Higher Education: All I Know is That I Don’t Know

Barbara Jwanouskos has a shorter article this week… but no less thoughtful.

One of the reasons I respond well to teachers is that I’m a perfectionist. I like that there’s someone out there that knows more than me about a given subject and can tell me what I’m doing wrong. I like that if I don’t understand something, there is an authority nearby that can explain what it means. I like that when I’m trying to do something I don’t feel comfortable with, there’s a person that can assure me that I’m doing it right. It’s extremely comforting.

Sure, I’ve had teachers that can’t or won’t answer my questions. I’ve had teachers that won’t explain how things work. I’ve had teachers that can’t quite pinpoint what is wrong with my approach to a project and don’t exactly know how to make it better. This frustrates me because aren’t teachers supposed to know the answers?

I do not pride myself on my intellectualism. I am so reptilian and emotional. When I am angry, everyone knows, as they do when I’m excited too. Sometimes I feel like my brain works in binaries. If X, not Y. If Y, not X. That’s why I love cold, hard facts. I love when things are rules and not conditions. I love when you can point to something and say “This is this.” I can’t tell you how comforting this is. It’s just so satisfactory to know something. Really know it. Know it so much you feel it to be true a million times over, forever and ever, “This is ALWAYS this!” Man, guys, it makes me feel so relaxed and confident. Like I just got a really good massage or something. I feel like life is pretty damn good when I know how things work.

Not knowing is pretty much the most tense thing in the world for me. I try really hard to be patient with not knowing the answer to a question or the outcome of a situation, but I’m a really inexperienced actor. I’m not good at faking things. It has to be it. Not kind of it. I sort of need it to be the real thing and not just partially there. Grey areas are dumb. OMG, I do not like grey areas… Grey areas are complicated and icky and I don’t get them. I rebel! I hate this stupid grey area! I get hurt. This grey area makes me feel dumb. Then, I give up, and leave it for someone else. That? Yeah, it’s a grey area. Pssh! Well, good luck with that, buddy!

But, I’m also insatiably curious. It’s quite possible that this comes from that quest To Know.

Side note: Is it just me or is curiosity pretty much discouraged by mainstream culture? Like in the Bible Eve totally got her ass handed to her (and blamed for the whole thing) when she just wanted to know a little more about the world. Curiosity killed many a lolcat, which is just such a tragedy for cat enthusiasts everywhere. And, in scary movies whenever someone wants to make sure that there’s no monster behind the door, they check, right? What happens? Death. Geez, mainstream culture, what’s so bad about being curious? I guess the lesson is that it’s dangerous to search for answers and that it’s better not to know than to try to know.

I’d like to think that my curiosity is my one saving grace when I try and hang out with smart people and have a conversation.

There I was, at a cocktail party in the village with all the homo sapiens. I’d just come from looking at this bee hive, knowing there was honey in there. Asking myself the question, well, I wonder if I can just reach in and grab some out and eat that shit, cuz, you know, honey’s good and this Neanderthal diet is killing me. Nope, for the record, can’t reach into a bee hive and straight up get honey. Doesn’t work like that. Bee stings everywhere. I’m wearing the antelope skin I fashioned into this off the shoulder dress (which I thought was rather fashionable, but I suppose if you have that cloth stuff – oooh – I could see how it was a bit weird). And, yeah, my hair was all ratty because I had bees in it like about twenty minutes before and so, no, I didn’t brush my hair, homo sapiens, thank you for pointing that out. They’re going on about the new well, and how it’s soooo greaaaat, which, yeah, okay, the well is pretty great. Not going to lie. But then, I get this question in my head, how do we know how much water is in there and that it’s not going to dry up or something? Silence… man, these homo sapien parties are always awkward. But, then we start talking, trying to figure it out.

This coming school year, I’m getting a new title: teacher. I’m going to be teaching one of the hardest things I do in my life, creative writing, and I’ll let you in on a secret… Ahem, I DON’T KNOW THE ANSWERS! Guys, I’m freaking out because now these students are going to see how much of a fraud I really am. That I’m just some less-evolved Neanderthal that has no clue how the world works. Sure, I can put these weird squiggly things into combinations that once people look at I guess make some sort of sense. But how am I supposed to look in the face of someone asking me the question and tell them I know the answer?

I went surfing the other day for the second time in my life. It was amazing. I thought I was going to die at least like nine times during the two and a half hours we were out there. Going into the lesson, I knew about the basics: how to stand on the board, how to paddle, how to hold my breath. I even knew a little bit of how to swim in the ocean. Bonus! We get out there and the instructors are telling us, “Paddle. Turn yourself around. Sit on the board. Wait for it… paddle! Stand! Watch your head!” I still got pulled under those waves like I was a sock in the washing machine.

