I love words. If I put my favorite words in alphabetical order, alacrity would lead the list and zest would be the final flourish. I carry my words with me the way a chef might travel with her knives–I know they help me do my best work. Without words I would not be able to tell stories.
Children can go anywhere with a story and on Friday we took a field trip to a cave in ancient Greece. We gathered on the rug and I asked if anyone knew that Sophia’s name had a special meaning in Greek. They didn’t. I explained that Sophia means wisdom and philosophy means love of wisdom. They looked interested so I told them about a man whose favorite punctuation mark in today’s world would be the question mark. He is the father of philosophy and his name was Socrates.
They were still with me so I continued: Socrates was a teacher who told stories to get his point across. His star student, Plato, wrote down a story he told… I began the story and we stepped into a cave.
Imagine a cave where people were chained in a way that they could only see the damp dark cave wall illuminated by a fire that burned behind them. Behind the fire was a walkway that other people journeyed across, back and forth. The fire cast shadows of these travelers — and of all that they carried — on the wall. The imprisoned could never turn their heads to see the actual travelers, only their shadows and the shadows of their possessions. Those shadows became all that they knew of reality.
Finally, a prisoner broke free. At first he felt blinded and overwhelmed. But as the world took shape around him, he adjusted to daylight and he noticed olive branches with color and fragrant leaves and twigs that cracked between his fingers. He realized that the shadows in the cave were merely a shadow of reality.
This story is a good fit for our study of ancient Greece in social studies and our study of matter in science. But it is about more than that and got me thinking.
Ancient Greece was a long time ago, but the cave wall is never far away. And neither are the chains. We have to be careful with technology.
I am not teaching children to be philosophers, but I am teaching them to be thinking readers and writers. Writers learn to identify experiences that are real and have meaning in their lives. Playing football or soccer is an experience. Playing a soccer or football video game is a pastime. There is a difference. One is about living out life. The other is on a screen… a shadow on a cave wall.
There is a difference between television shows and shining moments of sunlight, fragrance, words, and relationship.
I read aloud to my students everyday to keep the desert from encroaching on language. Technology won’t do that. It can’t. Books and poetry line our hearts with word, image, and cadence that seem to surface as we think, speak, and write.
My family went on a picnic in the mountains this weekend. We picked apples and listened to fiddle music as we had a picnic in the crisp fall air under the cloudless blue sky. Walt Whitman’s words whispered in the leaves:
Give me the splendid silent sun, with all his beams full-dazzling;
Give me juicy autumnal fruit, ripe and red from the orchard; Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows…
Words, like apples on branches, wait. We have to notice them and love them and grow them and choose the ones that are ripe and juicy and just right for us. And then we pick our favorites to have as our own. With alacrity. And zest.