Schooled by a Schoolgirl

All of the kids, having dinner on the terrace.

All of the kids, having dinner on the terrace.

A teenage girl just taught me something important. We seem so focused on what we should and can and must teach our children that I guess sometimes we forget that they often have lessons of their own to impart.

Two of my seemingly innumerable nieces and nephews recently came to stay with us, on a brief stop-over on part of a much larger, longer European backpacking tour. They came with friends and a couple of adult chaperones, two ladies with whom we fell instantly in love.

Teenagers are notorious for, well, teenagerly stuff in general, mostly angst, lust, gluttony, sloth, and one or two other cardinal sins. This lot was no different. They lolled in bed like dart-tranquilized walruses in the mornings, gorged like tapeworms on every morsel of food that passed their way, and immersed themselves in their personal technology, little islands of isolation surrounded by a largely sterile sea of social media.

Yet these were kids on the adventure of a lifetime, eyeballing the cathedrals, museums, history (and topless women) of the greatest cities and beaches of Europe, and there was a certain luster of wonder upon them, a sense that behind the somewhat studied teenage disinterest there was stashed an ill-concealed nugget of something that acknowledged and understood the immensity of their good fortune.

But there was one, a girl of maybe 16 or 17, who reminded me of something I sometimes fail to remember, no matter how hard I try.

A 13 year-old boy stands at the prow of a ship, plowing through the storied waters of the Sea of Galilee. He is on a two-week tour of Israel and Egypt. He has stood on the Mount of Olives, gazing down at the Dome of the Rock. He has tasted the mineral-crisp headwaters of the River Jordan and run his fingers along Herod’s Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. Tomorrow or the day after he will stand in the ruins of Masada and gaze down at the Dead Sea shimmering in the heat below, imagining the scene of over 900 Jews killing their children, their womenfolk, and themselves, rather than come under the yoke of Roman slavery. This boy will soon stand in the shadows of the pyramids.

I would love to say that that 13 year-old boy had been inquisitive, fascinated, enthusiastic. He had not. He’d been petulant and bored. He’d complained about cucumbers and tomatoes and olives for breakfast, bemoaned the long bus rides and the arid landscape, at which he’d gazed myopically (both literally and figuratively) because he’d been too cool to wear his damned eyeglasses. He’d been afraid of asking questions because he didn’t want to appear ignorant, didn’t want to sound dumb.

The girl sits on the back of the scooter I’m driving, asking questions. What kind of trees are these? And these? And these? Are those grapes? What kinds of animals do you see here? Wow, is that a castle? How old is this church? A million questions burble up from a bottomless well of curiosity and fascination.

Earlier I’d asked the kids if they’d like to go on a nature walk. “That would be great!” she’d beamed. At the beach: Do you want to rent a kayak and paddle along the coast? “I’d love to!” At home: “Would you guys like to try a little local tapas place? “Absolutely!” There was nothing this girl didn’t want to try, or do, or taste, or know.

We get off the scooter in front of what remains of an 11th-century castle, and walk along the cobbled street between the castle keep and a 12th-century church. Everything she sees clearly delights her, astonishes her, and her eagerness is entirely contagious.

And I’m chastened. Even now, when I should know better, I have a hard time allowing myself to ask questions for fear of exposing my ignorance of a particular subject. At times I tamp down my enthusiasm so as not to appear the gaping tourist. Worldly-wise and slightly weary, however, is not an attractive or engaging pose. Being inquisitive, open to any new experience, any burgeoning acquaintance, is. This young lady has reminded me of that, and I’m trying to live accordingly.

Concrete example? Here’s one. Every Wednesday, as part of my Spanish course, there is a purely voluntary excursion to some cultural experience that attracts a handful of participants. Today we were to visit a well-known local artist. I am experiencing an excruciating crick in my neck. I have loads of other things to do (none of which, it must be admitted, particularly important). The prospect of the intense concentration involved in understanding rapidly spoken Spanish combined with the humiliation of attempting to communicate in my infantile pidgin is less than enticing.

Then I remember the enthusiasm, the raw, rampant avidity of this young woman in seeking out engagement in everything around her, and abuse myself for even considering the possibility of bailing on the outing. It was, of course, a fantastic experience, and I was immensely glad that I had gotten my sorry ass off of the sofa to participate in it.

So here’s my advice to my kids, and perhaps even to those jaded adults out there who might stumble across this while googling “nubile young girls.”

Ask questions. Lots of them. Anything you don’t know but interests you, find out about. Always accept, willingly and gratefully, anything anyone is willing to teach you. Don’t be afraid of looking stupid. You’re not.

