The Chance Encounter

Today, as I was walking down my mountain (and it is, indeed, my mountain), I heard a car slowing to a stop beside me.

I had your average “Do I know you or are you going to steamroll over me gradually like in Austin Powers?” moment as I turned my head to identify the car. A man with white hair and a very sweet smile said, “Can I give you a ride?”

About twelve instincts said, “No,” and not the least because I was carrying two small shopping bags full of garbage and an empty pizza box because garbage pickup in my neighborhood only happens twice and it only happens in the mornings when it hurts to be awake, but I hesitated. My neighborhood is also in a very safe part of town with a great deal of very sweet older people living here, and the man had to be over seventy.

I said, “Is it really all right?” and he nodded, laughing, “It’s fine.”

I thanked him and hobbled into the passenger’s seat, trying to keep the shopping bags close to the open window. He chuckled, “Garbage?” in English and in Japanese I said sheepishly, “Yes, sorry. Summer, you know. Bug precaution.”

As he drove down the road, I thanked him again in Japanese and he waved it off politely. After some small talk, I decided that his English level seemed to exceed my Japanese level, so we continued talking in English. I commented on his skill and he demurred, “It used to be, but it’s gotten worse over time.”

“Did you live abroad at some point?”

“Yes. In Boston.”

“Ahh, Boston is beautiful.”

He smiled broadly. “It is. I went to university there.”

“At Boston University?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

I nodded, making a quiet noise to show I was impressed.

“I also went to Columbia in New York for graduate school. They were great – New York and Boston. I lived in the States for six years.”

He did have a bit of an accent, but I admired his fluency and natural pace.

“What did you do for work?” I asked.

“I was in media.”

“And now?”

“The same. In Washington, I worked in the White House.” He smiled out the windshield.

“My sister works there,” I said, grinning.

His eyes widened and he looked at me for the first time since he chuckled at my apparent garbage hoarding. “Really?”

I nodded proudly. “She’s got a very cool job. What did you do there?”

He said, “I was a journalist.”

“Very cool. Did you ever talk to any presidents?”

He smiled. “I did. Two. Eisenhower and Kennedy. I covered Kennedy’s inauguration.”

I gaped. I managed a polite word or two in a tone that implied, “Holy shit,” more than the, “Wow,” that came out.

He pulled the car to the side of the road and I thanked him again. Just to have a twist ending to the ride, I introduced myself and he chuckled and introduced himself in return. I thanked him again a few times and we parted ways, me to my private lesson and he to the bank, where I expect he was meeting a secret agent because there’s no way his life didn’t get twelve times more interesting than the prologue I got to hear in the car.

 

NOTE: Never get into cars with strangers, kids. Wait until you’re twenty-seven years old and don’t want to lug garbage on foot for fifteen minutes until you get to the train station. Then it’s fine.

SOLE and BEES

Today, I inundated myself with research, a good number of TED videos, and many other affiliated talks regarding education in order to create a brand new form of education system for my book.

My favorite new speaker on behalf of education is Sugata Mitra, a professor at Newcastle University in England who’s done some groundbreaking projects on and research into what he calls self-organized learning environments (SOLE). I first saw him featured in this short documentary about the future of education. It’s ten seconds short of thirteen minutes, and it’s truly hopeful and amazing for your happy feelings, if you’ve got thirteen minutes minus ten seconds to spare.

His closing remarks got me to make with the tears in a big way:

“If a child knows how to read, if a child knows how to search for information, how do we teach them how to believe? In our adult heads, each one of us has a little mechanism. It comes from different places. You and I have different mechanisms of how to believe. Sometimes we say, ‘This is obvious,’ sometimes we say, ‘Because so and so told me,’ sometimes we say, ‘This is rubbish.’ What’s that machine inside? How early in a child’s life can we put it there? If we can do it really, really early, then we would have armed that child against doctrine.

“And I don’t mean only religious doctrine. I mean doctrine in all its forms. I think our job as educators, the biggest job in today’s information-saturated world, is to give the child an armor against doctrine, just as in another generation we used to teach that child how to fight with a sword and to ride a horse.”

