There’s a paradox built into education: the more we know the easier it is to forget that we don’t know. The more we try something and see that it works, the more committed we become to the thing that worked.
Humans are not fundamentally doomed to arrogance, though. Children show how easily our brains can sponge up data, get notions, make guesses, imagine hypotheses, experiment with new ideas and new behaviors and create something new—something that never before existed on this planet. Children will ask questions, too.
Five-year-olds are generally okay with being ignorant, and therefore are still pretty open minded by the time they walk in the door of kindergarten for the first time. But school can be a place where you really don’t want to be thought stupid, so by eighth grade most of us have designed a pretty good mask to cover our ignorance and our insecurities. One thing all children have in common is the need to avoid embarrassment, and by eighth grade most of us have a pretty good heat shield.
So much of what goes on in school is infinitely forgettable, but I will never forget Mr. Z. We were sitting in the classic straight rows of our eighth grade English class talking with each other in our iconic thirteen-year-old way as we waited for class to start. We were engaged in real life—developing the complex skills of harmonizing our selves with other selves, and secretly developing a new self in the process. Nothing was interfering with this important business since Mr. Z had yet to arrive, and the big hand was not yet on the “6.” We were all in our places—except for Mr. Z.
Then a funny thing happened. Through the open door came a grapefruit. It rolled right in front of the first row of seats and bumped into the wall under the first window by the blackboard, and I watched as if I were watching a squirrel run across the back yard.
“What was that?” said Peggy sitting in the front row.
“Did you see that?” she asked turning around to Malika sitting behind her.
“What?” said Malika.
“What?” said Jerry, who was talking with Carol behind him.
“It’s a grapefruit,” said Peggy. “Here comes another one.”
You can imagine the excited chatter, then the silence, then the commotion as another grapefruit came through the door and ended up under the window. Then another.
Then, with the timing of a brilliant actor, Mr. Z followed his last grapefruit through the door, stage right.
In the mild pandemonium Mr. Z just stood there with a deadpan face. His blank silence brought the class to order more effectively than words. When we were all silent, he said, “Get out your notebooks and write.”
“What do you want us to write about?” said Mark from the back.
“No talking. No questions. No discussion. Just write.”
After fifteen minutes, he stopped us. “You can keep writing, if you want, but is there anyone who would like to read what they just wrote.”
I forget what we talked about, but I do remember many different, entertaining voices. I didn’t volunteer to read. I had started a story that took place in Spain during the Inquisition—we must have been reading Edgar Allen Poe. I worked on it again after I got home and had to be called three times for dinner. I stayed up till midnight finishing it in secret.
We loved Mr. Z. We said we loved him because he was funny and crazy, but we also knew that he was deadly serious about us as individuals and about our learning. Clearly, he would stop at nothing to make us learn. I believe that somewhere in the recesses of our brains, we knew that the reason we loved him was that we knew he knew what eighth graders can’t admit: that for all we know, we don’t know nothin’. The dirty secret of our ignorance was safe with him.
In order to get us to use our imagination and create something new, something that never existed before, Mr. Z had to help us get round the heat shield and engage our genius.
The main job of an educator is to get us to be new, to update our mindsets regularly. This job, however, has another built-in paradox. Mr. Z couldn’t change our brains if we sensed he was trying to change them. Mr. Z was brilliant at sneaking things by us.