April 2014: Through the whys of a child

I was an inquisitive child.

Why?

Exactly.

This isn’t so unusual, I know. Most children are inquisitive and ask questions to learn, usually followed by the infinite asking of “Why?” I’m sure I asked many why questions myself. I remember one incident of loudly asking why I had lines on my hand which resulted in not being taken back to church for years.

I just wanted to know.

But mostly, my questions were prefixed with, “What if?” I can’t remember any of the exact “what if” questions I asked, although I’m sure they were along the lines of “What if the moon crashed,” or “What if I wore my shirts as pants.”

It got so bad, that eventually I was no longer allowed to ask “what if” questions. Cleverly, (I thought), I began instead to start my sentences with the much-similar “suppose”. “Suppose the dog had kittens?” or “Suppose my belly button came undone?”

My inquisitional nature did not just lead to asking questions of questionable veracity. I also took things apart. Literally. One of my earliest memories is of dragging a kitchen chair over to the old thermostat, taking off the cover, and pulling out any of the gears I found inside. I remember doing this more than once.

Oddly, I have no memory of putting the thermostat back together again.

I also remember wondering if the electric heating elements on the stove were hot when they turned red.

Yes, yes they were. I don’t remember the pain but I do remember the blister on my finger. That investigation also required a chair. I’m sure at some point I started asking, “What if I didn’t use a chair? Suppose I’d still get hurt?”

Probably.

I always asked a lot of questions. But once I had the answer I wanted, I frequently refused to change my mind. In first grade, when I was learning to read, I was convinced that ‘frog’ spelled ‘flamingo’. I don’t even know where that came from, but it led to a number of arguments with my classmates, some of whom were possibly smarter than I. Not that I would have believed that.

Even earlier, when in kindergarten, I not only had trouble pronouncing words such as ‘inner tube’ (inneringtube) or ‘living room’ (liverering room), but I was definitely impeded by words with a “grr” sound, such as ‘grill’ (girl). Pronouncing ‘three’ was also especially difficult for me, no matter how helpful my classmates tried to explain it to me. It always came out as ‘tree’. One friend tried to tell me there was an ‘h’ in there. I smugly replied that if there was an ‘h’ (for I could not yet read) then it would be pronounced ‘thee’. And I was fully convinced I was right, evidence to the existence of the sound of the letter ‘r’ notwithstanding.

Eventually, I must have worked it out on my own, probably convinced I had been right all along. Learning to read was a big factor; I found that many of the questions I had could be answered by reading the right things. Like science fiction. I’m not sure what answers I was searching for, but science became an early love of mine. Once again, I was convinced that I knew all there was to know, and what I didn’t know I could discover through experiments.

I conveniently left out the scientific method, of course. But then, how could I have found out that running with a daisy wind decoration wouldn’t let me fly like a plane, or that magnetism couldn’t be destroyed by applying a mixture made up of all the liquids I could find in the bathroom? Or how much trouble I’d get into when I secretly put the mixture back into the shampoo bottle?

Maybe I should have used a chair from the kitchen.

I did learn some interesting things, even if I didn’t really know what they were until later, like when I covered a record with baby powder and then watched fascinated by the way water drops acted when put on top. Or when I learned that dry baking soda doesn’t make a good shampoo. Or that grapefruit omelets are terrible.

(I never said I learned smart things, just interesting things.)

I even went so far as to draw a picture of myself as a scientist when the class was asked to draw pictures of what we wanted to be when we grew up. I even helpfully labelled mine as ‘scientist’ for whatever foolhardy and unknowledgable classmates I might have at the time in the third grade, especially the ones who did not realize that ‘atmosphere’ was obviously pronounced ‘a-possed-teh-meer”.

Even so, I did learn some valuable things along the way, even if it did take awhile. Things like the importance of listening instead of talking, and of only talking when I am absolutely positively sure I am right. And of making sure before hand. And that observation and carefully reproduced results is more educational than slapping together whatever is at hand (like all the chemicals in my chemistry set) just to see what would happen (especially if I added spray deodorant.)

(Answer: a mess.)

And that telling my sixth-grade science teacher that I already knew everything that was in the book was a bad way to start the new year. (I only knew most of what was in the book, it turned out. Or at least thought I did.)

I wonder about the current new generation, and how having instant answers available online will affect them. Maybe they’ll just find new questions to answer. I’m sure they’ll still find a way to aggravate their parents. Who knows what they’ll grow up to be; it’s impossible to predict.

I didn’t grow up to be a scientist, although I still love science and I can take apart and put together a computer with my eyes closed (maybe even a thermostat, but it’s been years since I touched one of those.) I’m not entirely sure what I grew up to be, or even sure at times that I have grown up. But I’m now more likely to use a kitchen chair to sit and listen than I am to get myself in trouble (Unless I serve raisin bran pancakes or grapefruit omelets.)

But my questions remain. And if it wasn’t for my inquisitive nature, I wouldn’t be who I am and who I continue to be. Because two of the most powerful questions that can be asked are “Why?” and “What if?”. I’ve learned a lot with those two questions I never stop asking.

Because the one question I hope to never ask is, “Suppose I stopped searching for answers?”

Not all answers can be found online, you know.

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