“I’m hungry… I need to eat. That’s why I’m grumpy.”
I knew if Emma Grace was at the point where she would admit her sullen mood was because of hunger, that she was speaking the truth. My daughter shines brightly in this world. But when she’s hungry or tired… well, Betty Sue appears (her alter ego, named by my brother after witnessing a meltdown on the top of the Space Needle when she was 2). Typically, even though I tell her that she’s probably feeling grumpy because of being hungry or tired, she hates admitting it. And me reminding her (“honey, you need to eat,” or “you need to rest”) usually makes it worse.
“Mom, did you hear me?”
There we were, standing in the middle of Manhattan during our annual girls’ trip. I picked New York this year because I knew Emma Grace was old enough to handle a big city. We had navigated Italy together last year and my confidence was fairly high that we could work our way through the Big Apple without problems. We had been successful thus far, even in the rain. We managed to get to the grocery store for food the night of our arrival and on that day, we got on the correct subways to our first two destinations and had just emerged from the subway stairs and found ourselves next to a large lamppost at a 5-points type intersection in midtown Manhattan.
I had typed Trattoria Dell’Arte into Thelma (the name I’ve given my GPS device on my phone) while we were on the subway and was secretly studying the walking directions so I wouldn’t lead us astray (those of you who know me know that I’m terrible with directions and get myself turned around fairly consistently as I wander through my days). I felt quite impressed that we had gotten on the subway going the correct direction and was pretty confident that we were getting off at the stop closest to the restaurant (with multiple subway stops in a 3-4 block area, though, I wasn’t completely sure). We emerged from the subway and I was holding up my phone and turning around in circles, literally, to figure out where I was. I must have looked insane, turning round and round, pausing at certain points and holding the phone up in search of a match between the streets on the phone and the streets in front of me. The phone was telling me the restaurant was right around the corner. Which corner though? We began walking.
“Recalculating” the phone showed. Dammit, I thought. Turn around. Back to the subway lamppost. Ring around the rosies… let’s try a different corner….
This is when the “I’m hungry” comment came to me. And the tone told me she was serious.
“Yes, I heard you buggie. I’m trying. The restaurant is supposed to be close. I just can’t figure out which way Thelma is telling me to go.”
“Mom… I’m not kidding.”
“Ok, got it.” I put my phone away, determined to figure this out without technological support. I would find a place myself, even if it meant walking into the first random building I saw with food. Taking a few steps forward, I looked up.
Trattoria Dell’Arte. Right in front of me. I just had to look up.
“12 × 8 is……?”
“Uh… eighty…eighty….si….?” She wasn’t finishing the whole number, hoping I would jump in and help.
“Try again…12 × 8 is….?”
“What’s the trick?”
“No trick. You just have to know this one.”
We were on 12s. One of those rites of passage a couple years ago when Emma Grace was in 3rd grade. Times tables. I had taught her some tricks—the hand trick for the 9s, the double number trick for 4s, the 11s trick… all ways for her to remember. I actually find myself consistently trying to find ways for Emma Grace to remember difficult concepts. This year I even made up a song to Beyonce’s “Put a Ring On It” to help her remember conversions for her end-of-grade exams (milliliters to liters, grams to kilograms, meters to kilometers, etc.). That I created lyrics that accurately represented the unit of measurement (e.g., weight, distance, volume…) earned me the “Greatest Geeky Math Mom” title (GGMM if you are texting). Mission accomplished. She remembered them.
For some things, though, there are no tricks, no pneumonic devices, no shortcuts. You just have to learn them, as we probably all remember our parents telling us, “by heart.”
How do you learn something “by heart?” And what does it mean to learn something by heart? It seems to me that learning by heart means I know something so fully and completely that I do not need to turn outward for recognition or approval. I don’t have to check whether I am right. I just know it. I am confident. I can trust in myself in knowing or doing whatever I have learned. I need no GPS. Thelma is irrelevant.
I can’t know and learn everything by heart, though. And in fact, there are many things I don’t really want to know by heart. I often joke in my administrative position that there are pieces of information I choose not to commit brain space to because they are not worth giving over the space when I can simply let that information live elsewhere. But that is brain space. As I think about it, I am less willing to commit superfluous information to my heart space. And yet we often refer to rather surface-level skills or areas of knowledge as things we “learn by heart.” Times tables. Riding a bike. Recitations of poems or plays. Yet there are times where “learning by heart” matters more than the exam at hand or the performance of the night. There are times, I think, where “learning by heart”—knowing something so fully that you can trust in that knowledge without outward assurances—is critical for individual growth and relational trust; in the classroom, in the workplace, and in all other settings.
So, how do you learn something by heart? If we start with the things that are less “grand”—times tables, riding a bike, recitations—well then, it seems a simple answer: practice. Continuous, ongoing, repetitive practice until you just know it and don’t have to use the training wheels or check the back of the flash cards or look at the script. Practice.
“You pulling out of it bug?” I asked Emma Grace, after we both ravaged a table-sized, thin-crust margarita pizza (as close to real Italian pizza as we’ve had here in the US).
