At this time last year, at our final assembly of the school year, I shared with the community what I had learned about learning from Oliver, my then-1-year-old son, and implored our students to embrace learning with Ollie's curiosity and with their own engagement in discovering the answers to their questions. As we approach summer -- and its boundless opportunities for learning -- it seems apt to reflect on those words again.
Walking from the driveway to my front door takes about 20 seconds. Walking from the driveway to my front door with my one-year-old son Oliver takes about 20 minutes. Not because he isn’t fleet of foot, but simply because he stops to investigate everything. And I mean everything! You would never think a gap between two paving stones, a twig sticking out of the ground, or a hole in a stone wall could be so fascinating, but to him, it is. He pokes his pudgy little fingers into cracks and gaps, not even sure what he’s looking for, but curious about what could be there. And he doesn’t resist the urge to discover.
I, on the other hand, go into neurotic mum mode: wasps, yellow jackets, snakes, spiders, scorpions ... do they even have scorpions in New England? I watch him closely as a struggle rages inside: Should I give him space to explore and learn for himself, or grab his precious little paws to protect him from vicious sting and bites?
He’s learning by exploring his world, one handful at a time, and I learn about my world by googling “poisonous critters in New England” and buying every book on Amazon about things that bite and sting. In our new house with so much space to play in and explore, I’ve had to learn -- no, scratch that, I’ve wanted to learn as much as I possibly could about the natural world around us.
I grew up in South Africa, and I knew birds, bees, snakes and all sorts of animals that bite and stomp and eat you. But now I’m introducing my kids to a world I don’t know as well. So I’ve read and read and studied about the surrounding plants, trees and biting, popping or squashing things. I’ve studied geology and fault lines and the fascinating history of this area. So now I worry a little less about Ollie digging around in dark spaces I can’t see because I have a better sense of what’s there. On the other hand, what I’ve learned makes me worry a little more about his explorations! But at least now I can advise him.
You are perhaps wondering what on earth a neurotic mother and a chubby baby have to do with you, as you sit in your seats awaiting graduation, or final exams, or summer’s welcome retreat. It is because you are serious scholars that I’m sharing this little story, because it helps me illustrate the message I want to share with you today: Learning is about being childlike and adultlike at the same time, no matter how old you are.
This summer, I urge you to embrace your curiosity and take risks to explore what you don’t know. This glorious season -- what many of us consider your third semester of learning and growth -- is a perfect time to do so. In a childlike manner, look twice at those things you might otherwise rush past. When you travel, pause and smell the different scents, taste a new food, listen to the melody of languages and voices, ask meaningful questions of those you meet. Take time to just be present in the moment.
Find answers to the questions that your curiosity inspires. Read books, visit blogs, look up new words, study a country or a town before you visit it. Your appreciation of an experience deepens when you combine your curiosity with your capacity for gathering knowledge.
When Oliver is able to pry a little piece of stone loose from the wall, he holds it up to me with pride, joy and accomplishment, babbling with delight in a language only he understands. The sheer joy in his smile is infectious, and I know that moment is powerful for him. And, despite my rush to get into the house, drop my bags, and get started on chores, it's powerful for me, too, as I stop to appreciate the complexity of color in the rock face, the lichen growing determinedly on the hard surface, the plants pushing their way through mulch.
So this summer, be a bit like Ollie: Stop to study the gaps in your stonewalls, the dark spots hiding unknown critters or adventures. But be a student, too: Learn about what you uncover and discover, so that on your next journey you will know where to dig deeper -- and what to avoid. Be child-like in your curiosity, adult-like in your discovery, and take the time to have fun with the cracks in your sidewalk.