of the kids we teach will grow up to get MFAs in creative writing— in other words, possibly earning a degree in composing fiction.

But some might. And are there really no more creative writing electives in college these days?

I understand the rationale behind the words, that in college students will primarily be writing research papers and essays. It’s important to put the foundation in place now, at the elementary level, for their future success.

But are all students going to college? Aren’t the standards college and career ready? In a day and age when innovation and creativity in the workplace are highly valued, think about the impact of understanding plot, subplots, character motivation, personality traits, overcoming obstacles to reach goals, ingenuity—all of which can be developed by reading fiction, surely, but writing fiction takes complex problem-solving and creativity to incomparable heights. So many seemingly random pieces must connect pretty perfectly to make a finished, meaningful, compelling whole—much like the beautiful leaf-and-gumball mandala I discovered on a pathway while walking through Central Park.

And what about sheer enjoyment? And poetry, and songs, and plays?

Or being LIFE ready?

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

Imagine what we could accomplish if we all wrote them. Make-believe stories, making mandalas with words. Maybe we’d tap into some of that unused part of our brains.

Because, heaven knows, we need balance to move forward effectively.

Take the pencil, find the neon pink.

If the cerebellum is missing, draw it in.

The brain and story

 

Ghosts in hall

Ghosts in the hall. Rachel TitirigaCC BY

My mother-in-law had a stroke one week ago today.

At ninety-one, she came through emergency surgery astoundingly well. In ICU, she was happy to see her children and grandchildren, called them all by name, told everyone how shocked she was that she’d had a stroke. As I greeted her, she held out her hand to me and said, “Hey, you’ve got a birthday this weekend.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, in wonder.

“I haven’t forgotten,” she said, holding tight to my hand.

In the hospital and rehab, she has remained lucid, talking about books, authors, politics, and traveling she wants to do.

So when she occasionally asks, “Hey, little boy, what are you doing over there?” when no little boy is present, or “Who’s that standing behind you?” when no one is, the family gets anxious.

The physician explained: “It’s her brain at work – partly because of the area affected by the stroke and partly due to her declining vision. When she doesn’t immediately understand what she sees or what’s happening, her brain supplies the story, to make sense of it.”

I hung on every word, thinking: The power of story is profound. It’s more than reading or writing. It’s who we are, how we are wired. 

Both Scientific American and Big Think explain: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” Our ability to solve problems, the scientists say, is tied to our understanding of story: “Perhaps story patterns can be considered another higher layer of language.”

Fascinating, isn’t it, that story is where science and the humanities meet.

Story is the essence of being human. It’s how we make sense of the world and our place in it. Story is how we attempt to understand who we are, and how we stretch the boundaries of possibility and our humanity, by imagining more: “What if . . . .”

As an educator, the visit with my mother-in-law could not have been a more striking reminder that story is critical to student learning and growth. It’s not so much the types of texts that students read, but their interpretations, their stories, about the texts that matter – and that for students truly to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers, they must go beyond synthesizing and responding to what others have written. They must look within and generate their own stories. To not do so is to hamper human nature, to not meet an intrinsically human need – and to starve the human brain.

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