Monday, April 21, 2008

A is for Asia

As a child I had a great respect, or perhaps it was a fear, of anyone in authority. This respect/fear was heightened as those in power become further removed from my family. The trail could be routed as beginning with my parents, careening on past my teachers and finally arriving at the big scary beasts that were the almighty police officers. To my young self, adults were (generally) always right. They knew everything and should never be questioned. Imagining otherwise would have shattered the well ordered universe that I firmly believed existed.

In school I was an obedient, well mannered, quiet child who blindly accepted everything my teachers told me. America was the land of the free and home of the brave and we were exceedingly lucky to live in the best country in the world, Christopher Columbus was a great man who brought order to an ungodly land overrun with savages and the Big Bad Wolf deserved to end up in a pot of boiling water. No other perspectives need be considered, thank you very much.

It never occurred to me that adults could be mistaken, purposely misleading or simply wrong. As I grew up I became more independent in my thinking but the fundamental core of my belief was that those who were older than me were indeed wiser. I needed only to sit quietly and soak up the wisdom that they so graciously bestowed upon my young mind. In return I would one day earn the same respect through knowledge that had been given to those who came before me. And the cycle would repeat.

Amazingly, this prevailing attitude remained pretty much unshaken until I was a 30-year-old student working on my Master's degree at Columbia University. That experience changed my outlook on education forever. It was there that we were encouraged to question everything. My instructors welcomed, even demanded, that we look deeply into the viewpoints of a particular author. What were their biases? Did they skew the facts in stating their case? How were the statistics they provided presented to favor their argument? Are there other perspectives to consider?

This was a revelation for me. Misrepresentation? Bias? Agendas? Dishonesty? Oh, my!

With my eyes newly opened I embarked on my teaching career determined to create an environment of learning in my classroom where my young students felt comfortable challenging me to defend my teachings by asking for examples or clarification. I hoped that even the littlest ones would feel free to disagree with me if I misspoke or provided them with incorrect information. And it is a good thing too because I am sometimes wrong, as the following story will illustrate.

Picture the scene...a warm day in June and I am at the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn with my preschool class. My BFF and official class 'mother' Joy has accompanied us on the trip where we are learning about the various types of wildlife. As we walk through the sandy paths 'oohing' and 'ahhing' over each fascinating creature, from capybaras to prairie dogs, we come upon a sign for this adorable fella.

The three-and-four-year-old children in my charge were eager to know the name of this cutie and I honestly admitted that I had no idea what it was called. So, I dutifully gathered the children around me and directed their attention to the well placed sign which would unlock the mystery. Gazing up at the words I suddenly became stumped. What was this creature? I stared blankly at the sign trying to decipher the strange combination of letters. And with sweat beginning to form on my brow I proceeded to sound out the name on the sign and inform those attentive little ones that the fuzzy little guy before them was called an 'OZ-EE-UH'. Yeah, that's right I assured myself 'an oz-ee-uh'. Whew!

I continued reading,

"This oz-ee-uh likes to eat..."

I am suddenly cut off by Joy who can stand it no longer. In her dry delivery that was fueled by stupefied exasperation she made it known that this was not the ever popular 'oz-ee-uh' but was in fact,

"A red panda from Asia."

Oh, Asia!

Not 'Oz-ee-uh'.

How embarrassing.

And how terribly funny.

I misread the sign thinking that Asia was the name of the animal and it must be pronounced in some exotic way. I began to laugh. Joy began to laugh as she told me she could see the wheels turning in my mind as I tried to figure out the name of the animal. She saw me struggle dumbfounded while I butchered the name and watched memorized as I continued to try to make sense of it all until she could no longer contain herself. I am glad she rescued me on this one. Props to Joy!

This story has made me giggle on countless occasions since then but also stands as a testament that adults/teachers can be wrong.

That Christmas as Joy and I exchanged gifts she kept this one for last. It was a children's alphabet book she was brilliant enough to find at The Metropolitan Museum of Art bookstore called...



Joy Keaton said...

Oh. My. GOD! It NEVER stops being funny! I love that you posted this story - it's so priceless. And I love that you found a picture of the Red Panda... from OZ-EE-AH!!!

d. chedwick bryant said...

This is such a funny story! OZ EE AH sounds so cool--I didn't recognize that animal as a red panda either.

Lynda said...

Funny how in our generation we never questioned adults, teachers,
parents or any adult in general. It was amazing or shocking to us when we become older that feedback
from adults, teachers and parents were encouraged. When we gave our feedback, our views and opinions
were valued. It was a wonderful and amazing feeling-something we had to get used to.

