The other day I mentioned Rebecca Solnit in a post about finding the motivation to take action when it may not seem to make a difference. My mention of her was somewhat peripheral (preliminary?) to the point of the post, so I had a good laugh at myself yesterday when this happened: I was listening to an old interview with her from On Being and was reminded that I’d been very moved and affected the first time I heard her talk about the thing that was the point of the post – the slippery business of what does and doesn’t make an impact. It’s very likely that it was her work that gave me the idea to write about the topic in the way I did; I just didn’t remember that it had. Which further proves the point itself, leaving me with the feeling (which I have no doubt passed on to you reading this paragraph) of going ’round in circles, which again proves the point. (Assuming that at least one of the circles moves something forward, as opposed to keeping us in place.)

As it turns out, none of this business of difference-making and idea-forming is linear or traceable.

So, now, back to the more lucid words of Rebecca Solnit herself. From a piece she wrote in December of 2013, The Arc of Justice and the Long Run: “Sometimes cause and effect are centuries apart; sometimes Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice is so long few see its curve…”

In other words (I trust she would not mind my saying), we should keep at it.


I made this little thing a couple of years ago on a day when I was trying to learn something new and being somewhat less than patient with myself:


I keep it around for two reasons. First, to keep reminding myself to go easy on me when I’m new to something. Second, because it occurred to me that other people are probably often trying new things when I don’t realize they are, and I would do well to share some of that same patience I was looking to muster when I wrote out the little message.


In my years as a math teacher and tutor, I have had many occasions to help with fractions.  Here’s something interesting about nearly every initial conversation I’ve ever had with someone who is having difficulty with learning about fractions for the first time. I’ll usually begin the conversation by asking something like “So you say you’re having a hard time with fractions. What do you know about them so far?” Here’s how it will often proceed from there:

“Nothing. I don’t understand them at all.”

“Okay. But you’ve probably seen them written, right? You have an idea what they look like?”

“Well, yeah, there’s a number on the top and a number on the bottom and a line in between but I don’t understand them.”

“Okay, that’s helpful for me to know. So you can recognize something called a fraction, but you’re confused about how they work or what they are for?”


“There’s one other thing I’m guessing you do already understand about fractions,” I’ll then say. [I get a skeptical look in response, but they’ll usually hear me out.] “You know what half means, right?”

The response I get tends to reflect that offense has been taken. “Well, yeah, obviously. Half is just half of something.”

Indeed. The concept of half is such old news to someone by the time “fractions” get “introduced” in school, that it seems a little insulting to be asked about it as a person of  nine or ten years. One starts to hear about half and halves very early in life, long before any whisper of a thing called math, much less the more specific phenomenon of fractions. The concept of half doesn’t have a chance to feel difficult any more than any other ordinary thing that happens all the time in regular life.

But our use of fractions in everyday parlance is mostly limited to the word half. As a young child you might occasionally hear someone talk about splitting something into thirds or fourths, but you’ll hear about half very often.

Hence the snarly looks I get when I ask about half.  The snarling tends to subside when I protest: “But you told me you don’t understand fractions AT ALL, so I had to ask, didn’t I!?! It’s not my fault that those pesky halves were hiding in your memory disguising themselves as Not Fractions!”

This exaggerated response from me usually gets a smile, and from there we can begin to talk about why the school fractions seem so much more torturous than the easy everyday halves, which truly are so understandable to most people I’ve talked to about them that they don’t even recognize their understanding as understanding. It’s invisible, the way sentence structure is to people who haven’t been taught grammar in their native language.  They can use it, but their understanding is invisible.

Which has always made me wonder if this kind of implicit understanding could be built for other fractional parts quite simply if we just talked more about other fractions, the way we do about halves, such that they’d exist in linguistic experience for young people and thus have the chance of taking conceptual root the way the halves do.



The writer  Rebecca Solnit has written that one of her goals in life is to be able to “answer closed questions with open questions.” I thought of this today when I read these words from one of the local participants in a walking vigil held on the anniversary of the signing of the Paris climate agreement. “…It’s so hard to know what to do just as one person. And I know what we’re doing today may not make a difference, but it feels like something, and hopefully it’s one way of raising our voice about what’s going on.”

I feel that way so much of the time – that’s it’s hard to know, when it feels as though things are wrong or broken, what to do as one person. It’s hard to know if anything will make a difference, if anything gets moved by anything else. I know it’s not a unique or unusual sentiment, but in this context it got me thinking about how we decide what does and doesn’t make a difference, what does and doesn’t matter. Pondering this brought me back to the idea of open questions, and I realized that the question “Will this make any difference?” is rather a closed question, and that we might find more space and support in asking a more open one like “What difference might this make?”

An open question invites participation from the imagination, the creative capacities of the mind. It reaches into what may yet be possible, rather than launching a sequence of reasoning or logic with a yes or no at the end. I like reason and logic, but as we decide whether or not to let ourselves be moved to act in the face of great adversity, they may not be as great an asset as our ability to conceive voraciously of the possible.


The day was dull with scientific notation.  Sarah didn’t want to be there with me at all.  As I often do when I meet a young person for the first time, I asked her about her interests. She said right away “I hate school. Actually, I love school.  I just hate math.” She didn’t bother to answer my question.  She went right to what she hates, and who could blame her when there it was, math, moving her around like a puppeteer, straight from school to tutoring?