You can see it happening on Tumblr. Someone will post something like, “THIS MAN HAS BEGUN A CULT AND THEY ARE EATING ALL THE BEES IN THE WORLD. SIGN THIS PETITION!!” with a link to a petition against this angry bee-devouring man.

Except they doesn’t exist.

The Great Devourers of the Honey-Providing Municipality was an urban legend. Or they were someone’s cartoon villain that went viral without a link to the cartoon. Or they were some other fictional entity – a rumor, a lie, a misunderstanding of some kind.

Overnight, that post has multiplied. People have reblogged and shared that post over and over. New comments have been added in the notes: “THIS IS SO IMPORTANT,” the notes scream, “WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE WITHOUT THE BEES” (and from what I’ve come to understand about bees, this is a true thing – we’re all boned without our buzzy friends). Someone else writes: “Why doesn’t this have more notes? We need to save the bees!”

Even before it’s peaked at about 20,219 notes (divided roughly between sharing and bookmarking), many people will be adding comments like, “…Guys, this is an anime character,” or, “Didn’t anyone stop to look this up first?” But the post will continue gaining notice and people

It’s become a joke on Tumblr now, that people will blindly share an article without doing a bit of research first to make sure it’s real. The thing is – people are noticing faster and faster when things are overstated, factually incomplete, or misinterpreted. It’s developed an automatic question among many Tumblr users now: “Is this true?” And then they go off and they check and if it’s wrong, then they provide links to the correct information.

It’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of people online in groups educating each other. And that’s Mitra’s belief: that we’re very good at this type of learning. Children in particular working together in groups can learn anything.

I love this method of thinking, and I’ve been entranced with his proposed methods of practical education all day. Back in 1999, he brought a computer to a slum neighborhood in India and left the computer in a hole in a wall three feet off the ground. Some kids approached him and said, “What’s that?” They’d never seen a computer before, didn’t know the English that the system operated on.

He said, “It’s a computer.”

They said, “How do we use it?”

He said, “I don’t know. And now I’m leaving.” And he left.

A few months later, he returned and found that not only had the kids taught themselves how to use the computer perfectly, they’d also started teaching themselves English.

He did various experiments like this – giving kids technology and walking away – and found that a child on his or her own will play a game for hours. But children in groups won’t let one kid have all the fun – they’ll even out the time.

Mitra said in the beginning when he’d thought of this approach, people questioned whether or not it was a good idea. “They’ll break the computer,” they said. “Or they’ll sell it.”

Mitra wasn’t as convinced. And sure enough, he has footage from cameras he set up all over the world in various locations where he’d left these computers-in-the-wall, and in all the footage, the computers and the kids were fine. In one, a little boy sat on his older sister’s shoulders and instructed her on how to use the mouse. In another, a little girl explains to boys on either side of her how neurons communicate (having learned this from the computer in English on her own).

One of my favorite stories he told was this: he took a computer way out into a rural village and set up the computer. Again, some kids asked what it was, and he explained, and when they asked how to use it, he said, “I have no idea,” and left with what I’m assuming was a cheerful smile and a wave. (He projects a very friendly, positive aura. Dude’s just extremely likable.)

When he returned some months later, they said to him, “We want a faster processor and a better mouse.”

This was all back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but his research has continued since then. His ideas resonate with Sir Ken Robinson’s: children who are interested will learn. But Mitra goes one step further. He believes that rather than teachers doing the job on their own, children can teach each other. During one of his talks, he quoted another educator who said, “If computers can replace teachers, they should be replaced.” 

He made an excellent point about the testing system. That in the real world, we’re often working with computers and in groups, yet our examinations are individual and only from memory.

The current education system is completely separate from the world we live in. The system is hundreds of years old, designed for a much different society of people, and it’s severely damaging to children in its worst cases. It crushes our natural hunger for knowledge and, as Mitra brought up at one point, the testing system instills fear in us. When fear takes hold, our brain shuts down because of primitive self-defense purposes, and that’s not exactly a welcome environment for learning.

The magic of these talks is that if we can change education, if we can give children admiration and encouragement and support rather than fear and reprimands and societal submission, they’ll flourish. All people deserve the chance to learn and, in particular, find the passions and talents that make life blissful.

