You can do it

As the beginning of a school year approaches, I hear from many families whose children are not as eager as those shown in back-to-school advertisements. So many young people are downright dreading it.  When asked for a reason, they’ll say it’s stressful, or boring, or both.

A common response from adults is: “You can do it!”

We say this with the best of encouraging intentions. What we mean is “You’re great, and strong, and we believe in you.”

While that is likely true, it’s an answer to a question they may or may not be asking. (Not to mention that it neglects the question of at what cost.) If a young person says “I don’t know if I’m smart enough,” then some version of “you can do it” is appropriate and plenty.

But as a response to “I don’t want to go to school because it’s boring/stressful/ boring and stressful,” it misses the mark. Mostly, I think we use “You can do it” because we don’t really have time to address what these young people are actually expressing, and even if we did have time, it would be hard to know where to begin. (I say this not to suggest laziness on the part of adults but rather as a reflection of experience, after more than two decades at work on the problem!) But it’s also possible that we’re just mis-hearing what young people are actually saying; that we think this expression of satisfaction or unhappiness is actually a lack of confidence.

Either way, it’s a good idea to try to move beyond cheering kids on, to look more closely at what they’re saying and why they’re saying it. I think that in our role as caretakers and guides for young people we don’t like to get into this kind of territory unless we have solutions at the ready. And sure, they wouldn’t mind a solution, but to have their communications actually received can go a long way, even in the absence of solution. A longer way than we probably realize.

Especially if we want young people to keep talking to us, to keep telling us what’s not working for them, to keep honing the ability to express what they’re experiencing and use it to navigate what’s ahead.

full moon

The moon was almost full last night, and sitting right up in the sky outside my living room window in a clear sky, so I had a good view. When this happens I get amazed that I can see variation in the moon’s surface.  I was trying to think this thought: “Amazing.  It’s ______ miles away and I can see all the _______.” But I didn’t know how far away it was or what the variations I could see actually are.  This is the sort of thing I think I am supposed to know but don’t.  Then I remembered that if you don’t know something you would like to know, you can find it out.  This is an obvious thing, an advantage of the brain plus books plus other people plus the internet, but I am constantly not bothering to do anything about it.

So I looked this one up.  (On the computer.) First up was Google’s answer – the moon is 238,900 miles from earth. I started thinking about how to really get how far that is, but then I spotted another search result three items down in the form of a question: How far away is the moon? I liked the sound of that, linguistically speaking, so I followed the link to the NASA SpacePlace page, which appears to be set up for younger people than myself.  Such pages can be excellent for learning information that one thinks one is already expected to know, because it’s (sometimes) offered in clear and plain terms, though one might also have to read around some condescension, which is too bad.

NASA’s explanation, not surprisingly, is a little more detailed and nuanced (accurate) than Google’s.  The distance between the earth and the moon changes, so it can be expressed as an average or as a measurement at a particular moment in its orbit (which is not a perfect circle, hence the variation in distance).  According to NASA SpacePlace, the moon is 238,855 miles on average.  At its closest, 225,623, and at its farthest, 252,088.

I had to stop myself from reading much more just then because when it comes to the moon, several very cool words come into play (apogee, perigee, penumbra, et. al.) and as a result I knew myself to be at risk for spending the rest of the day becoming a moon expert (relative to how I’d been night before) and I had other things people were counting on me to do.

All of that is to say I was glad to be reminded that a few seconds spent asking a question and looking for an answer is enough to put things in perspective, and when things are in perspective, universe-wise, it’s hard not to be amazed and inspired and re-energized for whatever earthly toil one has assigned one’s self, even in a terribly tumultuous time.


Once a week, we have an eighteen month-old friend at our house for the day. She is, as most her age are, quite excellent at calling our attention to sources of delight we might otherwise miss. For the past several weeks, she has been most enraptured by two things – cats and round objects.  She communicates mostly in sign language at this point, and so the signs for cat and ball are well-used.

