Babel by Bruegel

they ate knowledge too fast

I am supposed to be putting together a teaching module. I am also supposed to be noveling, ironically about a teacher. But over the past few days, these have both been exasperating activities.

Constantly reading depressing statistics for teaching class… that breeds disillusionment after a while. With the profession. With the next (iPhone-obsessed) generation. With the U.S. educational system. In the moment that disillusionment hits, I know that I should remember what my PSYC 440 (Research Measurement and Design–yes, I cried my way through it) professor always said, “The individual is not a statistic.” I also am quick to recall that many of my friends (and I) made it through the system, and we still care about learning. But while we were fortunate enough to have amazing teachers who weren’t focused on high-stakes testing, that experience was and is becoming more rare.

Last night, I set aside both the module and my novel to read with my little sister, Alivia. She picked out one of the books off my shelf, Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Alivia selected “the Happy Family,” which I had never read before. It is about a snail family who lives in a grove of burdock-leaves outside an old manor-house. They thought the rain fell for them, the leaves grew for them, and it was considered a great honor to be taken inside the house, cooked, and laid upon a silver plate. (We supposed that they had never heard about the getting eaten part.) As we read it out loud, it kept reminding me of “By the Waters of Babylon” (too wonderful to summarize).

“Let’s read this other story,” I said impulsively. Then I remembered that Alivia is eleven, and I had a hard time getting it in high school.

But she agreed. So we read it. In some places, I abbreviated so she could enjoy it and finish before bedtime.

I asked her why the priests and John, son of John, could not go in the “Dead Places.”

“Radiation, right?” she said. “It makes me think of 1,000 Paper Cranes. I cried so much when I read that!” (A family trait.)

I looked at her, impressed. “Excellent. What are the ‘god-roads’? Read that sentence there, and tell me what you think.”

She read the part again where John sees the large blocks of stone running along the ground, broken up with time. Some of them once crossed rivers and the “bitter waters” (which Alivia correctly identified as the ocean — “bitter like salt,” she said).

She answered, “Those are roads. Cement roads. The ones that fell in were bridges.”

Seriously. She’s eleven.

“Awesome,” I said, scrolling toward the end of the PDF and pointing. “Here’s one of the last lines. Tell me what you think it means: ‘Perhaps, in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast.'”

Looking up at the ceiling, she thought for a second. “Hmm… Well, their knowledge led them to make bombs, right? …the men started acting as if they were gods. And it ate them up, everything they knew. They used their smarts… not for good things.”

I nodded and waited.

Looking at the Christmas tree as if she was pulling thoughts from the pink lights, she added, “They thought they knew everything. They were too proud.”

This girl, a wild-haired tomboy, runs around outside and plays with Calico Critters when she is not in school. She never cleans her room and showers…mmm…once a week? She occasionally memorizes Bible verses, but the words fly out of her mind if not put to song. And she loves to watch television. Granted, it’s PBS, but the only “scholarly” thing she does–besides school worksheets–is read kids’ books with me.

Kids are smart, my friends. They can reason with you and work hard. As an aspiring teacher of something or other one day, I must admit that high-stakes testing is not my favorite thing in the world. But students can be taught critical thinking in addition to test prep. I refuse to believe that we’re the next Babylon (not this very second at least). Kids know the right kind of hunger, the curious–not power-hungry–kind. Need we make learning a governmental power-trip?

The world can hope in these young ones. For myself, I will keep hoping, no matter how many statistics I read.


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