Monday, March 7, 2011

Smaller things

I'm in Doe Library - working in Friday late afternoon. There are only a few people typing  away on distant desks, illuminated by sunbeams reaching down through the windows and the  shafts of dust. All of a sudden, there's this commotion entering the room. It's ghostly -  pitter patter of feet. Murmuring of soft voices. Children's voices. And yet, the room is as  it was: the same desks, the same shafts of light uninterrupted by the shadows of humans  entering the room. I haven't heard of any stories about the Doe Library being haunted, and  this was late afternoon, not 2am spooky time.

The ghosts appear one by one. In single file, they follow a rather minuscule ghost out in  front, tapping their feet to emerge from behind the shelves that obscured them for a good  half-minute. I have always considered children to be dangerous. They appear like this out  of nowhere, suddenly demanding a right for existence and attention. They are unpredictable,  complete menaces, and worst of all - rather hard not to step on in a crowd. But at the same  time, they're rather interesting creatures.

Our 4ft tall ghosts now having emerged, start claiming desks and chairs, filling up my desk  with their self-concerned chatter and tiny colorful bags. Their teachers rush in after  them, hushing the kids' excited jabbering and emphatic marveling. The children point sharply  towards the painting behind me, knit their brows and turn to each other, discussing what  seems to be every fault in the painting with their fellow experienced critics.  Disagreements occur, and they look out blankly into empty space, as if in a mute wish that  everyone would see the world from their incredibly height-challenged angle.

Without changing their concerned expression, they pull out colored pencils and commence on  their own masterpieces of infantile art - stick figures and clouds. I must say they did a  better job than I could have at any time. I recall being in an odd state at their age. I  had a craze for colored anything - pencils, crayons, essentially anything colorful that I  could hold in my hand, snap, and then giggle about it. But at the same time, I was  incredibly frustrated with art. Why would the thing not paint the picture in my mind? (Little did I know I was painting masterpieces of modern art). I thought, why is that girl  in the corner so incredible at art? Is the picture in her mind any better than mine? Or is  she just more patient?

Which makes me think - is communication a good indicator of understanding? Does not being  able to explain physics or mathematics neccessarily imply a lack of understanding? Feynman  would have said yes. The children would say no.

But then - perhaps everyone has their own language - their own set of basis vectors in  which to represent their thoughts. For me at the age of five, it was exclaiming, jumping  and crying, not mute two-dimensional expressions of color on paper. For these children, it  seemed to be reserved comments in spanish. It was truly wonderful to hear them talking in  spanish - I love multilingualism, and considering the high level of spanish attrition among  Hispanic immigrants, it's good they're speaking it as a first language.

Their motions, their speech, every little expression makes me think about life in general.  I have a conjecture: if anyone truly understands children, they also understand humanity.  They're the base case - we can only expect adults to behave as mature versions of these  menaces. We may be tamer and quieter, but every person was a child at some point. Perhaps  social norms imposed on a child's mind still retain the basic structure of childishness  within. Maybe this is why humanity is incomprehensible - we are merely the same hard-to- fathom children, but with a new ability to appear intelligent.

Doe Library East Reading Room

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