Friday, May 22, 2020

"What is She Thinking?"

We have a gas fireplace in our apartment that ignites with the flick of a switch. We thought we would use it a lot when we first moved here over a decade ago, but it really wasn't until this winter that I got in the habit of cozy-fying the place each morning with a blaze as I post here on the blog. I've got one going right now.

During the colder months, it may have made sense, but with spring in full swing here in the Pacific Northwest, it's a bit silly and wasteful, but I'm no longer doing it for me. I turn it on for our dog Stella. She has made a habit of taking her place directly in front of it every morning, often for as long as half an hour, just gazing into the dancing flames, as if in a kind of primal trance. Our daughter and her friends ask one another, "What is she thinking?"

I've joked that she's finally found a screen that holds some interest for her because the screens we people gaze into make no sense at all. Every now and then she'll adjust her feet, turn her head slowly to one side or the other, or lower her eye lids so she is seeing the fire through mere slits. Yesterday, she at one point tapped the mantel with her left forepaw, then looked to the left. She then tapped it with her right forepaw before looking to the right. It was the only significant movement she otherwise made for a good twenty minutes. Was she tapping a "keyboard?" I'm serious, maybe she was changing the channel or something. Most days, after sitting so close for so long that the heat must hurt, she backs away a step, then lies so as to warm her belly, her eyes never once breaking contact with the flames.

"What is she thinking?" It's a question teachers ask themselves all day long. When it comes to Stella, I know it's a question to which I'll never have the answer. I can muse, speculate, guess, and assert, but the answer is always, "I don't know," and we have to accept that when it comes to dogs. It should be the same when we wonder about the thinking of children. What is that child thinking? I don't know. The sad part is that far too many of us prod and pry after an answer nevertheless. That's what testing is all about, of course, crude attempts at discovering what another person is thinking. We ask them questions like "What color is that?" or "How many do I have in my hand?", questions to which we already know the answers. We write learning assessments which are, at best, creative writing exercises. The answer is "I don't know," but we take a thousand words to say it. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Thinking about thinking stands at the core of our profession, but let's not pretend the answer isn't, at bottom, "I don't know."

Sometimes we ask children what they are thinking and sometimes they answer us, but even then we don't know. We only know their answer to our question. No matter what they say, there is more thinking in there than can be said with words. Or maybe not. Maybe their minds are as empty as a dog's meditating before a fire and we've intruded upon their sacred not thinking to insist upon an answer that is, even for the thinker herself in most cases, "I don't know." In fact, young children will quite often answer "I don't know" when confronted with questions about what they are thinking. That might be because there are two kinds of thinking: thinking for public consumption, which is what we try to communicate with our words, and then there is pure thinking, which goes beyond words, existing only for the flames into which we stare. The vital thing, however, is not the answer, but the thinking, because thinking is learning.

What is she thinking? It's a question of utmost importance. Seeking the answer requires us to observe closely, to think deeply, to draw upon all of our experience. It is one of the highest uses of our intellectual energy. The root of the word question is quest, and it is indeed a quest, a journey, even if the destination is always "I don't know." It's a struggle for some of us to live with that answer, but the beauty of it is that when we know our destination is predestined, we can be fully present for the journey, which is what young children need from us, their travel companions, as they engage their world and think about it.


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