Have you ever asked yourself, what makes a good student? I have. Many times. I've also asked my self, time and again, if I, myself, am a good student. This week, in our ongoing series on education and learning, we're going to talk a bit about what makes a good student? Do you know? Are you a good student? Let's look together.
"Doing Thought Experiments ..."
Whenever I try to learn something, I almost always begin the same way; by asking myself a series of "what is" questions. How? By trying to see what I first picture when I ask myself about this subject.
For instance, when I ask myself the question, "what is love?" the first thing I picture is a six year old boy. It' summer and he's rolling around on newly mowed grass, being jumped all over and nipped at by a litter of ten beagle puppies. He's laughing. And they're yipping. And they're loving him. And he's loving them back. All eleven of them. All in love. All without words. All without help.
This is the first thing I picture when I ask myself, "what is love."
It always thoroughly satisfies me as to what it feels like to be in love.
And how about the opposite picture then. Hate. What is my first picture of "hate?"
The first thing I picture when I ask myself, "what is hate?" is me walking past a house and being told by some older boy not to go near "those people." The mother was white. The father was African American. And the baby boy was so beautiful and innocent.
I remember going up to the door one day just to say hello. Only once. After that, I got called "nigger lover" by the other kids for a while. It frightened me, I guess, because I didn't have a picture for what they were feeling let alone calling me. I had, by then, figured out though that for some reason, people who hated others could easily hate me.
And after that, many people did, although I still have no picture of what makes people hate a seven year old boy for saying hello to a baby. Only Layer 2 explanations, like pure stupidity and total ignorance. And Layer 4 revenge feelings best left out of the present text.
Over the years, when I've thought about that day, I've asked myself, many times, what made that boy so full of hate? And for a family whom he had never even met, no less. I never did find out. Which in effect means I never did get a picture of what could turn a boy like him into such a patently hateful person.
So what about my picture of "students?" What do I picture first when I ask myself what a student is?
My answer? My father. Sitting, late at night, in an almost completely dark room. Lights out to save money, no doubt. The room is very dark, in fact. It's winter and all the lights are off. Except for the one floor lamp to the right of his chair. The one with the orange lamp shade. Which meant it was throwing an orangey light all over him. And his book. And his never to be completely clean again auto mechanic's work clothes.
Even now, I can picture myself standing there in the shadows, watching silently. His head is bent forward, and his eyes are as close to the page as he can humanly get.
He would get so still, at times, I thought he might have fallen asleep. At other times, I worried that something had happened to him. Something bad. Like a sickness or something worse.
Nothing ever did. He was simply so deep in thought that he looked like he was dead. In truth, he was just revisiting, again and again, the details of some kind of a technical drawing, a diagram of some sort of machinery or an engine.
Although I had never been formally told, I knew to never disturb him on these kinds of nights. Not even to say goodnight to him, which is what I always remember wanting to do on those nights. Not that he would have heard me call to him while he was in that state anyway.
So what exactly was he so engrossed in? My belief? He was doing thought experiments. Imaginary visual exercises in which he would dissemble and reassemble either some kind of automotive machinery, like a transmission or such, or some sort of broken appliance, like a lawn mower or a washing machine.
Years later, I remember feeling proud of him when, as a man, I learned that Einstein taught himself by the very same method as my father did. Imagine. My father had something very significant in common with Einstein. They both taught themselves by doing thought experiments. They both studied things in life by imagining how they worked.
Is this the essence of being a student; doing thought experiments?
A part of me thinks it is.
Thinking You're Dumb
Over the years, I tried to talk about this with my father. On several occasions, in fact. And to thank him for inspiring me with scenes like the ones I've just mentioned. You see, although I haven't tried to mentally dissemble a car engine in quite a few decades, I still do the same kinds of thought experiments with whatever I try to learn about. Mostly now with how peoples' minds and hearts work.
So what happened when I tried to talk to him about this? Whenever I tried to thank him for the example he set for me, he would always fall into some sort of an apology for his having quit school in sixth grade. Or eight grade. Or something like that. The point is, he was certain he was stupid and that I was just patronizing him.
