Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Wile E.

Scene: I'm tucking Alex in bed for the night. We've sung a song, and he's stalling by telling me how he'd like to build a time machine so he can go back and see himself as a baby, or see his sister as a baby, without using pictures.

"Because no one can remember being a baby," he explains. "You can't remember being a baby. But you remember me as a baby! And you remember Penny as a baby!"

"Yep," I agree. "I even, just a little bit, remember your Uncle John as a baby."

Alex pauses in surprise. "How old is Uncle John?"


"And how old are you?"

"I'm forty-two."

"Daddy is forty."

"Yes, that's right."

"That means you are two years older than Daddy!" he crows in delight.

"I sure am. Can you figure out how much older I am than Uncle John?"

The boy is six, mind you -- if he thinks a moment and then gives up, it's not a big deal. I'll help him to the answer and move on. But Alex continually surprises me with the things he can figure out, and as insanely smart as he is, it's good to push him a little bit, especially as he's already bored with school.

He screws up his face in thought. "I'm not sure."

"Well, if we start at thirty-nine, and then--"

"Wait, I think I know."

"What do you think it is?"


"Yes! Very good! How did you figure it out?"

"I started with forty-two, and then went backward to forty-one, and to forty, and to thirty-nine. And I counted all the jumps and there were three!"

"Huh," I say. "Do you know what math problem you just figured out?"


I draw the numbers in the air as I say them (backwards, so they'd look the right way around to him): "42 - 39 = 3."

His eyes get big and round -- as well they might, because this is math at least a grade ahead of what he's learning in kindergarten. "I did?"

"You sure did, buddy. Because there's lots of different ways to figure things out, and you thought about it until you found a way that worked for you."

Alex flops down onto his pillow and squeezes his stuffed animals with delight. "Cool!"

When I took AP Chemistry in high school, the second semester was devoted to lab work. The teacher issued us our school board-mandated books, and then she said, "Now, I want you all to go put those in the bottom of your lockers, and forget them." When we came back, she passed out our real books, which were ancient, grungy, and stained, burnt by acid and fire, and filled with experiments and expected results, tables of reactions, decades-old books that she had hoarded. We just called them "the green books."

She didn't expect us to memorize a damn thing. The tests and exams (there weren't many) were open-book. She led us through the experiments so we could see the reactions with our own eyes, and at the end of the semester, we each were given a coded test tube and two weeks' worth of classroom time to figure out what was in it, using the class store of chemicals and equipment... and our green books. Because that, my teacher stressed, was true learning: not knowing the facts themselves, but knowing where and how to find the facts we needed, and apply them deductively.

It was, arguably, the greatest classroom lesson I ever received. It was a skill I took with me into my professional life, where my greatest skill as a programmer was my ability to pick up any new language within a matter of days, because as soon as I'd found a reference, putting the pieces together to perform a task was simply an exercise. When they moved me to QA and threw me untrained into a CMMI audit, the entire effort became a tedious matter of sifting through paperwork as soon as I'd laid hands on the document that defined the terms.

So much of life is not about what you know, but what you can figure out. And as a parent, I love these times -- I live for these times -- when no matter how bored my kids are with school and education, they can get caught up, if only for a moment, in the thrill of learning.

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