She was the first person who caught my attention when I walked into the store. She was pushing one of those tiny shopping carts made for little kids. I watched as she bent down to place a bottle of olive oil in the cart. I thought how strange and cute that a grown woman was using a tiny shopping cart to do her grocery shopping. I wondered if she was shopping within a tight budget and using the tiny cart as a way to constrain how many items she purchased. I secretly admired her look: knee socks and granny boots and a modest but edgy skirt and the kind of orange curly hair one of my cousins has that I’ve always been envious of. Then it occurred to me that the woman was probably the mother of a tiny person, thus the tiny cart.
Only later in my grocery shopping did I receive confirmation that the woman was in fact the mother of a tiny person. I was in the produce section looking for shallots when I first heard and then saw a miniature male version of the woman. How could I miss him? He was stumbling and ricocheting down the aisle, past the citrus and avocados on the right and nuts and dried fruit on the left. He held a small container of yogurt in one hand and a plastic spoon in the other – his snack for the car ride home? – and he was engaged in an animated, loud monologue as he followed his mother, who was quite a ways in the distance but definitely keeping an eye on him (and still pushing the little cart.). I think I got the gist of his commentary though I didn’t understand a word he said. He was new to walking and seeing the world from the vantage point that walking allows so he had a lot to observe and report on. And he was new to language, he was in that awesomely odd phase during which little humans sputter, babble and utter their way through the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of this strange planet they’ve landed on.
My attention was arrested by him. I couldn’t stop watching him. So as to not freak out his mother with my intense fascination with her child, I walked closer to where she stood observing him and waiting for him to remember she existed. I caught her eye, smiled and raised my eye brows. She smiled and raised her eye brows back at me.
As I understand it, at most we spend a couple of hours a night dreaming. But if I didn’t know better I would say I was dreaming almost the entire night last night. I don’t know if I had one big dream or a series of interconnected dream-episodes. Over and over again, I was offering reassurance or encouragement to persons who from within the dream I recognized to be my students. Inside the dream I wondered why so many students were struggling, not with the subject matters they were engaged in learning, but with confidence about their capacities as learners, about whether being a student was a righteous pursuit, and whether they were up to the challenge. So I gave pep talk after pep talk to a parade of discouraged and overwhelmed students.
I felt perplexed inside the dream because I knew with complete certitude that each and every student who came before me was amazing and capable in their own singular way. So that’s what I told each student who appeared before me: that they were special, and wonderful, and were doing great even if they didn’t feel as though they were. And I also told each and every one of them that they were engaged in a major error in thinking because if they were measuring their learning and development – as well as their fundamental quality as a person — against how confident they felt at any given time or holding on to some expectation about the smoothness and ease of their learning journey, I could guarantee they’d find themselves in a constant state of disappointment.
My dream-self’s punch-line to my dream-students was that the deeper they went into the process of learning and transformation, the less security and certainty they’d discover.
The alarm woke me right as I was about to launch into yet another round of telling what’s what.
I suspect I had this particular dream because I spent most of the past three days reading (and giving a lot of feedback on) student papers. I had a total of 45 students in my winter term courses, so that means at least 45 papers. I love reading students’ papers and offering comments and feedback. It is never a chore or a burden. It is a pleasure and an honor! Each integrative essay, each inquiry prospectus or synthesis and action plan I read is an occasion for engaging with and getting to know even better the particular student who wrote it. Sure, I discover a lot about what a student has (and sometimes hasn’t) come to understand about the “content” we explored in a particular course. I discover what kind of thinker and writer they are and the areas in which they might improve, if they desire to do so. But my most exciting discovery is of the whole complex self each student brings to their learning – their own particular bundle of worries and aspirations, hopes and anxieties. I find out about their lived experiences, the internal and external challenges they are facing; sometimes I find out just a bit, sometimes I find out a ton.
One of the very best things I get to do as a teacher is to reflect back to my students how they look from where I stand: resilient; quirky (in a good way!); creative; keen; skillful; compassionate; fascinating; committed; full of great ideas and unlimited potential to bring beauty and goodness to a confused and hurting world.
William James, one of my intellectual ancestors, is the guy who said the thing about a small human being’s world being characterized by “blooming, buzzing confusion.” I remember the first time I heard this phrase, when I was a student in an undergraduate child development course, because I had a major and immediate somatic reaction upon hearing it: my face flushed and my heart pounded. My body has always been really great at letting me know things and what my body let me know then was that there was something about James’ phrase that captured how I felt at that time in my own development.
I had just barely exited adolescence and embarked upon young adulthood and I felt completely disoriented and ill-equipped, both dull and hysterical. My confusion triggered not insignificant anxiety. I wanted to be saved from life’s blooming and buzzing. I needed comfort. I had the constant urge to nap. I took many aimless walks. If I had had access to a tub, I probably would have floated in the bath to avoid doing homework.
Perhaps this is true only for me, but thus far traveling through this life course, I’ve had many ongoing opportunities to experience “blooming, buzzing confusion.” The full-on adult version is different than the toddler version, no doubt, because who we are and what the world asks from us – and what we ask of ourselves and from the world — is different when we are 47 (or 67) compared to when we are 4.
Though some things change very little despite becoming a full-on adult. Most days I do a pretty decent job of passing for a grown-up but the secret is that I often feel like a toddler, like I’m getting acclimated to this planet. I feel wobbly when I walk and I wonder if anyone understands my excited babbling. I point a lot in an attempt to command attention. And when I get overwhelmed or too tired, I’m prone to melting down. If I could collapse upon the floor kicking and screaming, I would.
This experience of being and becoming human is wild and complex at every stage and in every phase, from beginning to end and in between. Wild, complex, and confusing! What I know, though I often forget it, is that this blooming, buzzing confusion can’t be avoided. Nor will experiencing it destroy me. Actually, the opposite seems to be true: it is through beholding and entering into the blooming, buzzing confusion as it continually manifests in the world and within me that my deepest learning happens.
That’s the teaching the tiny red-headed human gave me yesterday. He reminded me of the transformative potential of practicing openness, curiosity, and presence to whatever is happening.
But if openness, curiosity, and presence seem momentarily beyond my capacity, I know I can comfort myself with a walk, a nap and a bath, in this or any order.