I would then try to dissuade him from his sense that he was a bad student, by reminding him of things like that, for many years, he had been an instructor in the Navy and that his students had loved him. Officially, he taught heavy equipment, and diesel engines, and stuff like that. Lots to know there. Even so, whenever I'd try this, he'd dismiss my efforts by saying he was simply getting over on everyone. I guess, to him, the truth about his being a student was told in how many grades he had finished. Thus, since he had never graduated grammar school, he could not be anything like a good student.
This truth is, I am a good student and he was my example. In fact, my last tested IQ was 165. Yet I still learn the same way as he did. By pouring over book after book and doing thought experiments. Often, late at night, with but one orangey light on.
God, what makes it so impossible, at times, to get students to see how incredible they are? My father was a smart man. And a good student. But because he checked out of formal school at an early age, he was certain he was just plain bad at school and dumb besides. In fact, "stupid" is more likely the word he would have used.
Learning From Death
Why all the words about my father? Those closest to me know why. My father died this week, a frail and fragile eighty-eight year old student.
In this, I was blessed. I was there. And still trying to tell him how he had inspired me. Right up to the last moments of his life. But as I squeezed his hand with my left hand, and held his head up with my right, hoping to make it easier for him to gasp his last breath, he was still too busy learning to even notice me standing there.
Even so, I learned from him yet again though. How? In that last moment, with my head as close to his face as my father's eyes used to be to his floor lamp lit books, I watched his eyes suddenly widen and then fill with surprise. For the very last time. Then I saw his eyes slowly dim and turn a whitish blue gray, then freeze in the calmness of a last surprise.
At this point in my life, I know that look all too well. Thus, even with a leaden weight sitting on my chest, I knew my father had just learned something. He had just had his last emergence.
And you know what? I felt very honored. And very, very grateful. For what? For having become able to so surely recognize a student at work. And for having come to know with such certainty what an "aha" means.
What did he learn in that last instant? Something from his last visual thought experiment, I imagine.
Perhaps, he even saw how the machinery worked.
Later, in the midst of my coming and going into and out of shock, I was reminded of another important thing to know about students; the idea that students learn only by doing their own work. In other words, I recalled something I know all too well, the idea that in order to be a real student, you must be willing to suffer the pain of reinventing the wheel in order to learn.
What am I saying?
I'm admitting that, in a way, I tried to do something a lot of students try to do. I tried to cheat. You see, I thought that if I could stay very conscious in those last moments with him, that I might see what he saw.
I, in fact, tried my hardest to see what he saw in that last moment. Even so, and as conscious as I am, I still came up short.
What did I see? I saw nothing. At least, none of whatever surprised him.
At first, when this happened, I felt what all cheaters feel. I felt empty, as if I had failed at my lessons. Days later, though, I found myself laughing out loud at my own stubbornness. And at the arrogantly insane effort I had made to see into death itself.
Realize I'm not saying I learned nothing, mind you. Actually, I learned a lot. Mostly, I learned that, like my father, we can all be students right up to and including the last moment of our lives.
I also learned that despite my best efforts, that I will not know what he now knows until I face the same teacher. When my eyes brighten in the realization of my last moment of life.
Finally, I learned that students who cheat are human. And lovable. Amazingly so, in fact. And that I have more things in common with them than I had realized. After all, in effect, what I did was, I had tried to copy off my father's page, hoping that I could learn, without taking the class, what he had learned in those last moments.
Like all students who try to cheat though, in this effort, I failed.
Then again, tonight, I now know, now more than ever, that all good students dream of finding the shortcut. More important, I am reminded of how all good students fail. All good students.
In this, tonight, I see both my father, and myself, as really good students. Really good.
So what is a student? My picture? My father, by his orangey floor lamp, totally engrossed in an imaginary effort to take apart and put back together some mysteriously mechanical device. A bit like Newton, don't you think? And lest you think I'm in Layer 2, please know this. I've probably cried more writing these words than in the whole rest of the past two weeks.
What makes a good student then? Here are my first thoughts.
So what about you? What does your picture of a student look like? More important, does your picture include both success and failure?
My does. Mostly pictures of failure, in fact.
Perhaps that's what makes me the kind of student that I am.
Failing more tests than I pass. And not quitting.
Until next week then. I hope you're all well,