Yesterday was the first Thursday of the month, Labyrinth Walk day for me. And as I walked that familiar path, at least two amazing things happened. First was the phrase that came to mind: “You have not because you do not ask.” And then, several minutes later, all of a sudden, I felt my foot slipping. Did I fall? No … but both the slipping and the not falling were important, and it was important for me to notice the steps I was taking both physically and mentally.
Having and asking are more complicated than I realized when I was young and “on this side of complexity,” in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ memorable phrase. It seemed so simple then … and it seems so simple in a factory mindset, too. If I have something, whether it’s a physical product or a bit of knowledge, I can provide it to you, and if we agree on a price, you can have it, too. That’s why factory-style classrooms specialize in knowledge transmission, providing what the teacher (theoretically) has to the students who (theoretically) have not. As for asking? In a perfect factory-world, it shouldn’t be necessary; the transmission and transaction should be smooth and automatic. “Any questions?” asks Ms. X. “No? Good. Let’s move on.”
But what does it really mean to have anything, in this world where, a century from now, each of us and most of the stuff we “have” will be gone? Having is even more complicated when it comes to knowledge or information, and certainly when it comes to understanding or wisdom. No matter how hard Ms. X or Mr. Y tries, how many PowerPoint slides are shown or “cute little activities” are put into lesson plans, it’s (nearly?) impossible to provide the understanding or the wisdom that you have to someone else … even if that someone really wants you to provide it. “Teach me this,” we say, or “Show me how.” And we quickly discover that a single shot of teaching or showing won’t be enough for us to have what our friend seems to possess. And of course it’s harder when A, B, C, and the others don’t seem to want the understanding Ms. X and Mr. Y are trying to provide … and even harder when all Ms. X and Mr. Y have to provide is some information you can find in less than a second with a Google search. And asking? What does that mean, anyway? What kinds of questions do you ask, and who gets asked, and what if they refuse or are just too busy to answer?
Whether you’re in a factory or a community, having and asking are complicated things. But in a community, there are people you can ask … and in stark contrast with a factory, where things are “supposed to be” perfect the first time, you can struggle and approximate, try and retry, and get real feedback from people you come to know and trust. That’s hard to do on a production line, even the production line of Ms. X or Mr. Y’s classroom with its sacrosanct Pacing Guide and its “perfect,” unchanged lesson plans. But when you’re surrounded by people who care, by people who share your struggles and acknowledge they’ve been there, asking is easier … and over time, with patience and persistence, you suddenly discover that you have the skill or understanding you’ve been seeking. I think of The Boy, who’s been taking swimming lessons this year; week by week, with patient guidance from some excellent teachers, he’s developed into a strong, confident swimmer. And I think of N, N, K, T, and the others in the Advanced Placement group, who discovered to their amazement, with our first-ever “literal translation check” on Thursday, that they can not only read and understand Julius Caesar’s Latin quite well, but represent his words and ideas reasonably well in written English. “Do you think we can achieve something like eighty or ninety percent accuracy with a task like this by May?” I asked. Of course! they said … and they were happy, and so were the others in the advanced group, who were also pleasantly surprised by how well they’d done. And the beginning class was happy, too, when they discovered that asking and answering Latin questions, which seemed so difficult on Monday or Tuesday, was getting easier and more natural. And in the intermediate class, when we presented our first round of Minor Assessment products, everyone was impressed, even joyful, with the successful completion of what had seemed like an impossible task a few days ago.
But what about that slipping foot as I walked yesterday evening? Why did it seem so important that I slipped, but didn’t quite fall? Over the years, I’ve walked that familiar path several dozen times, and I’ve never almost fallen before … and when it started to happen, I wondered if I’d actually fall. I wasn’t alone, of course; there’s a joyful community of regular walkers, and several people would have rushed to my aid if I’d found myself on the ground. But then I didn’t fall … and that seems powerfully symbolic, even though I can’t put the reasons or the symbolism into words just yet. It’s somehow connected with the impossible becoming possible, with the insights and discoveries our joyful learning community has made this week … but how?
I don’t have an answer just yet, and that’s why I need to ask. And if the answer doesn’t come right away, noticing the steps is really important. Sometimes you glide along, and sometimes you slip, and sometimes you actually fall, but if there’s a joyful community around, the slipping and the falling can lead to better results than never slipping at all.
I wonder what amazing discoveries await as we learn, grow, slip, and support each other in the days to come!