In yesterday’s post, I talked about not letting new experiences be weighed down with negative expectations caused by old experiences. That requires developing a knack for seeing the differences between two things. Two events. Two people.
Noticing takes practice. But beyond noticing, it’s about appreciating those differences. Talking about them. Making the most of them. Celebrating them.
Years ago, I provided special services in language and reading at a school for the Deaf. Brian was four the first time I worked with him. As far as complications go, one would be hard pressed to find a student who had more of them to contend with. Aside from being small for his age, he was severely Hard of Hearing and wore hearing aides that, on his slight frame, seemed enormous and uncomfortable. These had to work in around the earpieces of his thick glasses. And both of those had to fit somehow under the edges of a helmet he wore, due to issues with sensory integration and balance. He required occupational therapy, because his fine motor planning skills were very weak, which made forming signs with his hands an ongoing challenge.
On top of all of this, he had Asperger’s Syndrome, which presented another whole involved ball of wax for Brian.
Brian was a trooper. Despite all of his challenges, he could read like a scholar. Even in Kindergarten, he could not only read adult-level text, but he could read it backwards by holding a paper up to the light of a window. Brian’s vocabulary was staggering, as was his memory and his understanding of math concepts. One day, while reading The Math Curse (Scieszka / Smith), this problem arose:
“There are 24 kids in my class. The new girl, Kelly, sticks her tongue out at me. How many tongues are in our class?”
Brian responded, in his high-pitched, strident monotone, “Twenty-five – or – twenty-seven – tongues.”
I asked him if he could tell me how he came to this conclusion. He replied, punctuating the first sound of every word and leaving a space between. This gave his answers the effect of being delivered by an 80s computerized speech module on the fritz: “Twenty-four – kids – equals – twenty-four – tongues. The – teacher – has – one – tongue. Twenty-five – tongues. I – have – one – tongue. You – have – one – tongue. Twenty-seven – tongues.” Then he repeated his initial answer: “Twenty-five – or – twenty-seven – tongues.”
I pressed a bit further, fascinated as to why he might have included me and himself in a possible answer. He informed me in his usual manner that the narrator had said something at the beginning of the book like “Welcome to my class,” which meant that our tongues might have to be counted, since we were in the classroom as visitors.
The teacher’s name in this book was Mrs. Fibonacci, which Brian pronounced with the wettest ‘F’ I’d ever heard: “F-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-ibonacci.” His ‘B’ sounded like a rubber ball bouncing. And his lateral lisp made for an interesting water effect on the ending. But speech aside, he pronounced it quite correctly. When I asked if he knew why the author had chosen this name (expecting to teach him something new and cool about math) he responded with aplomb, “Yes. Fibonacci Sequence. Zero – one – one – two – three – five – eight – thirteen – twenty-one …”
I had to cut him off with, “Well, then, I guess you do know, mister!” He replied with a modest, “Yes.”
Recall that he was five at this time.
On another occasion that year, I was helping Brian solidify his concept of “same” and “different.” We used thin, foam pieces of varying shapes, colors and sizes. I pulled from the clear plastic container three large, green circles and placed them on the table in front of Brian. I wanted to start easy, so I kept the shape, size and color uniform for the first one. I spoke and signed to Brian, who answered in the same fashion. The dialog went something like this (you’ll have to imagine the signs):
Me: OK, Brian, how many shapes do you see?
Me: Right, three shapes. And are they the same? Or are they different?
Me: OK, well, let’s touch each shape and tell something about it. [I touch the first piece] What shape is this piece?
Me: That’s right! And this one [touching the second piece]?
Me: And this last one here?
Me: Right again! So you said the shape was “circle — circle — circle.” So are the shapes the same or different?
Me: Right. Let’s write that down on this piece of paper. “Shape = SAME.” OK, now, let’s go back and talk about the size. [I touch the first piece again] What size is this one?
Me: Yes, and this one [touching the next]?
Me: Good. And this last one?
Me: Right again. So, you said the sizes were “big – big – big” [touching each in turn]. Is the size the same or different?
Me: Yes, the size is the same. Let’s write that down. “Size = SAME.” OK, Brian, do you remember that I asked you at the beginning if these pieces were the same or different? So far, you figured out that the shape is the same and the size is the same. Do you want to change your answer? Are these pieces the same or different?
I didn’t seem to be making my point. We’d have to move on here.
Me: All right, well, let’s see. What color is this first circle [touching it]?
Me: Yes, it’s green. And this one [touching the second]?
Me: [ready for the revelation to hit him] And this last one? What color is it?
Brian: [spelling rapidly with his fingers as he delivered his answer] A-S-P-A-R-A-G-U-S!
Color me wrong.
In very fact, now that he had said this, the color of that last shape had been altered due to light exposure and wasn’t quite the same shade of green.
Me: You are right, Brian! This one is different! I didn’t notice before, but it is asparagus. So these three shapes are different. It’s hard to trick you. Good job!
You see, Brian just saw the world differently. That is to say, he noticed the differences. And he appreciated them. For all that he had going against him, he had this going for him. And that was a wonderful thing.
Really, the most successful problem solvers in any walk of life must possess this ability – the ability to look at the same situation for the um-teenth time and find one more thing, however small, that may have been missed before. To try one more thing that hasn’t yet been tried, as silly or unlikely as it may seem at first. Or, often, to see the same familiar thing with new eyes.
When you feel stuck in life, remember Brian. Tell yourself, “There’s something here in this situation that I’m missing right now.” Then look for it. Really look. Expect to find it. And you will.