Struggling Through Stupid
For the past two weeks I've gone fly fishing three or four times for smallmouth bass on a nearby river. Other than some fingerlings and chub, I've not had much luck. More than once I've felt like a fool. But I come home, read up on the subject, go back to the river the next day and am foolish again. As with any complicated thing, there is this stage of stupidity you unavoidably must get through.
When I was younger I took up a lot of projects and pastimes but dropped them when they did not come easily: musical instruments, martial arts, writing short stories, drawing... The list is long and a bit wince-inducing. Now that I'm older I find that I don't mind the obligatory stupid stage. It's fun and oddly pleasing to figure it out.
I wish there were some way to impart this to my students, many of whom have a learned helplessness about learning. In my Humanities sections I'll have them reading texts that are often over their head. Last spring, for example, I had them look at Frances Bacon's "Idols of the Mind." In class more than one admitted that they didn't understand a word of it. "I tried to read that," one young woman said, "But I guess I'm just dumb or something because I couldn't make heads or tails of it."
"Never mind that," I told her. "Just read it and we'll talk it over in class. I promise you'll get something out of it." And she did. Indeed, more than one student wrote in the final paper that Bacon's Idols and the scientific revolution were among the more interesting subjects we discussed.
My son's going through a similar struggle with his viola lately. His nightly practicing is accompanied by stomps and muttering under his breath whenever he muffs a note. I keep telling him it's okay to stink, but not okay to give up. I'm not sure he sees it that way.
One of these days I'm going to catch a smallmouth, and when I do I'm going to use the best advice I ever got about fly fishing. A guy once told me, "Whenever it goes right, you'll be really anxious to cast the line in again, but don't. Just stand there and think about catching that fish. