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Column: You don’t want to lie, not to the young

  • Jon Stableford. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 7/10/2021 10:10:06 PM
Modified: 7/10/2021 10:10:07 PM

A few days ago my 5-year-old granddaughter opened her hand, revealing a stone, and asked, “Is this quartz?” We were on a hike that included her grandmother, her parents and her infant sister in a backpack, and she and I had fallen behind because the hill was steep and there were so many wonders to see along the way.

“Yes!” I said a little too enthusiastically. My two years of college geology are now well past their expiration date, but a week earlier she had picked up a similar stone on another hill, and I was pleased she remembered the word I’d used to name it. “Quartzite” would have been more accurate for these stones, a fact I verified later that afternoon with an internet search.

We continued to climb, and I speculated about the impurities that clouded her specimen. By then she had put it in her pocket and was busy picking wildflowers.

Children are so curious and acquisitive, and it’s natural to worry that what we say to them is too much or too little. For the remaining hour of that hike I was entirely present for my granddaughter, but an earworm from a Leonard Cohen song haunted me:

And the night comes on

It’s very calm

I’d like to pretend that my father was wrong

But you don’t want to lie, not to the young …

Cohen’s song is hardly applicable; it fixates on serious issues like war and sex and suicide (in addition to parenthood), but there I was, suddenly worrying about everything I said to my granddaughter as her questions veered from fungi to mammals to reptiles to amphibians.

I know better than to take myself too seriously. In my career as a classroom teacher, I knew that when my students were parsing speeches from King Lear or wrestling with parallel construction in their own writing, the material before them was less important than the process of learning how to learn.

I knew they would forget most of what they studied with me, but also that if I did my job right, their curiosity and acquisitiveness would remain undamaged. As they matured, they would relearn so many things with new depth and complexity because they would know how to go about unlocking secrets.

Ah, the luxury of a retired teacher, my world reduced to the alchemy of conversations with my grandchildren. I might better spend my time fighting for teachers who are currently being told by politicians and activists what not to teach.

Honest inquiry about topics such as the warming Earth or the patterns of oppression in our history are suddenly taboo. The governor of Florida, who reportedly has presidential ambitions, wants to survey the minds of university students in his state.

He claims he is looking for proof that students are free to think for themselves, but what he really is after with his survey is assurance that his ideas are being supported and nurtured by universities receiving public funding.

Republican legislators uncomfortable with the changing demographics of our nation vilify for political gain words like Black Lives Matter and critical race theory and turn them into battle cries as misguided as “Remember the Maine!” To open minds these terms should be invitations to thoughtful debate.

Indoctrination of any kind, whether from the left or the right, has no place in education; but Republican legislatures in many states including, New Hampshire, have been writing laws about what can and cannot be taught and criminalizing teachers who do not comply. We should trust the professionals and leave teaching to teachers, but everyone is an expert in a country where opinion often passes for truth.

If our schools teach young people to learn and to think for themselves, honest people should have nothing to worry about. In 1988, my daughter spent the fall of her senior year of high school at a math and science school in Novosibirsk in what was then still the Soviet Union. It takes some courage to allow your child to leave home and venture so far, but never did her mother and I worry that she would be corrupted by communism. We trusted her command of the Russian language and her grip on her own values, and she emerged from that experience (and another involving a full academic year at a university in Moscow when she was in college) as a stronger and more confident learner.

In the spring of the year of my daughter’s first experience abroad, a boy from Novosibirsk lived with us and took classes at the school where I taught. He was already a brilliant mathematician and chess player, and one day I asked him which Russian writers were his favorites. “Soviet writer” he corrected. He knew I was referring to the likes of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin, so his correction sounded brainwashed and foolish, but I knew he was just being cautious. Some years later he described in a letter to us his graduate studies and the freedom he was enjoying in the new Russia.

If you ever doubt the independence and resilience of young people to resist the nonsense of adults who have lost their way, take a hike with a 5-year-old. The young are too curious and too energetic to take our word for anything without seeing for themselves, and register our words with a natural skepticism. If you doubt this, try arguing with a child about a vegetable on her plate that she finds disgusting.

Our role as adults is to spoil our children with love, and to never lie. We couldn’t control what they think if we tried.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.




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