Food For Thought

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Not the sun or the moon, neither passion nor reason, but usually both.

A few days ago, my son’s snake ate a mouse. The mouse was alive.

We haven’t had this serpent, an albino cornsnake of the constricting type, for very long, and as a family we’d never done any live feeding. One bright, cloudless Saturday, however, my four children and I set off to the pet store to buy pinkies—pre-frozen neonatal mice. The saleswoman there, a maternal, kindly woman who was rehabilitating an injured reticulated python at home, helpfully suggested, “They really like the live ones better.”

As his snake appeared to be a particular feeder, and because he had spent over three months of allowance purchasing and outfitting it, my son was inclined to go for the live pinkie. After some careful conferencing among my children beside the saltwater aquariums, a hairless, live mouse was in a box in our hands at the checkout line.

It was quiet in the car on the way home. I was preoccupied, engaged in a thought experiment about the field mice we’d saved from the woodshed last fall, and for which we had played Mozart for a couple of weeks before letting them go; also concerned, ridiculously, about whether the mouse was safe and warm in its little traveling box—its coffin—as it advanced toward its death in our Town and Country van.

Gravid, sober with the weight of endings, Sam, my youngest child and a philosopher of some depth, voiced what we were all feeling. “This is kind of hard when you like the mouse.” We considered the issue, the complex problem of holding two remarkably contradictory ideas in your mind at once, without resolving the dilemma on either side. “Yes,” I agreed. “This is hard, maybe the hardest kind of problem there is.”

We talked about it: the real, certain knowledge that things must eat each other in order to live.

We talked about it: the real, certain knowledge that things must eat each other in order to live (hadn’t we recently seen a movie featuring cheetahs hunting and drowning an antelope on the Serengeti?)—all the while convinced that it is also good and important to care about individual mice, to think that the life of a mouse is important. This is challenging intellectual work for 7-year-olds, 9-year-olds, 11-year-olds. For me.

Good, thoughtful work in schools—work that occurs too infrequently in the classroom as evidenced by the weekly packets sent home to me as a parent—helps individuals hold on to both the snake and the mouse. At its best, it perhaps even offers a glimpse of the ecosystem in which these two creatures exist. It looks at real, profound questions of human existence and assumes that children can wrestle with these issues—that their minds will be enlarged and made muscular by such struggles.

Resisting the binary imagination—the tendency toward dualisms—is a sophisticated problem of non- resolution that cannot be framed for students unless educators use their own intellectual struggles to guide the construction: not the sun or the moon, neither passion nor reason, but usually both, mixed together. We can resist the mind’s tendency to simplify and become dualistic—John Dewey, Susan Sontag, and Peter Elbow offer examples of important struggles—but we also have to experience the process, to be in it and mess around with it. And we have to have sufficient confidence in children that they will ultimately understand and be enriched by such messiness.

The cornsnake ate the mouse with clean efficiency and speed. The children watched unflinchingly. Although I don’t think of myself as squeamish, it was a day in which I had to turn away, the details of the consumption being especially vivid. (In a past life, my husband and I agreed, we had all been pinkies, and it is important to hold onto a bit of one’s pinkie soul.)

How my children resolve this, how they experience the Keatsian “negative capability” of holding two contradictory ideas at once, is something I look forward to seeing develop in them. They show signs of being capable of it now. If only their schools expected so much from them. And from all children.

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