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Everything I've Learned About Everything

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader


The most humbling part of being a parent usually happens around this time of year, when school starts and your kid asks you for help with his homework and you realize that somehow you know even less than he does. And I'm not even talking about high school-level problems here, either, but basic math, science, and language stuff from elementary school. It's shocking when you realize your utter inferiority; you feel dazed for a while and wonder about this sudden and irreversible atrophying of your brain. How could you forget all this stuff? You didn't realize that when your kid started school it would mean that you'd have to go back and do some remedial work as well, but you do, just to get proficient enough to help.

Of course, a lot of information that kids need to know are things that are tricky for anybody to retain; rote data that gets memorized and promptly forgotten. I have a B.A. in English from I.U. and I swear I'm not a dumb guy but I still trip over the differences between metaphors, similes, and analogies. And though I'm sure I knew it at one point, I have absolutely no idea what a gerund is. Something with an "ing," right? But not the "ing" in "something," its like the "ing" in "thinking" or "walking." Right? I still have no idea.

By far, though, the most confounding school problem I've ever been asked to assist with as a parent was for my daughter's AP composition class in high school, senior year. This was about five years ago, and her assignment was to write out an imaginary speech that her 80-year old self would give in the future, as she looked back on her life and her accomplishments. I'm guessing that the teacher was trying to get her students to think specifically about their futures, about their careers and the wondrous achievements that could be conquered by clear-eyed scholars with enough vision, ambition, and dedication to make it happen.

Now, this should have been right up my alley--I've always been a pretty good public speaker, and it wasn't hard for me to imagine the "bones" of a speech like this. And my daughter was a sharp student who I'm sure would have taken my advice and crafted an impressive speech. But I couldn't offer a bit of help for her. Philosophically, this assignment was just too contrary to my nature; I simply don't think like that, the whole "summing up" and "what I've learned" stuff. Even as an exercise, I couldn't get myself to write a speech that I'm certain the teacher was shooting for--one of those "arc of a life" speeches with lots of anecdotes about triumphing over adversity. I've never believe that life works out quite that neatly, and anyway I'm not convinced that getting older automatically ensures that you get wiser. Sometimes it does, for some people, but sometimes people just get older.

Plus I've know a lot of 80-year olds in my life, and I think it's a little insulting to just think of them as these walking fonts of wisdom. Older people are more complicated than that, thank God, and more playful, and they have great complexities and peculiarities that can't get reduced to simply being labeled "wise." And I imagine that the speeches from them might be a lot more ribald than expected. Aging often dispenses with that polite filter that everyone is so accustomed to in social settings. The speech might kick off with an annoyed reaction to the room and the people in it, followed by a recitation of current health ailments, and perhaps some uproarious comments about current events. I know I'm verging into stereotype here, turning all senior citizens into lovable "old coots," but I can't help thinking that it's impossible to predict the unpredictability of what happens when you get older. What exactly would be on your mind at age 80. Whatever it is, I imagine it wouldn't be the heart-warming, reassuring speech that my daughter's teacher was probably expecting from her students.

I realize now that I probably could have helped my daughter out by simply not being a narcissistic pain in the ass, for one second, but she did okay without me, and the speech she eventually wrote turned out just fine. But the whole exercise stayed with me, and I still wonder about this propensity people have to dispense all this great "wisdom" they've accumulated. For I can't help feeling that the older I get, the less I know. There's a popular Facebook meme that asks you to write a 4-word letter to your 16-year old self, and people earnestly attack this exercise, trying to show the great knowledge that could impart to their younger selves. It's utterly incomprehensible to me. I think I obliged one of my friend's posts with this, but my advice to my 16-year old self was "Don't get on Facebook."

There's a great literary anecdote that concerns the first meeting between the writers James Joyce and Marcel Proust. A number of artists and literati types were gathered around to record the momentous occasion, and the attendees were dying to know what profundities would be espoused by these titans of thought and language. And what did they say, at that first meeting? Joyce: "I've headaches every day. My eyes are terrible." And Proust: "My poor stomach. What am I going to do? It's killing me." Now that's wisdom.

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