The instructors were watching the waves and sending us in on what they thought were good waves, the ones that we could handle. After a while, we were asking the instructors how you actually catch a wave yourself. I guess that was harder to explain. Lots of grey area. Cue freak-out temper tantrum stomp. Everyone had a different answer. One would say to look for the swell. Another would say that you have to feel it. Okay…? One guy just shrugged and said, “You only get better by doing it. A lot.”

There are all sorts of teachers. Not every style works for every person. Because I could have gotten the surfer scientist out there who could have told me that once the wave is at this height and my board is at this angle and I paddle at this speed, stand up in this position, and adjust myself like this and that, then I’d be able to catch and ride a wave to the shore. I don’t think I’d have any clue how to do that. OHHH! Okay, now I get it, once I shift my body weight forward, I’ll stay on longer! Well, thanks, Teach! No, no, no… The thing about these surfing instructors were that they were more like enthusiastic guides of the ocean that had just been down the trail a couple times. Probably learned the hard way a lot and maybe got lucky a couple times. Then, just tried to replicate it as best they could.

After I’d fallen off the board a couple times and swallowed a good deal of sea water, you could say I was a bit nervous to get back out in the ocean and try it again. I ended up being paired with the lead instructor. He encouraged me to get back out there. The waves were getting really big by this time. And I don’t know anything about the ocean, but I think the tide was doing something. Regardless, the waves were getting much heavier, more frequent, and way scarier. I’m sitting on my board and the dude starts having a conversation with me and I’m freaking-the-fuck out thinking, “ARE YOU CRAZY?! THERE ARE HUGE WAVES BEHIND ME! I’M GOING TO DIE!”

A couple of the instructors found out I was a writer and surprisingly were really interested in talking to me about it. So, that’s this guy. I’m on the board facing the shore. He’s holding the board saying every so often, “Ooop! Here’s a big wave. Hold on, I’m going to push you through it.” WHAT?! And then he starts telling me about a story he’s writing. It’s about a paramedic because he does that too. OMG, thank god you’re a paramedic, that way when I fall off my board and am pretty much about to die, you can make sure I don’t do that. I’m trying to listen closely to his story pitch without dying from big waves splashing on me, when I realize something. He’s looking for my approval as a writer. He’s thinks I’m an expert at this stuff (I have no clue why) so he’s asking me what he should do about the title for his story. Oh…

Once I realize that, I know exactly how he’s feeling, like you’re caught in all these huge waves and you just don’t want to die? A little guidance in that grey murky ocean would be nice in a situation like this. As I listened to the problem he was having with choosing a title, all I did was recall something that had stuck with me about titles since I have trouble with titling things too. In fact, I kinda suck at titles, folks. Most of my plays are subtitled “the (fill in the blank) play”, i.e., “The Pregnant Man Play”, “The DJ Play”, “The Bike Play” because I’m fantastically uncreative when it comes to titling things. When surf instructor was telling he was having trouble with titles and how do you pick one? At first my mind got all butt hurt and shrugged, I don’t know! Gawd, why are you asking me? Do I look like I know the answers? Apparently to him I did.

Along down the path I remembered something that I’d read about titles that later in life was popped up in a discussion. It was that a title is kind of like your marketing tool for the audience. A little promise of what the play, book, movie, or show you’re about to experience is like. I gave him my thoughts. How I liked the more specific title than the one that was open-ended. I could see he felt immediately satisfied with this response– what I said made sense to him. It felt “right”. Heck, I don’t know if it was right, but after that he’s like, “Okay, here’s a wave! Just do what you know, paddle, paddle, paddle, and stand!” And I rode that wave into shore. Weird, huh?

I’m still having a lot of trouble with every sort of shade of grey area in my life right now. There are something’s I’ve kinda seen before though. I think of them as road signs along a path. I don’t necessarily know the right way, but I have survived to tell the tale, I guess? Anyway, I might not be a teacher right now, but I might be able to point you in a general direction of where to look for something that might help you get your own answer. And maybe that’s better?

2 comments on “Higher Education: All I Know is That I Don’t Know

  1. […] Like I’ve mentioned before, I’ll be teaching for the first time this year. So I’m definitely on the flip side of the coin when it comes to experiencing the first day of school. Well, at least on Tuesday for a couple hours. I wonder what teachers think about on the first day of school too… Like in my mind, there have been no altercations. Everyone is über dedicated and not only does every assignment I’ve given them, but they totally want to do those assignments too, right? Am I right? […]

  2. […] how much more school I can take). Did I mention that I’m teaching writing for the first time? Oh, right… I […]

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