On a Small Planet
The Two Capes
A few weeks ago, my school asked me to give a 10-minute speech to our 400 youngest students, a sort of farewell address before I return to my American homeland.
Ten minutes isn’t very long, but it is roughly 297 times their average attention span, and I didn’t want to bore them. So I asked my class of 12-year-olds: What should I talk about?
Here’s how the conversation went:
Then they sort of yelled indiscriminately for a while, which I suppose was my own fault for riling them up. You might as well feed them sugar right before bedtime.
Seeking greater pliability and innocence, I asked my class of 11-year-olds. This is how that went:
Then they spent the afternoon giggling, for which, once again, I can only blame myself.
After this, I realized what I wanted to talk to them about: them. After all, it’s not just me who finds that this age-group ping-pongs between “charmingly ungovernable” and “utterly feral.” Everybody seems to share that feeling.
The world isn’t quite sure what to do with 11-to-13-year-olds.
Everybody thinks they grew up in the most boring neighborhood on the whole number line. But trust me: you’d rather spend seven eternities in your home than a Saturday night in mine.
I don’t need to describe my home interval; you know it already. Neither terribly close to an integer, nor terribly far from one. No famous constants for miles around. No crossroads, no bustling port, no frontier town: just an anonymous suburb of an unseen city, a faceless stretch on the long gray road that runs from one infinity to the other.
Nothing to do? Understatement. There was nothing to think, nothing to feel, nothing to say. I gathered stories wherever I could, scavenged for tales of distant realms where something, anything, was happening.
Somewhere, a trillion covert sequences spiraled towards pi.
Somewhere, a mirror reflected the negative image of every number I knew.
Somewhere, the integers climbed beyond trillions in an Icarus flight to infinity.
Somewhere, somewhere, somewhere…
Adulthood came without sentiment or fanfare, like the bell at the end of third period. I simply gathered my things and made for the door. I’d like to say that I hugged my parents a half-decent goodbye, but the truth is that I left without a word.
I traveled first to the hub, the nexus, the galactic center around which everything else swirled.
I went to zero.
If you want to see the qualities that make Dr. Oliver Sacks my favorite writer, simply watch what he does when asked to provide grades for the medical students working with him:
I submitted the requisite form, giving all of them A’s. My chairman was indignant. “How can they all be A’s?” he asked. “Is this some kind of joke?”
I said, no, it wasn’t a joke, but that the more I got to know each student, the more he seemed to me distinctive. My A was not some attempt to affirm a spurious equality but rather an acknowledgment of the uniqueness of each student. I felt that a student could not be reduced to a number or a test, any more than a patient could. How could I judge students without seeing them in a variety of situations, how they stood on the ungradable qualities of empathy, concern, responsibility, judgment?
Eventually, I was no longer asked to grade my students.
Dr. Sacks is a neurologist. His expertise ranges so far and wide (he has written on autism, Tourette’s, migraines, colorblindness, sign language, musical hallucinations) that the word “specialization” no longer fits.
Now, I’m a teacher, not a doctor. But reading Sacks’ autobiography, I’m struck by how teachers and doctors both feel a crucial tension, confronting the same fundamental choice in how to define our professional selves. Am I a narrow specialist, applying my expertise to address a specific need of the pupil or patient?
Or am I generalist, embracing the full complexity and interconnectedness of the human before me?