In Defense of a Redneck Education
[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]
Once, when I was a small child, I pulled a sink from a trash pile behind my parent's barn and drug it onto the yard. I fashioned a shoddy sign that said, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,"and planted it next to the sink, like a modern day Pablo Picaso. I meant to plant a flower in the sink too, but never got around to it. So, after an appropriate amount of time passed, my mother instructed me to bring the sink back to the trash pile "where it belonged." I took my sorry little butt outside to the sink, only to find the drain clogged with dirt, the bowl full of rainwater, and the world's most gigantic toad blinking up at me from his new home. I was not a fan of egregiously fat toads, and to be sure, I'm still not. In 8th grade science class, we deconstructed first a large worm, then a large frog. My disdain for toad-frogs grew exponentially after that, though I enjoyed the visual and physical aspects of taking apart an animal.
Enjoying the process of dissection (I think) isn't that weird. There is likely some level of of natural human curiosity about how our bodies are assembled, and this translates well to animals. As a Junior in high school, our biology teacher had us pair up, find or kill an animal, skin it, disassemble it, and put the bones back together. This seems horrendous to some, but to us, it was incredibly normal. Half of my high school took the opening week of deer hunting season off, ostensibly to do the same thing to a deer. Kill it, skin it, take it apart, eat it. Humans have been doing this to animals since the beginning of time. To instruct a class of dumb 16 year-old's to engage in an ages-old activity seems mild at best.
My friend Jessica and I found or acquired a brown rabbit-I don't quite remember where it came from, but I do remember that it was winter and by the time we converged to disassemble it, the rabbit was frozen solid. We stuck knives into the rabbit's frozen hide and cut and tugged and cut and tugged until we finally freed the bunny from it's hardened skin. Then, we set up pot of boiling water in her dad's shed and slowly but surely boiled the meat off the bones. The meat was the easy part. There were organs to extract, tendons to contend with, and strong, sinewy tissue that held the rabbit parts in place. After many hours of clumsy toiling, we were left with just the bones, which we boiled further in an effort to make them smooth and shiny; we didn't want any rabbit-residue left.
Later, we would glue the rabbit back together using crude Google images and Gorilla Glue. My mother probably made a casserole as Jessica and I sat at the kitchen table with sundry adhesive agents and a pile of bleached rabbit bones. We probably ate cookies and gossiped about classmates, blissfully ignorant that one day, someone would point out to us that the rabbit project is fully, irreparably weird. Heinous, some would say. Cold-blooded, even. Or simply not necessary. Why kill a rabbit for the sake of learning about anatomy when the internet can show us the same thing, in bright, colorful detail, without any of the nasty rabbit stench, or any of the killing, or any of the clumsy disassembling.
The point is not that we killed an animal unnecessarily. Nature does that all the time. The point is that we learned with intimacy, through touch, smell, sight, sound. We were not killing an animal to be ruthless or for no good reason. If anything, we learned to appreciate the rabbit more, to hold it's strong back haunches and understand how they allowed it to run fast. To hold it's heart and marvel at its smallness and strength. To learn by doing, not by sitting behind a desk, watching a teacher drone on and on about the wonders of rabbit anatomy. That wouldn't have stuck.
I grew up in a small town in Northwestern Wisconsin, on a bunch of land that provided endless opportunities for exploration. There was the cornfield, the forest, the swamp, all rife with life and changing with the seasons. There was a garden where we planted every vegetable imaginable, where I learned the stages of growth before I understood what I was learning. There were trees to climb and lawns to mow and laundry to hang on the line. There were constant opportunities to learn, if I simply looked.
My schooling was much the same. Sure, there were teachers who, on the brink of retirement, went through the motions, their sights set on a pension. But there were also teachers who gave us tools and nudged us toward learning, allowing us to dive as deeply as we liked into whatever interested us. My favorite English teacher, Mrs. Myers, took me on a trip to a day-long writing seminar for high school students, all the way in Whitewater, WI a five-hour drive from my hometown. She didn't have to. But she saw a spark in me and gentle fueled the flame, giving me just enough courage to pursue what I always knew I should.
That's the kind of freedom that seems amiss in education, or in life. We check the boxes we think we ought to check, reign in the parts of ourselves that like taking apart the rabbit, or writing poems, or wandering through nature, and wonder why we aren't happy. We hold expectations of children that don't make sense, and instead of letting them find their own interests, we fill their time with scheduled activities, play dates, snack time, nap time, until their lives are scheduled beyond belief. We do the same thing to ourselves, erroneously believing that filling time is synonymous with living. And, because it's easy, we sit behind screens and judge other people for how they live, even though we don't really know how they live. We can't.
If there is anything I learned from how I grew up it is this: work hard, and good things will happen. The opportunity to learn is endless and everywhere; in the people you encounter as well as in the natural world. Worrying about other people, or about what other people think, is an enormous waste of time. If you're doing this, you aren't busy enough. Doing things right takes time, whether that's building a relationship, training for a marathon, or learning a new skill. Experts are not born overnight. And finally, look up. The earth is a wellspring of beauty, savagery, quietude, and challenge. If you fight against nature, it will always win. And if you choose to not appreciate it, you're missing out on one of the best parts of being human.