Years ago, before I started writing, I worked as director of a small nature center in rural Connecticut. A major part of my job there involved guiding various groups of varying ages around the fields and forests of the property in an attempt to demonstrate to them the wonders of the natural world. This was not as easy as it sounds. A majority the groups consisted of schoolchildren who spent the better part of their young years pent up in stuffy overheated classrooms listening to tedious lectures. Release into the forest evoked in them an atavistic wildness that was not compatible with learning. In fact, I more or less shared their feelings and was tempted to let them run wild, and would have done so, save that their minders expected more of me. In any case, in the end, I think I learned more from them than they did from me.
Early on I learned that third-grade to sixth-grade children were still able to appreciate aspects of the variety of the external world. By contrast, seventh graders up through high school seniors were focused primarily on themselves and their compatriots. Ironically, however, the one group that I learned the most from consisted of classes of children with so-called special needs. These came to the nature center from various special education programs and institutions in the area, and suffered from a variety of intellectual challenges. And yet, in a way, they seemed to exhibit the most instinctive appreciation of the world around them
I always used the inquiry method when I was teaching. In other words, I would presume I knew nothing about a subject but would ask the group leading questions. One would suppose this method would not work for the mentally handicapped, but in fact it worked well. On one of my first classes with these children I saw a small black insect crossing a log, followed by another.
“What is that thing?” I asked.
They leaned forward as a body, intent on the black thing.
“Anyone know what that is called?” I asked.
A blue-eyed boy with tousled hair straightened himself, shut his eyes, nodded authoritatively, and said loudly.
The group agreed.
I rolled the log over and exposed a nest of ants, complete with tunnels.
This begat in the class a great burst of enthusiasm, more spirit than any other group I had worked with. I suddenly became interested in what, exactly, they were seeing that was so exciting and began to look more closely at the work of the ants.
The removal of the roof of their city had clearly disturbed the ants. Various individuals in the colony were running to-and-fro in apparent confusion. But I noticed that, as they passed one another, some would halt and touch each other with their antennae, whereupon one of them would seemingly change course. Slowly, we as a group became aware of the fact that, rather than disorder, I had strewn among the colony an alarm response and they were working frenetically to restore order.
For five minutes—an eternity for children of their age—we watched the action, sometimes in silence, sometimes discussing what was happening. But the real lesson as far as I was concerned came later, farther down the trail.
After a short walk, having stopped from time to time to look at different kinds of tree leaves, flowers, frogs, and the like, we came up to another anthill.
“What are these insects?” I asked.
“Ants!” they shouted.
We leaned closer, watched the organized comings and goings of the colony. And then, rudely, I stirred the ground with a stick. Immediate alarm. Guards rushed from their tunnels; workers scurried. Recruits were summoned; there was much antennae touching, much running and turning and retreats, and all the while the students watched with as much interest and attention as they had ten minutes earlier, as if seeing this world for the first time.
In fact, time, I noticed, seemed elastic for them. I too felt myself drawn into the action with my fellow travelers, suspended there in spite of whatever school schedules we were supposedly bound to. Here, in an otherwise obscure anthill in northern Connecticut, was all the mystery, all the complexity, and wonder of life. It was not necessary to carry on much farther with exploration; we had found the center.