As a teacher I did some rather bizarre things in my classes at times. Tap dancing on a desk so students could hear the difference between certain sounds (click, tap, slap,) and know which words matched which sounds. Having “ten second yell” at the end of the day, so students would get all their pent up energy out, and then be ready to go downstairs and out the door.
For a couple of years I did an exercise in my classes I called, “Who’s Looking at the Cat?” I told the students to close their eyes, and picture a cat. Have the cat do something, like jump on a table, or just sit quietly. Then I told them to have the cat leave, and when he was gone, they could open their eyes.
Some took longer than others at this – but eventually they were all sitting with their eyes open, staring at me expectantly, with an “okay, so what is THIS going to be?” attitude.
I asked them if they had all pictured a cat. Then I asked them, “Where was it.?” At first they said things like, “It was on my bed,” or “It was in the kitchen.” I got them to understand that they put the picture of the kitchen there as well, but there was no kitchen in the classroom. So where was the cat?
“In my head!” a student would answer. Others would nod in agreement.
“Really? You had a cat between your ears? Didn’t your brains hurt?” Laughter, and confusion.
“Okay, so the cat you pictured was not a physical cat we could all see. Only you could see the cat you pictured. So think about this again. Where was the cat?”
Eventually someone would say, “I imagined it. It was in my mind.”
“Yes! “ I would happily agree.. And then I dropped a larger hunk of confusion into the room. “So, what’s your mind?”
Now, bear in mind, these were 8th graders. They were 12 or 13 years old. Nobody asked them weird questions like this.
They sat, they pondered, they looked at each other. I told them to talk it through with each other. They really struggled, but finally we came up with some sort of working idea of what a mind is: “ It’s the place that has all your memories and thoughts, and all the things you imagine. It’s a recording of all the things that happen to you all the time. It’s what you use to think with.”
So then came my next question: “So, who was looking at the cat?”
Voices popped up around the room. “I was.”
“Exactly. But your eyes were closed.”
Dead silence. What? Uh…what?
I let silence reign in the room. I told them to think about it, or demonstrate it with their vocabulary demonstration kits, or talk it through with someone. They had the idea, but they had no words to express it.
Eventually there came an answer that began the exploration. “Well, it’s me, but it’s not my body part of me. It’s…me.” More talking, discussion. What I finally said, before the bell rang, was this: “You are absolutely right. YOU were looking at the cat. So what this means is that your body is not you, the way you might think. Your mind is not you, because you were looking at something in your mind from outside of your mind. You have a body; you have a mind. But who you are is that part that is able to look into your mind. You are the one who can see your mind.” I told them they could spend more time pondering this idea over the weekend, and we were able to do more discussion when we read A Wrinkle in Time, which is a timeless book about cosmology and truth.
I am amazed I didn’t get calls from parents wondering what the heck I was teaching their kids. There is a part of me that has always believed that the students in my classes always knew when they were learning something that was special or different, and I don’t think they ever told their parents about what they learned in a way that would threaten my position. And I wonder about that, and about whether what they learned really affected them, or whether it was just a “really cool, weird lesson” in the long year. I like to think that somewhere out there is one student who really got it.