It’s not hard to understand what might be so enjoyable about a cat, or any other four-legged creature, but we’ve been speculating about what makes a ball so much fun.  It doesn’t seem to be the throwing, in the case of this young person, at least not entirely.  Plus, you can throw all sorts of other things too and they don’t get nearly as much attention as the ball gets.

Maybe it’s how the ball behaves.  Nothing else moves like a ball does. If you set it down on a surface that isn’t entirely level, it’ll find its own momentum and start wandering all over the place if there’s enough variation in terrain.  Nothing else will do this but a thing with at least a round edge to help it along.  In our living room the floor is not even close to level, so if you set a ball down pretty much anywhere it’ll set off on an apparently drunken journey and end up, inevitably, in a corner.  If you didn’t know better (“better”), it’d be easy to think that it was alive, or whatever classification you’d give to things that seem to have character and creativity before you knew the world alive.

Oliver Sacks used to carry a ball around with him in his briefcase: “My main neurological tool is the ball,” he says.  “You can learn a lot from how the patients play – and may patients who will do nothing else will open up to a gently tossed ball.”

My sense is that he chose the ball because it’s such simple access to play – tossing a thing back and forth.  But the more we’ve been thinking and talking about this love and fascination and we watch it unfold for such a young child, the more I wonder about it as a thing that links us up with the physical world, the physics of the world, and invites us to engage with it as no other object could.


In a recent New Yorker I read about how New York City is replacing all of its sodium-vapor streetlights with LEDs.  Feelings are mixed about the move.  The old lights glow hazy orange; the new ones blaze blue.  I’ve read that, among other things, the old encouraged crime, and the new are causing anxiety with their brightness.

It’s clear that the LEDs will literally cast the city in a new light; they will alter its character.  This is no small thing, in my opinion.  The appearances of things are not static, and light has so much to do with it.

I’m always happy to have an excuse to remember one of my favorite poems of all time, Lisel Mueller’s Monet Refuses the Operation, in which the purpose of distinguishing the edges of things is brought into question:

…I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent…

the sorter is broken

I asked a high-school aged friend if she’s thought about what she might want to study in college (she’d already told me she wants to go) or what she might want to do after college.  She hesitated, and then said that she really likes science but she’s terrible at memorizing things, so probably she’ll do something with history instead. She said she’s especially interested in environmental science and issues related to climate change.

You could think of this as a teaching or curriculum problem, but I don’t think it really is.  I think it’s a sorting problem.  Or a problem with how we’ve taught ourselves to imagine we should be sorted when it comes to ability and suited-ness to particular tasks and professions.  And also a problem with how we think about what our brains are best used for.

This young person thinks that her difficulty with memorizing will exclude her (or should exclude her) from a career in science.  She has classmates who memorize easily, and they are the ones with high scores on tests and in courses. So on paper, on transcripts, if it’s good grades that tell us about someone’s aptitude for a particular area of study, we can see that her quick-memorizing classmates are the ones destined for careers in science.  Yes, many a good teacher will tell you that if you don’t emphasize the memorization you can show something different with how you grade, but for most students in most schools, information recall is a big factor in grade determination and a teacher who makes it otherwise is swimming upstream and trying to pull her students along with her against a strong current.

What would we have to do to make it otherwise?  First we’d have to decide whether we believe that a scientist must be able to keep on hand a multitude of data.  Must one?  I’d guess not, at a time when it’s possible to put a handheld device with endless data in the hand of any professional anything.  Wouldn’t it make sense for the first qualifying characteristic for a career in science (or any participation in science) be an interest in participating, and then perhaps the second an interest in and capacity for problem solving and analytical thought?  Science once required extensive memorization, but it doesn’t any more, and we’ve got big enough problems, and many enough problems, that the more solvers we can get on them the better, it seems to me.  To exclude the ones who can’t memorize stuff as well as some others can memorize stuff seems unwise.  Not to mention that the good memorizers might be put to better use elsewhere especially if they’re not interested in the careers and occupations that their memorizing might qualify them for and point them in the direction of.