Some Things We Don’t Get to Know

One of the first sentences that I learned to string together was apparently, “I can’t know that,” when I didn’t know something. I can know that I said that because many family members and people who knew me then like to remind me of this fact. It may have been cute toddler babble then, but I can’t don’t know… I’m starting to think that I was on to something. While “can’t” might not be completely accurate, I’m convinced that there are some things that we just don’t get to know.

Early in my career as a teacher I realized that while I worked hard to assess what my students were learning, there were some things that I would not be able to witness them achieve beyond the context of my classroom. Anyone who has taught for more than a year knows that once the students leave your classroom, you often never know where they are going to end up or even what, if any, impact you have made on their lives.

Some things we just don’t get to know.

"George Washington Carver c1910" by not listed - Tuskegee University Archives/Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

George Washington Carver c1910” by not listed – Tuskegee University Archives/Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This past weekend I spent some time thumbing through my third and fourth grade yearbooks. I was on the hunt for the first name of my third grade teacher, Ms. Hoskins. Unfortunately, the yearbook editors only listed the adults in the yearbook by Mr., Mrs., or Miss so-and-so. The information hunt continues.

I was searching for Ms. Hoskins’ first name because I was preparing for the reading that I will present at the upcoming annual African American Read-In event later this month. I’ve selected a few poems from a collection by Marilyn Nelson titled Carver: a life in poems. The Ms. Hoskins connection comes in because she is the first person that I remember telling me about the contributions of African American scientist Dr. George Washington Carver. I can remember being fascinated by Carver’s story and amazed at how his innovations had shaped the world I lived in. Ms. Hoskins was the first person to teach me about her alma mater, the Tuskegee Institute, and told stories of the incredible accomplishments of its graduates. She made an impact on my life in that third grade classroom. Here I am over two decades later recalling the things that she taught me about the world. And I wonder… does she have any idea that I remember what she taught me?

Some things we just don’t get to know.

Fast forward to early in my career as a librarian. I was working the reference desk one afternoon when the phone rang. We were well into the Google era and so we didn’t really get a lot of genuine reference questions via the phone. One that day, though, someone needed the assistance of a reference librarian. The exchange went something like this:

Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

“Reference desk. This is Elizabeth, how may I help you?”

“I need to know what the gestation period is for an elephant.”

“Okay. Just a moment and I’ll look up that information for you.” (meanwhile, I’m… Googling the gestation period of an elephant. Yes, sometimes we use Google too.)

“The gestation period of an elephant generally lasts 20-22 months depending on the species.” (I also would have told her the source that I used)

“That’s what I needed to know. Thank you.” (Click)

What just happened here? Did I just help in determining the due date for an elephant? The caller gave me no information about why she needed the information. Was she using this information for a purpose other than satisfying her curiosity? What made her think to contact the local librarian for this information in the age of the internet?

Some things we just don’t get to know.

Today I often experience this phenomenon of not knowing when I help a student with a research project or speak to an entire class. Many of my interactions with students are boiled down to somewhere between a 3-minute online chats and a 50-minute one-shot instruction session. Knowing the nature of the job does make me more intentional about forming relationships with students when I am able. Still, there will always be the fact that I don’t see the end results in much of my work. I get them started on their research, but rarely see the final paper. I teach them about the ethical use of information, but I don’t get to see how that plays out for them in practice. As teachers (and teacher librarians) we usually don’t get to see the rest of the story. We plant seeds that we may never have the opportunity to see harvested.

Some things we just don’t get to know…

…And yet, the older I get the more I find that I’m okay with some of the not knowing. 

Admitting that I’m comfortable not knowing something in this world where we pride ourselves in knowing things seems a little risky. After all, I’m a librarian. I’m supposed to be excited about knowing things. And I am… most of the time. I used to think that the uncomfortable thing was not knowing the answer; that was until I got to things that I just flat can’t figure out – things I can’t know.

