The connected child

An essential quality of technology, from the spear to Skype, is action at a distance. Technology enables us to have an effect on people and things far away. In general, the more advanced the technology, the further away it is able to impose an effect. 

Our lives cost the lives of others. That’s always been true, and will be so long as we breathe. Technology allows us to forget this.

As technophiles spew on about a global community, where your value is measured by the number of hits your words register, their hands never touch the blood and feces of the life around them.

You want every child “connected”? So do I. It’s what’s at the other end of the connection that matters.

All children, every child, should know where the stuff that makes up their bodies comes from, all the way back to the living organisms that fill up, unrecognizable, wrapped in plastic.

All children, every child, should know where their waste goes, through hidden pipes and trucks that rumble before dawn through the neighborhood once or twice a week.

We can do both, I suppose–just make sure you cover up the machines when I bring in a calf (or whatever the cafeteria is serving this week) to slaughter in the classroom.

I could live without my computer a lot easier than living without my knife.

The pursuit of happiness

I took a walk barefoot along the edge of the bay today.
It’s December, so I am re-posting this.

A rose hip in December

The dark days. Again.

My imagination fails me, as it will, surrounded by human light, human sounds, human smells. I cannot remember the smell of honeysuckle or the soft glow of lightning bugs or the warmth that wrapped around me in early summer.

I keep a small jar of rich soil dug from my compost pile on my desk in school. Now and then, in the middle of class, I take a whiff. The children see my joy I get from the earthy aroma.

My lambs know by December that I want them to have happy, useful lives. They know I want this for every one of them.

Why else bother teaching?


Thomas Jefferson got the tone just right when he penned “the pursuit of happiness.” It is not an idle phrase, though it does sound a bit embarrassing in context of the modern classroom, the modern office, the modern mall.

Jefferson lived before we learned how to distract ourselves with twisted visions of immortality. We have become our own gods. Mortal illness comes as a surprise, dismissed as an inconvenience. Our cultural psychosis belittles those among us who dare to expose our mortality–if they only believed hard enough, they would be cured.

Ironically, the generation closest to achieving immortality is least equipped to deal with it. Time spent on-line chasing zombies or aliens or a Nazi nation long since quelled hardly seems worth all the fuss.

We no longer seek a life worth living. We’d just rather avoid death.

Death is inevitable. Pursuing happiness is not.


Yesterday one of my students came running up to me with a pot of tiny basil plants she had sowed a few weeks before.

“Smell it! Smell it!”

I did. And I glowed. Growing a plant in a classroom fits in the curriculum. A child sharing her joy at its sensuousness does not.

The seed, no larger than the head of a pin, darker than a cloudy December night, grew in a pot of peat. Shiny green leaves erupted from the seeds, now effusively shedding aromatic molecules that made me grin in December.

Something from nothing, at least nothing we could see. The poets have something to say, but so do the biologists. The aroma released from the leafs was made of carbon captured from the breaths of the same student clutching the pot.

If you’ve never sown a seed before, this is a big deal. If you’ve sown seeds for much of your life, it’s still a big deal.

A hundred years from now, the human world may be very different, but seeds will still grow when planted.

(I am having pesto for dinner tonight from last summer’s garden.)

None of us know what this world is all about. A few among us will tell you to live a certain way in order to reach worlds that no one has seen. A few among us will tell our children to live a certain way to strengthen abstract concepts like country, or economy, or success.

Success is a slippery word, but happiness is not. You know when you’re happy, even when you’re not sure how you got there.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness–how many of these fit into your district’s curriculum? How many fit in your classroom?

If we continue to raise our kids for a better economy, a better nation, a better world while neglecting their inalienable right to their pursuit of happiness, we risk the “blood-dimmed tide” Yeats spoke of.

Happiness is not happenstance, nor is it trivial.

Mortality is not happenstance, nor is it trivial.

Why did you walk into your classroom today? Did you give your lambs at least as good as reason?

Photos are mine, and now yours (CC, yadda yadda)….


Light a candle.

May apple orchard blossoms fed by the energy of sunlight caught by the tree’s leaves beckon to honey bees. Apple trees are sexual beings.  Offering nectar, their sticky stigmas wait under the warm spring sun for the brush of pollen.

The bees collect nectar, and make honey. In the second week of a bee’s life, she eats lots of honey, which she converts to wax through special glands under her belly; her belly exudes wax scales, which other bees then harvest for the hive.

The bees chew the wax and shape it to form the honeycomb; they use hexagonal tubes to store the honey, getting the most volume for the least amount of wax. Ask a mathematician to come up with a more efficient shape.

In the olden days, kids chewed on honeycombs. ‘Course, in the olden days, most kids were breastfed, too. Now it’s Enfamil and Bazooka Joe.

Light a candle.

Forests of plankton caught sunlight millions and millions of years ago. The plankton sank and was buried. Under increasing pressure and temperature, the bonds of life transform into hydrocarbons we burn today.

A few miles from here, petroleum is cracked in refineries–gasoline, oils, and paraffin all come from the same rich crude. Travel through the northern corridor of the New Jersey Turnpike and you can see the cracking towers lighting the sky, flames licking over a puzzle of giant pipelines and huge tanks.

Most candles today are made from paraffin.

Just about every school child knows that plants capture sunlight and carbon dioxide to form “stuff”: our food, our heat, our homes, our air all depend on photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide and water fueled by the energy of the sun form carbohydrates and release oxygen.

Chlorophyll gets all the glory–it captures the energy of photons, lassoing excited electrons like roping calves as they bounce from chlorophyll molecule to chlorophyll molecule, finally calmed down enough to be converted into chemical energy.

Still, after all is said and done, the light reaction leaves us with just ATP and NADPH–enough to keep you going if you’re a bacterium, but nothing you’d serve at Christmas dinner.

Credit Melvin Calvin for figuring out the cycle of reactions that fix carbon dioxide to organic compounds during photosynthesis. It’s how an acorn can turn into a massive tree without “using up” soil.

The critical step is grabbing hold of a carbon dioxide molecule (relatively rare in our air, despite its starring role in global warming) and plying it into existing organic compounds, creating high energy hydrocarbon bonds that make the existence of humans possible.

At the heart of the process is an ancient enzyme rubisco. Some enzymes can catalyze millions of reactions per second.

Not rubisco–it churns out new molecules at the parkinsonian rate of 3 reactions per second.

Most enzymes are amazingly picky; each enzyme reacts only with very specific molecules.

Not rubisco–it gets confused. Oh, it mostly gets things right, grabbing a carbon dioxide molecule to fix to a carbon chain, but now and again it grabs oxygen instead. Oh, well.

It’s an old, old enzyme.

It’s an inefficient enzyme.

It’s an unevolved enzyme.

It’s also the most abundant protein on this planet.