 

 

students and learners

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on education for a book I’m writing. As part of my research, I’ve been watching a number of speeches by Sir Ken Robinson. His insights on learning have given me a lot to think about, and a lot of inspiration behind the world building of my book.

I’m still at the beginning stages of research, so this is just the dough of what will hopefully one day be fully-formed and edible thought, but let’s watch me ramble for a bit about some realizations I’ve had.

In America, but also in school systems all around the world, the focus is on the “hard knowledge” classes like math and science. When the time comes to find cuts in the budget, the arts are almost always the first to go. And you rarely see dance integrated into the curriculum.

The arts are largely seen as leisure activities. Someone I admire has told me repeatedly that my interest in the arts is less valuable than if I had chosen something more marketable. That’s the outdated belief that school systems are laboring under: that creativity is less valuable than conformity. If you score high on standardized tests, you’re viewed as smarter and more valuable than someone who scored lower than you did. But as (does one always use Sir to refer to a knighted person? Is he Sir Ken? I know I always call Sir Ian McKellen “Sir Ian,” so) Sir Ken pointed out, companies want people who are creative, who can help them adapt to the world as it changes by thinking outside the box.

But our education system teaches us conformity, not diversity.

[THIS IS WHERE I START TALKING ABOUT ME]

I enjoyed some stages of school. I loved elementary school, I liked middle school, I really liked junior high, I disliked high school, and I loved university.

I think what I loved most about elementary school and what I took most for granted was the freedom of being wrong. When I think back to elementary school, I think of bright hallways and smiling teachers and vivid colors and laughing and running and games. I think of recess and concerts and time to play. I don’t remember any red marks on my papers or feeling so nervous about going to school that I’d look up ways to induce vomiting so I could fake sick and stay home.

That didn’t happen until junior high, and as I said, I really liked junior high. But after I left elementary school, I didn’t love school again until I got to university.

What’s maybe the most ironic moment of my academic life was in third grade when I heard we would be marked with more specific grades than the ones we’d been getting before. I was excited. I liked learning, and I liked being praised, and I assumed grading would be encouragement. When I’d gotten an answer wrong before, the teacher had said, “You’ve almost got it, try again.” When I got to third grade, I entered the world of grading and testing.

At this stage, if I got something wrong, I couldn’t be taught how to correct it and earn that point back. If I got a question wrong, I was stuck being wrong. Even if I’d only written the wrong answer by mistake, the mark at the top of the paper told me, “You were wrong, and now you have to carry the weight of being wrong.” Suddenly, I was fixated on my grades, far more than learning anything.

By fourth grade, school made me nervous. I didn’t want to do dry, boring pages of homework, and after a year or two of getting bad grades, I was used to it and found little motivation in the threat of getting a bad grade. All good grades meant to me was a lack of people angry with me, and that wasn’t motivation enough either. Instead, I found ways to avoid both homework and making people angry by cultivating a stronger sense of humor. It’s become a life skill, a defense mechanism, and a recreational hobby that’s probably been my single most powerful tool. Not just making people laugh, but learning to laugh things off.

Fifth and sixth grade were worse academically. I got used to seeing Cs on my report card, and I stopped caring entirely about math and science. I’d once quite liked science, and when I was very young I’d liked playing math games. By sixth grade, math terrified me and science just seemed insurmountably dull. On top of that, I heard people everywhere talking about “creative vs. logical” and all the right/left brain clichés and I started to think my disillusionment with math and science just meant I wasn’t smart enough for “hard knowledge” and just the “soft knowledge” of the arts and humanities I excelled in. I thought, “I’m just wired differently, and I never would have been good at those subjects anyway.”

But I don’t think that’s true. I think had someone showed me things exploding (from a safe distance) or let me mix chemicals or something visual, I would have caught on. If someone had started off explaining science to me in creative terms, if they’d told me stories about scientists and how they’d discovered their incredible work, I would have loved it. I’ve always loved the stars, and I love listening to explanations by scientists, and I love finding out how machines function and how gravity differs from planet to planet. I love theories about parallel universes and I love doing research and finding out things I don’t know. I want to know as much as I possibly can, and when I’ve learned all that, I want there to be more that I still don’t know, because the potential of the unknown is just as exciting as learning something new.

