Tuesday, 3 February 2015

"What's the sun made of?"

I heard the question behind me. Father and four year old daughter were having a conversation while Mother was trying to find trousers the right size for Father. (I was buying work trousers for the Senior Cat. The others were in a disgraceful state.)
Mother and I looked at one another and then she said softly, "She's always asking questions like that."
We agreed it was a good thing and I took the Senior Cat's trousers off the rack and went off wondering if the child would go on asking questions like that. I hope she will. She obviously had parents who care about her because the father's answer was, "I don't know but we can go to the library on the way home and find out."
It was a good answer.
I wonder how many other parents would have answered that way? As I was retelling this to a neighbour she said, "It's tempting to make up an answer sometimes." Ouch!
I don't think I have ever been guilty of that. I hope not. I didn't ever do it when I was teaching, even when faced with the prospect of trying to explain something to a child with very limited experience of the world.
I remember when one of the children I was teaching really discovered grass for the first time. She would have been about nine years of age. She had been wheeled in her wheelchair across grass of course, wheeled across it many times. She had seen it and she "knew" what it was but she had never touched it or tasted it or felt it against her skin.
We took her out of her wheelchair that day because it needed a repair. The workshop engineer had come to get it while we were outside. We put her on the mat and, somehow, she managed to roll over onto the grass. One of the staff went to put her back on the mat when I said, "Leave her for a moment. Dannie..."
She looked at me and smiled and, with the effort it took her to say anything at all, she told me "Grass tickles!"
I took some blades of grass back into the classroom and borrowed a magnifying glass from the main office of the institution. We looked at the grass under the magnifying glass. Yes, she was interested but one of the boys wanted to know more. He couldn't speak but I could sense his disappointment when the magnifying glass had to be put away. 
"Want to know some more Peter?" I asked. He looked quickly at the ceiling, his way of saying "Yes".
He had to wait of course. He had to wait for everything. He was an intelligent child in a classroom full of children with all sorts of serious intellectual and physical disabilities. At last I was able to get back to him. What did he want to know? We went through the tortuous process of question and answer, the limited words on his communication board - in the days before any electronic device. He wanted to know why grass was green. We looked at the library shelf and, thankfully, there was a simple science text there with an explanation in pictures that at seven years of age and limited experience he could understand. I only had a few minutes to spend with him but I left the book open on his wheelchair tray so that he could go on looking at it.
I sent a note home in his "day book" to his brother that night. His brother was only eleven but he was the one who had to read notes because his parents didn't read English. There was a note in Peter's bag next morning, "We'll do an experiment like I did at school."
And they did. Peter brought it to school to show me. I am forever grateful to his brother for the time he spent teaching Peter what I did not have time to teach - and the Greek I had no chance of teaching.
I wonder if Peter would have asked me, "What's the sun made of?"
I wonder how I would have answered. I wish now I had taken the time to teach Peter the Greek myths and legends of his ancestors. I didn't.
But, we did find out why the grass was green.

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