I believe our world today is better for encouraging children & young adults to ask questions of teachers, parents & adults. Children are much more perceptive these days, and understand adults don't always have the answers, and that we make mistakes too!

Reya Mellicker said...

I'm so happy you went to grad school at Columbia. Innocence and trust are wonderful qualities in the very young, but become not so adorable, nor desireable, once a person grows up.

You're still so pure of heart, though, my dah-ling. Such a beautiful, pure, questioning heart you have! Thank you!

WAT said...

Well, red pandas are ultimately from Asia right? So you were close!

Even after 9/11, I was feeling fiercely patriotic and had an almost blind love for this country, but all of that has faded away now. Call me a bit more cynical and jaded now I suppose, but I can't help it. I've lost my utter core beliefs in religion, government, marriage, and other institutions. It's as if I only hold out hope in being kind to others and getting good karma in return, for everything else has been practically a lie!

marxsny said...

When I was young I never questioned anything any adult said or did. That is sort of not the case these days. Glad you liked the book and in case you didn't know Zeus was Hercules's daddy.

Dumdad said...

What a wonderfully funny story - you just couldn't make this up.

And I admire your humility and honesty in admitting you'd blundered. If more of us were like this we'd all get along so much better. It's taken me a long time to admit to various failings and even now I sometimes don't and later think "You plonker, Dumdad, you were plain wrong but wouldn't back down!"

I've been in news meetings where some complicated subject has cropped up and everyone with their Oxford and Harvard degrees all murmur important things. Silence. Then some brave journo pipes up: "Frankly, I don't understand a bloody word of this." And as often as not there's an almost audible hiss of relief then laughter as others also admit to being equally bamboozled.

It is in those moments my faith in humanity is partially restored.

P.S. I've got a feeling that Asia shall forever be pronounced Oz-ee-ah in my mind. Thanks, Gary!

J. David Zacko-Smith said...

Thank God for your education at Columbia, darlin'! You know I ALWAYS encourage questioning. Growing up I questioned everything, and now it's like my whole world. ;-)

Mama said...

Love reading your blog; can't wait to see what comes next! Proud of you! Love ya, Mama xxoo

Pod said...

i'm a toad really

mouse (aka kimy) said...

red pandas are quite cute!

just to let you know a cd with photos from the met is working it's way to you!!

how nice to have a comment from your mama! my mom, hasn't quite figured out how to leave a comment, despite direction.... but I'm honored that she regularly checks on her mousey daughter's musings and doesn't seem to mind if I get carried away on some rant .... I think we are both blessed with wise, sweet mamas!

Steve said...

That's funny! It's weird how we can look at familiar words and, depending on context (or lack of one), they look so alien.

I'm pretty inherently trusting, too -- but I'm also inherently cynical, so it all balances out. :)

Gary said...

Joy - I am with you of course, this story never ceases to make me laugh and the best part for me is remembering your expression and perfect delivery. See, if you had not been class mother that year I would probably never caught the mistake. And today there would be a group of 11 year olds talking about the cool oz-ee-uh. Once again you made me look good (or is that bad?). LOL.

Ched - Thanks for the support. I feel much better now.

Lynda - Oh now we are the same generation? Aren't you much younger than I am? Perhaps your flawless, delicate skin has fooled me once again...

Reya - Your comment makes me think of Blake and the divide between innocence and experience. What is the perfect balance? What do we give up in order to have the other?

Wat - In the climate of today's world it is really easy to lose faith in all of the core beliefs you mention. I have become much more jaded and cynical since Bush became president of the U.S.A. and I fight against that. Although seeing things with a clearer vision does not have to be a downer if we can also think about how to improve things and make the world (or at least the world around us, our world) a better place. Kindness and good will still count for something.

Mark - Yes, I did know that. A cute little girl told me that :) As for losing faith...see above.

Dumdad - The same thing happens in class sometimes. The first person to admit that they don't know something does allow the room to breath a bit easier. Why are we all so afraid to appear out of the loop? These days I am pretty vocal about asking someone to clarify and I find that half the time the speaker does not know it either. Now that can be dangerous! Some folks in some circumstances are just not used to being questioned.

I LOVE that you will carry oz-ee-uh with you. That is wonderful!

JDZS - I know, right? Thanks God indeed.

Mom - See that wasn't so hard.

Pod - You do know how to make me smile.

Kim - I got the pictures. Thank you! They are fantastic. About mama's...I was thrilled that mine figured it out and surprised me.

Steve - Balance. That is exactly what I think of when I think of you.

"Just David!" said...

Joy sounds like a joy!!


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