“Yeah. That was a close one” she joked.
“Now I just have to get us back to home base,” I said. After the Thelma-induced “ring around the rosies” debacle earlier, I felt directionally inadequate. And we had just spent over an hour and a half tucked in what felt like a tiny Italian village, protected from the demands of big city life and GPS devices. I was in pausa mode, hoping to wander from the restaurant onto the cobblestone piazza, ready to rest for a couple hours, without needing to think about when and where my next destination was. Pulling myself out of my Italian village dream, I started to reach for my phone to type in the address for our New York apartment.
“Mom, look—isn’t that corner where the cab dropped us off from the airport yesterday?” Emma Grace asked, pointing diagonally towards one of the corners across the street from the restaurant.
Indeed, it was. Right across the street was our New York home.
Summer break. In education systems nationwide, students of all ages finish a school year and have a break before the next school year begins. We are in the middle of such a break right now. Some students have breaks that are longer than others. Some students occupy those breaks with alternative forms of work. Some students fill those breaks with vacations and pure play. I know many of my students have taken a break from the rigors of homework, reading, writing papers, and studying for exams and many teachers I know are taking a break from grading, writing exam questions, and generating rubrics for evaluation. I am taking a break from some of the routines of administrative life this month. Summer break.
My daughter is in year-round school so her summer “break” is 4 weeks long. Four weeks stands between 4th and 5th grade. She doesn’t do school work during summer break. She doesn’t practice her math conversions (even with the nifty song I made up!) or write lists of spelling words. She takes a break from the academic material that was—just 2.5 weeks ago—a daily part of her life. And I support her in that. Yet I’ve touted the benefits of the year-round system to many, the primary one being there isn’t enough time to lose what she learned in 4th grade before 5th grade starts. There is not time to forget. The break is a break. But it is short. And when she goes back… well, just like riding a bike, right? She will remember. That’s the hope, at least.
What happens during summer break, though, when you aren’t practicing those things that you have learned? And I guess more importantly, what happens after summer break when you have to get back in the swing of things? If you are returning to the comforts of a context that is familiar to you, how do you navigate your way back? And if you are entering a new space, different from where you were before break, how do you bring what you have learned into a new space?
Bottom line: how do you wake up what you have learned by heart—the things that really matter—from the summer hibernation?
Just like riding a bike, right?
Actually, I don’t know. If it is just like riding a bike, we can presume—metaphorically—that once we learn something we don’t have to revisit the learning. If a bike comes our way, we can just ride it. If not, we simply remember. I’m not sure that is a metaphor for learning I like. Or a metaphor for learning that reflects how I experience learning. If you learn something and then walk away from it, can you expect it to grow? To stay relevant? Atrophy seems real. Now, I can still recite part of Canterbury Tales in Middle English and Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” from my college days—but I can only recite part of them, a silhouette of what I could once do.
Recitations and times tables aside, for the things that matter, I think learning and remembering require attention. And work. So, if we presume that transitioning back from break will not be just like riding a bike, let’s re-ask the question: How can you wake up what you have learned by heart—the things that really matter—from the summer hibernation?
The answer could be simple: practice. While on break and while transitioning out of break, practice. Practice to keep the things you have learned by heart awake.
It seems important here to delineate, though, and reframe what practice actually means. Practice could mean reviewing times tables or getting on a bike or looking over recitations—doing whatever it takes to keep the content and context of what you have learned close to you and familiar. But practice could also mean something different. Practice could be about distilling content and context of what you have learned to its most important and rich form and then focusing on that.
For example, the importance of learning a communication theory might not lie in reciting the tenets of the theory, but rather in the way the theory teaches you to see the world through a new lens. The importance of learning a methodological process might not be the statistical equations or the interview protocols, but rather the thoughtful and ethical respect you learn as you work with vulnerable populations. I recently heard an interview on NPR about the value of a higher education and the interviewee argued that the value of a higher education is not in getting students jobs, but rather in teaching students to be nimble, to recognize what is important, to become flexible—regardless of the job they find. These seem to be important and rich forms of learning, potentially distilled from various courses, disciplines, and classroom interactions. Practice those. Practice seeing the world through a new lens. Practice respect. Practice flexibility.
What if learning by heart is really about recognizing the essence of the most important lessons that have been brought before you, in their most concentrated forms, and then enacting those lessons while looking ahead? What if?
As you are taking a break this summer, I encourage you to search for the most central things you have learned by heart—those things you trust completely because they have become part of the fiber of your being—and to ask yourself the question: what are their most important and rich forms? When you answer this question, enact those forms. Practice those lessons. Keep them awake. Practice them with the grocery store clerk, your clients, the neighbors, and your colleagues. But most importantly, I hope you practice them with those people who matter most to you–those who nourish you and support you in learning more. Perhaps in doing so will find yourself turning around. Perhaps you will grow your relationships with those who are important to you. Perhaps you will see what you could not see before. Perhaps you will find home.
No tricks. No short cuts. Phones down. Recalculating. Your compass is within. Trust that.
And then … just look up.