Sunday, April 26, 2015

Lessons from Ferdinand the Bull

The blossoms are blooming again--originally posted a year ago.

The Story of Ferdinand

The cherry blossoms are a week late this year--they know better than I do when the bees will be around, so I do not begrudge their timing.

Several cherry trees line Liberty Street here in town, a road I've walked a few thousand times on my way to and from Bloomfield High School. A few have branches low enough for me to bury my nose into their blossoms, so I do, but not before I check for bees. The bees have work to do.

We are (mostly) visual creatures. We analyze light, look for patterns, capture it digitally so we can show others what we think we saw. We have cameras to compare our various abilities to capture light, to hold the world in a frame.

Me and my nose live in a different world, a world of curves not  angles, smudges not sharp borders, a world where time and distances dissolve into layers of fog swirling into each other.

Cameras capture the sensuous, pleasing the cortex, blending thought and analysis and the beauty of order; my nose triggers the sensual, flaring up the olfactory lobe, part of our more primitive brain, visceral, without language.

Branch Brook Park, April, 2010

If you have never slid your nose into an hours old cherry blossom, no words can describe wash of peppery sweetness that takes you to nowhere but here now. Noses are like that.

Yellow pollen sticks to my nose like fairy dust.  I wipe it away, vaguely self-conscious, ignoring the strangers who pause to stare at this madman burying his nose in the flowers.  It takes me a moment to regain my bearings.

In a week the blossoms will be gone, and I will have nothing but a false memory left of what once was.


This cerebral, abstract culture of ours does not deal with noses well. Odors are just so hard to control, the memories they arouse so unpredictably deep, and the sense of smell is, well, too primitive for those of us who dwell in the abstract world of words, numbers, and big data.

We talk about stopping to smell the flowers, but we focus on the stopping, not the wave of sensuous, even sensual, deep aroma of flowers that give us reason to pause. What does it mean to stop and take a break, to get away from it all, when the all can be found in a moment spent on the edge of a city street, face buried in flowers.

One of my favorite books growing up was The Story of Ferdinand,  a bull who would rather spend his days buried in flowers than fighting. The book was banned in many countries.

Things as they are would, of course, fall apart if too many children figured out that what we want them to want is more about success of our economy than about them them. Ferdinand is a dangerous role model.

You can live your life working for the next big thing, dreaming of your next vacation, your next car, your next hazelnut macchiato, You can dwell on the moments you will (or not) eventually have, but the idea of anything worthwhile is still just that--an abstract thought, reduced by the limits of imagination, and ultimately unsatisfying.

If you continue to see the kids in front of you as potential professionals, as potential thieves, as potential laborers or soldiers or teachers, you cannot see the child in front of you now, on a dreary April morning, here, in a room defined by its sharp edges and word salad on the walls.

Kids know if you're present in the classroom.  Passionate teachers are effective not so much for their passion, but for their presence. You can fake passion--teachers are good actors--but you cannot fake presence.

If you need to fake it, you're not doing it right.


Jenny said...

I love this piece. For many reasons.

And, still, I'm going to ask a question that is almost irrelevant. Why a 'false memory left of what once was?'

doyle said...

Dear Jenny,

Every spring, when I fill my world with the aroma of cherry flowers, I am surprised at how little of it I truly remembered--I remember that it was intense and peppery, but I cannot remember it as it is, so anything I think I remember is false.

But maybe that's true for all our present moments.

(Thanks for the warm words...)

Rayanne said...

I have been mulling all these things most especially as we go into spring. For me spring means get the kids outside! For others it means testing. We are going outside, until someone stops me.

I was also thinking of your false memory idea. I remember reading that the English language has so few words to describe smells. As I was teaching my 2 nd graders to use descriptive vocabulary to write about what they observe with their senses I realized that to be true. Maybe it is the lack of language to describe the experience that leaves it feeling false in memory.

Mostly thank you for this post.