But she was ready to tackle her homework, because at least that could get done while her afternoon ticked away.  She didn’t have a pencil, so I reached to get one from my desk drawer.  I was about to pick up the closest one and then stopped and looked up at her first.  “Which would you prefer,” I asked, “plain old wooden or mechanical?”

She paused before responding. “Mechanical,” she said.  As I handed her the pencil, she took a deeper, slower breath.

The rest of the hour pivoted around this question about the pencil.  It was nothing – a tiny moment – only it wasn’t.  When I thought about it afterward, I realized it was because the general condition of student-hood is mostly free of person-hood, in that students are expected to set aside preference. In fact, preference doesn’t even usually figure in enough to be set aside.

Preference and choice are not the same.  Some schools have lots of choice.  Choice of research topics, choice of Spanish or French, choice of lunch beverage.  Granting preference acknowledges a person’s person-ness in a way that choice doesn’t.  Choice says “The options have already been decided, and it has also been decided that you get to choose from among them.”

To grant preference is not necessarily active.  It’s an acknowledgement that a person has preferences and that those preferences are part of what constitutes their being and person-hood.  It doesn’t matter what kind of pencil a 12 year-old prefers, and she’s generally at liberty to select her own pencil, keep it with her, and no one has to know.  But if there are two kinds of pencil available, and I’m sitting across from a 12 year-old person, I know I’m less likely to ask her preference than I would be if I were sitting across from a 35 year-old person or a 62 year-old person. The relationship between adult and child is usually “I’ll handle this; you just follow my lead/instructions. Here’s a pencil for you to use.”  It’s not usually “Which kind of pencil would you prefer?” And it’s not because there isn’t time to ask.

I didn’t happen upon this because I was keen enough to notice and take an opportunity to treat someone better. I didn’t think to myself “Oh, I should ask what Sarah prefers, and that’ll be a better way to treat her.”  I just noticed that I would behave differently with an adult from how I was about to behave with her. Which I suppose is where we can begin.


I got a piece of mail today from the school where my dad went to college. It was a colorful tri-fold request for donations to support the campus library. On the outside was a drawing of a darkened library and the words “No one would die if the library didn’t exist.”

On the inside was a drawing of the same library lit up and bustling with activity and the words “but we wouldn’t truly live.”

I get the point and I agree with the second part – even though libraries don’t save lives the way, say, hospitals do, they’re essential to our vitality.

But I took the first part as sort of a query. Is it true that no one would die if libraries didn’t exist? And I don’t just mean in that colloquial “I would die if I couldn’t go to the library ” kind of way.  I certainly can’t imagine my life without the library, but that isn’t what I’m getting at.

I think it’s probably easier than we might think to trace the actual survival of actual people to their own or others’ access to libraries. Some of the connections may be distant – a person who will one day hold the power to start or stop wars begins by finding a book in a library that inspires him to read or to learn more about something that in turn inspires further learning or inquiry and investigation or just plain empowers him to believe that he has the ability and resources to make an important contribution. Other connections may be more direct. People in tremendous despair have been saved by specific particular books that let them know they are not alone in their plight or that map a way out they wouldn’t otherwise have known existed. And then there’s that libraries are often used by those who are homeless to keep warm during the day. By itself that’s probably not enough to keep a person alive, but it may go a long way toward it.

This may be an especially sore subject for me this week, as a faithful listener to The Writer’s Almanac, which ended last Wednesday and whose archives were removed from the web when Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media severed its ties with Garrison Keillor’s media companies after allegations of sexual misconduct. Along with the obvious importance of taking such allegations seriously, there are  legal and financial reasons that under the circumstances the show could not continue to be broadcast and had its archive removed. I mention it here not to comment on that situation but because the archive of the show is a library of its own, of history, poetry, and connection among writers and thinkers. As with the libraries, we could say that no one will die because it’s gone, but we don’t know that. We don’t know what strength and power a handful of words or a well-timed resonant historical note or a library or a book from that library can have. We just don’t know.


The other day, one of the teenagers I know was talking about one of her teachers and how on certain days he plays music from one of his favorite albums during part of class. She said “He plays it in every class he hosts that day.”

When she’d finished telling the story I asked her about her choice of verb, because of course “host” isn’t what you’d expect in this context, but it hadn’t seemed like an accident. She said “Yeah, I’m not sure why I said it that way, but it seemed like what I meant.”

We had other things to talk about so I didn’t dwell on it. I just wanted to know if she’d chosen the word more or less on purpose. From the sound of it, in that particular teacher’s class, this student feels more like a guest than a… subject, the way many do in many classes.

A small thing, except not at all.


This, from poet Sara Holbrook, who found some questions on a Texas achievement test, about poems she herself wrote, difficult to answer:


I have a tendency to get a little ranty about this subject, as I have always considered it risky business to teach a young person that it’s possible to know what someone else meant when they wrote something.  It’s not that I don’t think it can be interesting or edifying to speculate about what someone might have meant, but to imagine that we can know without asking, or let anyone have the authority of knowing, yikes.  Anyway, because I have the aforementioned ranty-ness tendency, I liked this characterization from Sara Holbrook.  Big baloney sandwich.  I found a triangular (lover of words and math that I am) drawing of one here to really drive the point home for myself.


I’m rereading George Dennison’s The Lives of Children and was floored by this passage regarding the role of an adult in the life of a young person:


“…elders of the community rather than heads of organizations…”

More on that here in an old post.