Never spurn a new experience, particularly if your motives are fear and lethargy. Step out there, literally and metaphorically, and get your feet wet, your clothes muddy, your pride bruised. I was stuck the other day behind a halting and inexpert student driver. When I passed the student’s car, I glanced over to see an elderly woman hunched over the wheel, a mixture of fear, determination and elation on her face. Don’t let anyone tell  you you’re too old, or too weak, or too foolish. Be that old woman.

We’ve heard these life lessons so many times, from so many sources, that they seem buzzworded, banal, cliche. We know these things. But sometimes we need a teenage girl to remind us of them.

Nephew on the scooter

Nephew on the scooter

15 thoughts on “Schooled by a Schoolgirl

  1. It is amazing what you can learn from those around you. Being an educator I learned quickly that I may impart academic lessons to my students, but they share life’s lessons with me. In college I had a professor tell me that the best question a child can ask is “why”. I think that applies to kids of all ages for when we stop asking questions, we stop learning about the world we live in. Thanks for sharing.

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    • And thanks for visiting and sharing your own experiences and you wisdom – we really enjoyed you guys. And if you’re ever in the neighborhood again, you know you have place to stay!

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  2. I completely identified with your comments about being a 13 year old. So many great things my parents tried to show me that I didn’t engage in. BUT, now I do. So maybe it’s just a lesson that returns to us later. You just have to wait for it. Although I think all the time about how I can encourage curiosity and passion for learning in Mirabel. Also, loved the note from your mom 😉 Hi Nancy!

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    • Indeed, Kari, youth is wasted on the young. I want my kids to be as outgoing and inquisitive as this girl – Hell,I want to be as outgoing and inquisitive as this girl. Something to work on. Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. Pingback: Beautiful Curiosity - Refusing To Drift

  4. Reblogged this on todd kinzle and commented:
    Curiosity is the seed of every profound thought and great discovery. On this journey I’m on with my girls, I want to find ways to inspire and encourage their sense of curiosity. At the very least I hope to avoid being the parent that squelches it out because of my own fears. I want my girls to sound like the schoolgirl in this story I found.

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  5. I’ve taken my family out of our norm for a bit of an adventure. My four girls (7,8,10, & 12) display sparks of curiosity amidst the display of petulance and boredom. I so long to provide kindling for those little sparks and gently guide them to becoming more and more like the young lady you describe in your post. Any advice, perhaps from the perspective of that 13-year-old boy, on how I might carefully guide them in this direction?

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    • I think the only thing that really works is leading by example. If you’re enthusiastic and inquisitive, chances are they will be too. Ask them questions, engage them in speculation, interpretation and imagination, and you might find that they will begin to be more inquisitive. Don’t pretend you always have the answer. If they ask you something you can’t answer, look it up together. You might even have to fake it at times. Sometimes my oldest son and I will see a bird, for example, and I’ll know exactly what it is, but I’ll get all excited and pretend that I have no idea. So I’ll ask him about distinguishing features, which leads him to look more carefully and thoroughly, and we’ll consult a guide book together to solve the mystery.
      One thing that we sometimes do is make a checklist before we go somewhere of all of the things we might see. On a hike, for example, we’ll speculate prior to leaving the house about what we’re likely to see, and compile a list that we’ll bring along to tick off.
      I don’t see why that wouldn’t work for an art museum, a zoo, or simply a day out in the city.
      Exude enthusiasm and wonder, even if you sometimes have to fake it, and it will rub off. Hopefully.
      Anyway, it’s great that you’re thinking about these things, and thanks so much for visiting and leaving your thoughts!

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  6. Matt, I appreciated your “schooled by a schoolgirl”, not only for the message, but for the memory of that 13 year old boy!!! The last paragraph hit home also as this old lady is trying to set new goals also………Mom

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  7. I have no filter (although I do have good manners) so I find that I’m often opening myself up to looking, possibly, ignorant of certain things. There’s just so much to learn in the world! An old friend of mine and I sometimes debate – He says that those who have the most to say often say too little and those who have nothing to say speak too much. I’m sure if he’s talking to me but either way, I’d rather just blurt it out, choosing to feel foolish over feeling regretful any day.

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    • I’m very similar, in that I often blurt out items that are of questionable appropriateness, but I am, like you, forever polite. When my wife read “Kitchen Confidential,” at my instigation, she suddenly understood some of my, ahh, somewhat less-than-refined tendencies. But then you may have noticed that a bit in the blog. 🙂

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