I’ve been working on my philosophies and I think I’ve figured out the meaning of life. – Drew, age 11
Drew was right in the middle of a lesson on mechanical advantage that had gone slightly off the rails as it will do with four eleven year old boys at Sailor for a Day Camp when he dropped this knowledge on me.
I scooted over to give him my full attention. I am always excited to hear ideas from kids about life.
There’s always a moment, I think, with teaching. When you can decide to try and stick to the plan or veer off course in favor of a new idea. As a kid who struggled a lot in school because I didn’t learn the same way as everyone else, I always wished there had been more room for alternative ways of doing things. I believe that if my students are excited about something, they will probably remember it because that’s how I was.
Although Drew was spacing during the lesson and might not understand block and tackle on a sailboat, it had sparked something in his brain that led to a discussion on the meaning of life. To discount that excitement and redirect him to the lesson at hand would be to discount his enthusiasm for learning. Everyone learns differently. Even though it’s hard to walk that line sometimes as a teacher, because you want to give everyone your attention, I tried to keep that in mind throughout the day’s lessons, where each kid wanted to be heard. Everyone had an opinion about what we were doing.
Evan thought, mid-line coiling, that we should be taking a different route on the ocean. Jake kept yelling “Republican down” every time he lost during a game of tug-of-war. They all felt the boat rock and vomited over the side into soft Atlantic swells as the crew stood by to comfort them. Shane made up morbid stories during the watershed station that all ended with the characters dying.
And it was on my mind during lunch, when we learned that Evan had a.d.d. and autism and Shane was spending his first summer at dad’s, not mom and dad’s. Jake was staunchly conservative and informed us that since we had vegans onboard, we sounded like a hippie socialist boat. He loathed vegans and non-republicans with a weight that struck me as unnatural. It was easy to imagine where his ideas had formed and I wondered not for the first time, if adults really realize the power of their words and actions. And through all of this, they were learning. Not from a text book, sometimes not even the curriculum we had planned on as their educators.
I watched these tiny sailors struggle with heat, sitting still and sunburn. I watched them raise sail and find endless joy in shouting “Ahoy” to passing boats in unison. And I watched on with my crew as the tiny Republican and the Philosopher prince got into a political debate while eating Oreos from their lunches. They got heated and took a step away from each other. They each looked at the water for a second. And all was forgiven. Neither of them held a grudge or liked each other any less after. They just knew they were different and that was all for now. Once the storm had cooled and the talk turned to music, the four campers found common ground in the least likely place: A mutual love of the band AC/DC. For a wondrous few minutes, the whole crew watched these young people confidently voice opinions and then smoothly navigate a conversation topic switch to baseball. They reminded me of tiny old men sitting around a radio in the 1950’s, discussing the topics of the day as they saw them. They were people, just figuring out who they are and living according to their whims.
We pulled onto the dock after the day was done. We were sunburned, thirsty and laughing. Their parents and grandparents were there with cameras aimed and firing to pick up these funny, fierce little sailors.
I love teaching because I’m always learning. I thought about Drew’s message.
I think I figured out the meaning of life…
to create. and to make life easier for people.
I realized this sailor-philosopher had a point. Maybe he was right. It was certainly worth my time to consider his idea. Maybe we are here to create things. Art. Woodworking. Relationships. Food. Shelter. And in turn, those things make life easier for people. Who knows? Either way, I love that he was letting his mind go there. Like all great teachers, Drew hadn’t really cared whether we solved the great mystery of life. That wasn’t what mattered. What mattered was that we were thinking about it.
* I changed their names except for Drew, who I know wants to write a book on the meaning of life and win a Nobel Peace Prize so I think he would love to know his name was in print.