Such a Thing

I wrote my grandmother a postcard from Paris.  I told her Rob and I were having fun, but also working hard to keep the students in line.  At the end, I added: “We have decided that there is, after all, such a thing as a stupid question.”

It sounds uncharitable, I know.  But you wouldn’t believe some of the gems we encountered on that trip.  Our favorite was the day we took the students to Versailles.  After touring the chateau, we stepped out into the garden, amid Baroque music and twinkling fountains, and surveyed the acres upon acres of gardens that, after four visits, I have still not completed touring.  Planes of green stretched as far as the eye could see, broken only by the spiderweb of white footpaths and the marked orbs of bright azure pools and verdant topiaries:

It was this hushed and grateful silence that our students broke to ask, first, if there were any shade in the gardens, and second, if there were any trees nearby.  The expression on Rob’s face must have caused the latter student to rethink his question, because he hastily added, “Well, I mean, I can see the trees down there . . . but are there any closer to us?”

Very wisely, Rob responded without sarcasm or condescension.  He just said, “I’m going to let you think about that.  I’ll come back to you in a few minutes.”  And we walked out to the gardens, where we found views like these:

Not only are there trees and shade in abundance, it’s actually nearly impossible to take a photo in the gardens that doesn’t include both.

Okay, that was one of the worst questions.  But they kept coming throughout the trip.  The students didn’t know where the subway stop was for our hotel, even though we’d returned there multiple times a day.  They wanted to know when the Arc de Triomphe was built a few minutes after someone had made a presentation and handed out brochures with that exact information.  We got used to repeating every directive three or four times, as in: “We’re going to Villa Savoye today.” (“Where are we going?”) “We’re going to Villa Savoye today.” (“Oh, we aren’t going there tomorrow?”) “We’re going to Villa Saoye today.” (“Should I get my Villa Savoye materials, then?”)

It was a minor annoyance; as Mike likes to remind us, if they get on our nerves, hey, they’re getting on our nerves in Paris.  We patiently helped them navigate the subway, look up pertinent information and hear the itineraries, again and again.  We saved the shocked laughter for our private kir sessions, and we reminded ourselves that while this was in some ways a dream vacation, it was also a job.

And I kept thinking about the questions even after we got back, since they are the same kinds of questions I encounter in the classroom on a near-daily basis.  What page are we on?  When is this due?  What was the answer to number 7?  Something about the presence of a teacher makes us turn our brains off.  We are so reluctant to look for the answers ourselves, to trust our own logic and intelligence rather than having the solution spoon-fed to us.  Here I include myself; I have only recently begun forcing myself to pause before I send any e-mail with a question in it, and often I’ll find that I do know how to find the answer – it’s just that it involves more work than simply asking someone else for it.

It’s so easy to be philosophical at the beach, far away from the day-to-day frustrations and joys of the classroom.  So, while I’m thus removed from the situation, I’m on the hunt for a humorous and compassionate way to deter these inane questions, the questions that make me want to climb the walls of the classroom and breathe consuming fire on it.  I like Rob’s response, but it would be tedious to repeat many times a day.  Maybe having another student answer, as proof that it is possible to pay attention?  I’m afraid that might be too embarrassing for both parties.  I’ll keep thinking.  Feel free to join in.