I would have loved science. I know I would have.

Instead, my clearest memory of fourth grade science is the C I got on my report card because of one project. The teacher told us to write a paper on a scientist of our choice and gave us a list of names to choose from. The only person left when the list got to me was a female scientist who, at the time, only merited a paragraph in one of our library’s encyclopedias and two sentences in the whole of the internet. I couldn’t find more information, and, when I asked my teacher about it, she frowned at me and told me to look harder in the library. The librarian and I couldn’t find more, and I handed in a paper half the size as the one she wanted. I got an F, and my A plummeted to a C.

What’s worse is that I liked the teacher. She had always been patient with me, and when my classmates called her scary, I felt a rush of pride and gratitude that she was nice to me. I wanted to impress her, I wanted to do well, and I liked when I got good grades, but I don’t remember being excited to learn anything. After that project, the project that singlehandedly sunk my grade beyond resurrecting, I felt even less excitement to try. Because why bother now? My A was gone, and the best I could hope for now was a C+ or a B-.

University was incredible. For the first time in my educational existence, I had choices. I didn’t have to study Math/Science/English/Religion/Art/History. I could, but I didn’t have to, once I’d filled my required credits. At the very earliest possible opportunity, I enrolled in courses that covered ancient cultures and writing and anthropology and philosophy. And then I found theatre, and my world became infused with the light of happiness and knowledge and culture and NEW YORK.

…I went to college in New York. I think I missed that detail. Ah, well. Anyway, university. It was awesome. I got to pursue my passion, and I got to make writing the main focus of my education. That was game-changing for me.

[THIS IS WHERE I STOP TALKING ABOUT ME]

I want to start doing more research on what they call “alternative” methods of education, because I think there’s a lot of merit to be gained by changing the current system of education.

People are naturally curious. We’re naturally community-driven. The fact that so many people see their desire to learn snuffed out is a disappointing fact of life, but it’s one that can be changed. By changing the approach to education, students can become learners.

Dad

When I was about five years old, my dad would take me to the general store and, if I’d saved my allowance enough, we’d choose a model car to build out of tiny wooden pieces.

The model cars sat up on the highest shelf of the toy room, and they disappeared one by one into my possession. We’d drive down to the general store, my dad would let me choose a box, and then we’d drive back up the mountain to our house where the construction process began.

A few years later, when I was around eight or so, I asked my dad for help on a science project. We had to build something using pulleys and levers and lifts, so he helped me design a mining cart with a working elevator shaft. By pulling the string, it’d drag the cart up a ramp and into the mine shaft, then gently down to the ground.

It was ambitious for a fourth grader, and we drew the design up together while adhering to the guidelines my teacher had written out. We worked for hours, even through dinner, and even though my dad had to be at work early the next day, we stayed up late into the night. Around some small hour I’d never been awake until before, my dad caught sight of the time and told me to go to sleep. I hesitated. We’d hit a snag on the project, and we’d made the elevator door too high for the ramp to connect with, and we were brainstorming ways to fix it without starting from scratch. What had seemed perfect on paper wasn’t translating as well into a tangible thing.

I went to sleep worried about the project, convinced I’d failed and my teacher would only give me half credit. When I woke up, my dad had fixed the problem and made the whole thing perfectly functional. I remember giving him a hug and thanking him, pretty close to grateful tears.

Another time, when I had to do a report for school on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, my dad and I thought up a creative approach. We decided to do a fake news cast report. Again, we wanted it to be perfect, so we redid it again and again until late. I was convinced it was terrible. We’d shot it in our dining room, and my mom had given me one of her blazers to wear, but I was too small for it and I was convinced that the whole thing looked way too serious and everyone would laugh at me.

When our teacher asked for volunteers, I was one of the first to put my hand up just because I wanted it over as soon as possible. Then I retreated to my desk, put my face in my arms, and cringed at the sound of my own voice repeating words I could have said in my sleep by then. At the end of the video, I cautiously lifted my head and, to my astonishment, my classmates deemed it cool. I’d never felt relief that profound until that moment, judging by how clearly I remember it. And I knew if it had been up to me I would have recorded something that *was* ridiculous and I’d have stopped at one take just to get it over with, but my dad had pushed for something better, and now I understood the value of giving a project everything you have.

