There's More'n One Way to Skin a Cat

We have a lot to muse about as we struggle to make ourselves comfortable in a world that seems to be mainly for people whose brains are more advanced than ours.

Who is we? Well, it is my generation, for sure. It is in no sense today's generation, and the fact that my children (that middle generation; my kids are now middle-aged people) can manage to actually fit their limited brains into the 21st century reality, and make it their own, is impressive to me. Because they were not, as my son said once that his child was, born with a computer (you remember, silver spoon) in their mouths. Some of you fall into that middle generation.

Now, I know the difference; I know about this stuff at least in the abstract: I work at Sudbury Valley where it hits you in the face from 8 in the morning til well after 5 in the afternoon. Every kid can speak languages I know nothing of. Every kid knows worlds my parents would never have dreamt of. But how to discuss it abstractly is never clear, because what we are talking about is the material these kids have for building models of reality, and we are always on the outside of anyone else's models of reality. What their mom and dad want to know is if they are going to learn whatever other 4th graders or 10th graders know. What they know somehow, each of these kids, is that the school lock-step curriculum is totally unrelated to how they develop their own brains.

On a December day, my 8 year old grandson, Joel, who lives in Oregon called and invited me to iChat. Of course he multi-tasks while he iChats--messing with apps, putting together Lego Ninjago pieces into new designs, etc.--while I . . . . just chat. Anyway, he was kind of, but of course not really, home alone. His dad was at work, his mom in the shower. I recommended to him that he watch the movie "Home Alone" because it would make him laugh so much he would roll on the floor. He mentioned several possibilities for getting a movie--basically, any movie. Well, sure. No prob. Download it. Find it on one of the streaming sites. Or whatever you call them; you know, Hulu, Netflix, that stuff. But, think about it. Thirty years ago what were the possibilities? Go to the cinema to see something current, or hope that a cinema that was too poor or too pure to have current stuff would replay some old movie your grandma told you to watch. Basically, you had to catch the movie as it went by, or scour your tv set for some re-run if it was ancient enough.

I then asked about his gingerbread house. His dad, Seth, still always makes them each year, even though he left SVS 22 years ago! This was the first time Joel had really been able to do most of the work, and they had a blast together--although Seth turned out to be shocked at how many hours it took! That is a subject I surely know a lot about! I said I wanted to see it (of course, there were pictures on both of his parents' Facebook pages, but Facebook is not my favorite venue and I had not thought to look); I said he should bring the computer to the house, knowing it was not bring-able. He said, "Well, we don't have a laptop." (I guess his dad's iPad must have gone to work that day with his dad.) He decided to take a picture of it with his mom's iPhone, and he did and brought it back to show me.

I said, "You are a real 21st century guy, Joel. Do you know what that means?" He said, yes; it meant he was familiar with a lot of technology.

I was not quite satisfied with that answer, even though it was spot-on, but if you had asked me what a 21st century person was, I would not have had a much better answer. I would have said something dumb about multi-tasking, but the truth is that I multi-task a lot; we all do; so it isn't quite that.

The next day I understood myself. I was working with Zoe, who has been going to SVS since she was about 11, on math for her SATs. I asked her why she knew so much. She said that she had taken math in middle school quite a few years ago, before she came to SVS. I opined, because her brother went to SVS and was of a scientific bent, and I know her parents a little, that it may be genetic with her for math to come easily. She said she had always done terribly in math at school. I said, "but you understand the concepts [we were working on algebra] so well." She said it had never been the concepts that tripped her up. It was the computations. (We always start working together with one or both of our iPhones open to the calculator function, but don't use it much.) In conventional schools, no one cares, she said, and of course she is right, whether you get the overall ideas. It is just the nitty-gritty answers. She was not nervous about math--she was just doing it because she wanted good SAT scores. But she knew it meant nothing to her plans for life.

The confidence. The iPhones. The essential ordinariness of the subject matter. The infinite possibilities in Zoe's brain. Of course. She knows that there are always a lot of different ways to get to your goal. She has that idea firmly in her world view; she doesn't think about it, any more than Joel does. She just does it. And he was not worried for an instant about how to show me the gingerbread house. There is always a way.

It was one of the things that used to surprise me about even the mundane software that I can use: there are a lot of ways to do the same thing in any computer program I know. (Back in the '80s, in our first computer life, there were maybe fewer. ) Jean does it one way. Danny another. I do it a third. Others I am not so observant of, but I know that I don't have to teach anyone the way to erase text. There are way too many ways! And basically, they are going to find them. Usually without asking. Sometimes someone wants to know an easy way to do something, but usually you have to ask a child. That doesn't seem to matter until you realize that a 21st century person is always aware of possibilities. In software, maybe not infinite ones, but in life? There are so many ways to solve problems, to get to goals, to figure things out.

I used to think about the world as having gone from having a very finite set of possibilities of ways to earn a living, spend your time, etc., to one having a giant expansion of those possibilities. But I wasn't quite getting it. And then I suddenly realized what made her a 21st century person and me a 20th century person trying to catch up: she knows in her bones, and has known for her whole life, just because of the amazing richness of resources in the world she was born into, that there are many ways to solve every problem.

I had to think about that. I grew up doing math, having fun with it I guess, always thinking that there was a right way and a wrong way. Or many wrong ways! In fact, I was criticized by teachers, as I bet most of you were, when I didn't do things in exactly the "right" way but found a different one. You had a history exam on the facts back in the dark ages when I went to school (and today). Never did I dream that the word "fact" was as slippery as an eel. Hardly anyone knows or agrees on what the facts are now about any events, or can prove the "facts" in the next generation. But I thought our books had the facts. No kid really thinks that now. The givens that governed life in the mid-twentieth century were much more confined than life could ever be now.

Zoe doesn't have to do things one way. She knows she can solve problems; that is her strength. She seems shy, reticent, and perhaps unassertive, but it makes no difference: like Joel, she knows she is a 21st century person. (And like Joel, she has steely self-confidence.) Like Joel, she knows there is always another way to do something, another way to play something, another way to make art, and a constantly unfolding panoply of life's riches. It isn't a fan of possibilities as I used to think in the '70s. It is an enormous, amorphous, n-dimensional grid. There are so many ways to skin a cat!

The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.