185: “Whenever You’re Right” (Ogden Nash)

“To keep your marriage brimming,
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
Whenever you’re right, shut up.”
                -Ogden Nash, “A Word to Husbands”

                When I first started putting my toes into writing–which is an awkward image, but also a tempting one; I imagine a pool of burnt-tan parchment with ripples of black ink, undulating as my chubby toes dip in–people kept telling me, “Don’t write answers.”   Other teachers repeated variations of “show don’t tell. “I distilled that into “don’t write answers,” too, and then I hated it. Why couldn’t I? I knew so many things. Why couldn’t I just say them?
                Reading Nash, I think the answer might be, Because there are so many things more important than being right.
                Sometimes I’ll start class with little exercises. “Write down ten words you think you learned in the first two years of talking,” for instance, or “Cover this little piece of paper in colors,” or “We’re going to play with free word associations, back and forth, for a few minutes.” Sometimes, afterwards, I’ll ask students why we did that exercise just now. They’ll come up with wonderful answers: “Our first words show something about how we grew up looking at the world, and that’s what Huckleberry Finn is exploring.” “Yesterday, people didn’t want to contribute to the conversation because we were all too nervous about getting it wrong. Free word associations open the door for us to start listening and responding.” I love thinking about my students’ answers. At the same time, I usually didn’t have a “why,” or perhaps, more precisely, my “why” was to let them wonder. I thought of the game, and we took five minutes to do it. They made it relevant by enjoying it and looking at it. Their own “whys” were more rewarding than anything I could’ve given them.
                There are so many things more important than being right. There are so many parts of gardening beyond listing off the Latin name of a flower.
                A few days ago, I heard a story about a father and his daughter. When she was very young she started asking questions about the sun and the earth, and why it looks like the sun moves. One day, a sophisticated five, she started explaining it back to him:
                “You know, daddy, when it looks like the sun’s over there and then it looks like the sun’s over there, the sun’s not really moving. It’s the earth spinning.”
                “Wow, really?” he said.
                “And when the earth spins all the way around, that’s a day,” she explained.
                “That’s so cool.”
                “But the earth is running around the sun, too, not just spinning.”
                “Is it going fast?”
                “Really fast. When it goes all the way around the sun, that’s a week.”
                The father glanced at her: “A year, you mean.”
                “Uh huh,” she agreed. “A week.”
                “It’s a year.”
                “Yeah,” she said, glowing with curiosity, with the coolness of the solar system, with a mind’s ability to learn about it. “A week.”
                So the dad smiled. They could come back to this part later. There were so many things that were more important than being right.
                “That’s so cool,” he said. “So what about the stars? Are they as little as they look?”
                “They’re big,” she said. And for a moment, the way the dad tells it, her surprised, curious eyes were almost as big and as sparky as the stars.

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