“The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.” ~ Anatole France.
We all know at least one child that seems to ask a thousand questions a day. One of mine was peppering me with questions as I got ready for work (over thirty years ago). It was a hot Florida afternoon, in a house that had old wall mounted air conditioner units which didn’t work very well and set the light bill soaring. I started sweating five minutes after getting out of the shower, and I was not in a very good mood. I finally exploded and said: ‘For heaven’s sake, stop questioning me!’ to my young son. There was a pause and then: ‘What does questioning mean?’
The other day an old friend contacted me, one who knew me when he was a child in Jamaica. He was wondering what my impressions had been when I first arrived in Jamaica, when my only experience of life had been the grey and rainy climes of northern England (and summer vacations in mountainous, rainy and cold Wales). Trying to remember first impressions is difficult, as they become overlaid and altered over time. Sometimes we only remember a place when we revisit it, the emotions may be recalled through a sound or a smell.
My first sight of Jamaica came after a long sea voyage. The ship we sailed on had passed through the eastern Caribbean (the Lesser Antilles as we were taught in school), we had also visited the Southern Caribbean and South America. Flora (the hurricane) had gone ahead of us, and we had to linger a while to let her clear her path. When we landed at the port of Kingston (memories of heat and a torturing long wait in a huge warehouse as they unloaded the luggage from deep in the hold), Flora had upended the town. We drove through the ‘city’ and saw goats and cows wandering through the streets, trying to make their way home. We stayed in town for a while (few days? A week?) and then headed for the hills, for the cooler climes of Chapelton.
The formality of our first church service was another memory that I have. We had been warned that in Jamaica women and girls covered their heads for church and wore gloves. I don’t think I had owned a ‘dressy’ hat or gloves before. I was used to knitted tams and mittens, items used to keep you warm in winter. But I soon felt so at home in that town that I can see myself setting off alone to go and visit some of the friends I made in Church. I was only eight or so, but I was skipping down the hill or up the road to go and hang out and be a child, exploring and discovering my new world.
In the last decade, since both of my parents died, there have been moments when I have had a thought, a question, only to realize that the only people I could rely on to answer it are not available anymore. My mother, before she died, was almost the last of her generation still alive (she had been the youngest child and the youngest of all of the cousins). She would often complain that there was no one left that she could ask, if she wanted to confirm a memory, or remember a connection. I told her it meant she could make up her own stories now! But I think she found it quite sad.
When I was asked the question about my childhood, it got me thinking. How many questions do we let go unasked, only to have the opportunity to get an answer pass us by? How many opportunities for learning slip through our fingers, because we don’t want people to know that we don’t know the answer, that we are not as knowledgeable as we pretend to be?
This week we were surprised by the almost unanimous passage of a bill to make ‘Juneteenth’ a federal holiday. The history of June 19th is a tragic one. Two and a half years after the emancipation proclamation declared that slavery was over, troops had to go to Texas to free the enslaved Africans. The people of Texas had conveniently ignored the law, and those enslaved had not been informed that they were supposed to have been freed. Of course, the centuries that followed were not exactly a story of equal rights and justice.
But there are many of those descended from the race that benefited from the enslavement that have been unaware that Juneteenth has always been a big day for celebration among African-Americans. Many educated people have had to be re-educated about it, and about many other shameful events in America’s past. The Tulsa massacre (a hundred years ago) has only had a wider audience, thanks to the tireless efforts of many African Americans to bring it to light. Much of the history of this country has been white-washed and deleted from history books, and a nation is much poorer for it.
We no longer have an excuse for ignorance. The information is out there, a google-search away. If you weren’t taught as a child, it is time to start being curious about the lives of people who don’t look like you, who have a different experience than you. There is a nurse theorist who did her PhD in anthropology because there were no post-graduate degrees in nursing at the time. In working with families in New Guinea, she developed her theory of ‘diversity and universality’. People of different cultures may have vastly different ways of approaching every day life; they may worship different gods and practice vastly different rituals, but underneath it all we have much in common. We want our children to grow up healthy. We want opportunities for our families. We want to share joy and be happy.
I remember being impacted by one particular story in the fascinating autobiography of Lady Cicely Tyson. She spoke of one of her early movies, Sounder, the story of a family of poor, black sharecroppers in the South during the Depression. During one of their press tours, a white man (he may have been a journalist, if I remember correctly) voicing his amazement that the father in the movie expressed the same kind of emotions about his family as he felt. The movie came out in the seventies, and yet white people were so out-of-touch with black people that they did not expect them to have the same emotions, same desires as white people. As Sojourner Truth once famously asked: ‘Ain’t I a woman?’
I end my messages each week with the phrase coined by Bob Marley: ‘One Love’. Unless we keep asking and striving to understand each other, and share that one love, we cannot be one human race that is in this together. On this Friday morning I hope you can still find people to answer your questions, and I hope you will never lose the curiosity of a young child who finds fascination in simple things.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!