“Pine, catalpa, pin oak, persimmon,
but not tree.
Hummingbird, hoot owl, martin, crow,
but not bird.”
-Janice Harrington, “What There Was”
I remember reading a science fiction short story (I can’t remember what it was, or who wrote it; if you recognize this, let me know!) about someone whose mind didn’t make any groups. He saw everything as a unique individual. If you asked him for a tissue, and pointed out what you meant, he would give you one; if you asked him for a tissue again a few days later, he would have to go back and find that same piece of white. Because that was a tissue. The story explores how this someone can’t function: without groups of things, he can’t open doors, use keys, or recognize food. (Imagine sharing a snack with him: this is Grape1. You can chew and swallow it. This is Grape2. You can chew and swallow it. This is Grape3…) Everything was a new lesson, and there were too many lessons.
And then, on the other hand, we have Janice Harrington: our groups are too broad, too general. We lose too many identities when we define collections, when we make hummingbirds and hoot owls and martins and crows into “birds.” If teaching high school has taught me anything, it’s taught me that the same approach never works. Not with a new person, not with someone I know on a new day. There are attitudes that stay relevant–engagement; awareness; honesty; an open mind for their experience, for how the world looks from their eyes, and for what they want–but as soon as I find a “play book” and follow it, as soon as I slip into thinking people are problems and I can apply my past solutions, then suddenly my interactions slump toward meaninglessness. The only strategy, as far as I can see, is to see people, and then work with what I see. To put it another way, I’ve never successfully “taught a student;” sometimes, in a particular moment, I manage to learn with Bobby, to share an idea with Audrey, to listen carefully to Raya.
As far as I can tell, we need generalities to function, but we need particulars to love, to make friends, to interact with any landscape as it actually is. Do we oscillate between these views? Is there a way to balance them, or combine them?
I’ve no idea. But all this makes me want to learn a little more about the different calls of hoot owls, martins, and crows, and listen to them.