The Apostle Paul wraps up his well-known writings on love to the Corinthians with a discussion on things that we don’t get to know… yet.

“We don’t know everything, and our prophecies are not complete. But what is perfect will someday appear, and what isn’t perfect will then disappear. When we were children, we thought and reasoned as children do. But when we grew up, we quit our childish ways. Now all we can see of God is like a cloudy picture in a mirror. Later we will see him face to face. We don’t know  everything, but then we will, just as God completely understands us.” 1 Corinthians 13:10-12 CEV

There are still so many things that I don’t get to know. Does Ms. Hoskins know that what she taught to a poofy-haired, snaggletoothed third grader has influenced what I will share with the ETBU community later this month? Highly unlikely. What in the world was that elephant phone call about? Beyond satisfying idol curiosity, I have no idea. What stuck in the mind of the student who sat on the third row of the class that I taught two weeks ago? I haven’t reviewed my assessment data, and so at this point I can only hope.

Let’s take it up a notch. Why do bad things happen? For that matter, why do good things happen? Does what I do help his kingdom come? What is God like? Well, as Paul says, I do have a fuzzy picture. I guess the comforting thing is that while I don’t get to know some things now, God knows them, and hopefully there’s a big YET at the end of some of things I just don’t get to know.

EDP

Wabi Sabi

Photo Credit: Ⅿeagan via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Ⅿeagan via Compfight cc

It’s nearing the end of the semester.  The air has grown warm, students are reading out of doors and hanging from the trees in hammocks.  In a little more than a week, black caps and gowns will dot the scene as we celebrate a new chapter in students’ colleagues’ lives. A long-anticipated summer break is only a few days away. There’s so much warmth and joy in the air.  Still, there’s just a hint of sadness lingering about the edges of all this excitement.

And I’m feeling a bit wabi sabi today.

Yes, I know that I misuse this term. From my admittedly flawed recollection, wabi sabi is a Japanese aesthetic that sees beauty even (or perhaps especially) when it is mixed with imperfection. I first ran across this proposed use of wabi sabi in Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. She was looking for a word to express that feeling of being both happy and sad at the same time and wabi sabi seemed to fit the bill.

Her use of the term really resonated at the time and so wabi sabi comes to mind occasionally when I encounter imperfect beauty in my own life experience or more often when I feel a great deal of joy mixed with just a tinge of sadness.  As the semester draws to a close, this phrase floated into my mind once again.

There’s plenty of beauty to be seen at the end of the semester:

  •     in the once quiet, insecure, uncertain student who stands to give a strong, thoughtful, and thorough end-of-semester presentation.
  •     in the smile of a senior with only a couple of final exams standing between her and graduation.
  •     in the freshman who says, “I’ve learned how much I really do have to study to be successful.”
  •     and in the student who sits across from my desk with a giant grin on his face and a biology exam marked “A” in his hand, the same student who sank into that chair 13 weeks ago close to tears and wondering how to move forward.

Still, there’s just a hint of imperfection mixed with the beauty.  This time of year calls so many of my students to introspection and reflection on the semester past and it becomes more difficult to gloss over those flaws:

  •     Just a hint of anxiety in the student who is still unsure what direction he’s headed.
  •     A whiff of sadness in the student who is sitting out for a semester because of health struggles back home.
  •     The grief I feel as I read an email from a student who tells me he regrets the level of effort he’s shown and is afraid he might have disappointed the people who care about him.

Yet, even here there is room for hopeThere’s beauty mingled with the imperfection. (Tweet This)

I have hope to share with the student who can’t see his own potential.

I have hope to share with the student who feels that life is on-hold.

I have hope to share with the student who faces regret.

And I feel anew a sense of gratefulness that I teach at a school where we embrace faith as we learn. I don’t have to bite back these words of hope when yet another student drops into my office to share a bit of life’s imperfection.  So, I take a deep breath and plunge ahead, sharing just a hint of this great hope.

-ep