Play it dumb this summer

“Those who know they do not know
Gain wisdom.
Those who pretend they know
Remain ignorant.

Those who acknowledge their weakness
Become strong.
Those who flaunt their power
Will lose it.”

— Lao-Tzu, Daodejing

I used to be a Montessori teacher, and it was around this time of year that I’d chaperone my students on their big overnight trips. Some years I’d accompany the sixth graders to Cape May, New Jersey to study beach ecology and go on birding tours of the marshes, or else I’d take the ferry out to Shelter Island, New York with the fourth and fifth graders, visiting the whaling museum and going out on fishing charters. Kids don’t sleep much under such stimulating circumstances, so I’d take them on runs in the mornings in an attempt to wear them out and then join them for breakfast. One morning, while eating Raisin Bran in the mess hall on Shelter Island with the fourth-grade boys from my bunk, I modeled a little courteous conversation and asked one boy what his plans were once school let out.

“I’m going to spend the summer in Spain with my grandmother,” he replied. Being ten and enjoying a summer in Europe seemed amazing to me, but the other boys did not appear impressed. Remarkably, every other boy at that table was on their way to Spain and they had all been to the very island where the boy’s grandmother lived. Even more remarkable was the fact that every boy had plans to watch FC Barcelona take on Real Madrid, some of them with sideline access to the match. These remarkable circumstances had an obvious explanation; the boys were lying. They saved face when confronted with their friend’s lavish travel plans, but none of them came away from that breakfast learning anything new about Spain or their classmate who spent his summers there.

Illustrated by Tim Taranto
Illustration by Tim Taranto

It’s easy to recognize this behavior in children, but doesn’t it manifest in our adult lives as well? Michelangelo Antonioni and Werner Herzog are two directors I enjoy, but before I watched a single one of their films, I spent my college years claiming to be familiar with their work when I really hadn’t seen any of it. I could have just said “no” and maybe felt a little social embarrassment, but as a result I would have made myself open to learn about these artists anecdotally from my peers. Maybe then I wouldn’t have waited so long before trekking over to the public library and renting their films. By making ourselves vulnerable, by admitting when we are in the dark, we allow others to illuminate the way.

But there is always that fear of shame that comes with not knowing. I remember watering the plants on the terrace with my students when I heard a kid yell, “Ira doesn’t know the difference between an alligator and a crocodile!” from inside the classroom. Barb Feathers, my co-teacher and a seasoned child whisperer, calmly replied, “You know, I can never keep those two reptiles straight myself! Why don’t you go down to the library with Ira and get the animals encyclopedia so we can settle this once and for all.” Most likely Barb, a Floridian, did know the difference between a gator and a croc, but she took the heat off of Ira, and in doing so modeled for the kids what it looks like to be vulnerable and thus receptive to knowledge.

Here’s a summertime challenge: the next time an unknown book title or song you’ve never heard comes up in conversation, admit that you are unfamiliar with the work and ask the speaker to describe the art to you. If you encounter a word or abbreviation that you do not know, politely ask for a definition. It may catch people off guard, but it’ll soon be clear that you’ve made this request in earnest. So if the summer means more time spent with your kids or visiting friends and family around the country, why not ask them to join you in this journey of broadening horizons? Through practice, by letting go of our egos and playing dumb, we can open ourselves to the possibilities of growth and be in the possession of a little peace.

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