My mom found me in my bedroom, on the verge of tears. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“How will I learn it all?”
She looked at me quizzically. “What do you mean?”
My floodgates opened. “Well, you know everything, and I just don’t know how I’m going to learn it all.”
I was five years old.
I don’t remember my mom’s response, which I’m sure reassured me that I would learn everything I needed to know, but I often think about that moment in my life, when I was absolutely overwhelmed by all that I needed to learn, as I watch my own children grow.
Last week my son asked me why the veterans gave us a flower when we donated to their bucket outside of the grocery store. His question turned into a 20-minute conversation about the various branches of the military, strategies of war, and the history of WWI and II. His curiosity elicited questions that I answered confidently. I didn’t even know that I knew all of the information until I talked with him.
“You know a lot of things,” he said.
A few days later, as we waited in a construction zone near our house, my daughter asked me why they needed to fix the road. Her follow-up questions led us into a discussion about construction and the science behind it. Again, I surprised myself with my knowledge – which had been buried inside me, collected over the years.
“You know a lot of things,” she said.
I think that I was surprised in my knowledge because I have always seen myself in that role of the five year old – admiring my parents who have always seemed to have the “fix-its” to my questions. My parents are a creative team. They have learned over their adult lives how to identify and troubleshoot problems, as well as how to fix (or jerry-rig) nearly everything. When I have a question, I almost always go to them, and they almost always have the right answer. I need to make superhero capes? I call my mom. I need to fix one of the kids’ toys? I speed-dial my dad. I want a life-sized book (that opens) for a theater production? I get them both on the phone.
Because I have relied on them, especially for creative, constructive, or crafty endeavors, I have doubted my own knowledge and abilities. But recently, for the first time, I recognized in me what I have always seen in them.
This self-discovery came because my son and I made the Liberty Bell.
When he told me that he wanted to make a Liberty Bell for his class project, I panicked, and then I breathed deeply. I can do this. I thought. Paper mache, I decided, not able to come up with a different solution. When I told a friend what we were doing, she asked, “How are you going to paper mache a bell?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied. “But we’ll figure it out.”
And we did.
We searched the dollar store for something that looked like a bell (a popcorn bucket!); we researched the best glue recipes; we ripped paper; we bought two kinds of paint to try to create the metallic effect. Finally, we had our supplies, and it was time to begin. My son and I sat on the grass in our front yard, and we made it. We even figured out how to round out the bottom, just like the real bell.
Our bell is not perfect – and I’m sure that the next time we paper mache we will do a better job – but the experience of making it was perfect. My son learned the word “iterative” to describe the process, and I learned that I can, indeed, tackle a creative problem on my own, without relying solely on my parental experts.
Somehow, over the years I did learn everything I need to know. I learned that process matters, that failure is part of the process, and that as I try, I learn. Most importantly, I learned to ask questions, think of possibilities, and take in the world around me. These are the lessons, I hope, that I am passing to my children, just as my parents have passed them to me.
“I know a lot,” I said to my son and my daughter, “but I keep learning everyday.” I know that they are too.