My dad ran his own company and worked relentlessly throughout my childhood (and even now), but I still have a plethora of memories of him always prepared to help and support however he can. He played games with me, he put time aside to help me with school (even when I really, really didn’t want it – scowling at you, math), and he tried his best to give me the best life he could.

My dad’s awesome. ❤

the rainbow near the sea

Image

 

Today, my friend sent me a picture of a rainbow.

We live in the same general area, so when she called me a moment later, I asked her immediately, “What direction are you facing?”

I slipped on my sandals and hurried down the stairs to the backyard, then through a sea of freshly-dug soil to the front porch where I immediately spotted the enormous band of color you see above you.

As a teenager, I genuinely believed in a future where I would reach adult enlightenment and feel at peace all the time. I still think I’ll get there, but I also think that when I do, I’ll spontaneously burst into spirit glitter. Balance of the universe and all that.

Looking at the rainbow, I felt that sense of peace. I almost missed it, because once I’d taken my photographs and looked at it for a while, my attention span was saying, “Hey, let’s go back and Not Write some more.” But I hesitated by the railing and made myself think back to the last time I just looked at something for the pure vacant enjoyment of looking. Not to gain knowledge or appreciation or enjoyment–

Just to look.

And I found that the longer I looked, the more I relaxed. I leaned on the railing and looked up at the sky and thought back to when I was a kid and I saw rainbows and believed in pots of gold or hidden realms at either end. I looked at the the bridge where the rainbow began, and I indulged the part of me that’s seven years old and wondered if maybe that bridge weren’t magical after all.

And now, some fried chicken:

Image

 

This is fried chicken, but it is fried chicken I made. It is homemade, therefore it is healthy. Thus said the me.

Good night, citizens of home cooking!

 

the opportunistic arsonist

Yesterday, I heard this story from my neighbor:

During a fire in the Edo period, a sixteen-year-old girl took refuge in a nearby temple. She met and fell in love with one of the temple pages. When the disaster passed, she returned home and pined for the boy she had fallen for. The following year, she tried to recreate the event that brought them together. She lit the temple on fire, and while she waited for the page to appear, she was caught and sentenced to death.

Image

When she stood trial, the judge could see she was frightened. He said to her, “You’re so young. You must be fifteen, aren’t you?”

The girl answered, “I’m sixteen.”

The judge hesitated. He knew that no one under the age of sixteen could be given the death penalty, and he softened his voice to make his intention clearer.

Once again, he said to her, “But you must be fifteen, isn’t that right?”

The girl, unaware of the loophole and the judge’s kind intentions, answered honestly, “No, I’m sixteen.”

The judge had no choice but to convict her, and she was burned at the stake for arson.

Sadly, it’s a true story, though the details shift from source to source. It’s been the subject of both kabuki and bunraku plays.

an open letter to hollywood

Dear Hollywood,

I realize that many renowned stories are based on previously existing stories. My Fair Lady was based on Pygmalion which was based on a Greek myth. The Lion King was based on Hamlet which was based on a Danish legend. West Side Story was based on Romeo & Juliet which was based on an Italian poem.

Some renowned stories are even based on actual historical events: Titanic was based on the 1912 shipwreck and the people aboard, The Queen was based on the actual days following Princess Diana’s death, The King’s Speech was based on King George VI, and The Lord of the Rings was based on a real Hobbit carrying The One Ring to its destruction yes it was Hobbiton is real shhh.

However, neither of these practices is what you’re doing by making sequels to every single movie in your inexhaustible list of already existing movies.

If you must make a sequel, make the next Kung Fu Panda or, for God’s sake, The Incredibles 2.

Stop splitting your movies into two parts. That shit’s annoying and unnecessary and stretched the migraine that was Twilight out like a thin yet coarse and rash-inducing membrane of pain.

Also, stop fucking up movies that should have been incredible (e.g.: 47 Ronin and Alexander).

…But good work on The Lego Movie.

Fondly,
Audience Member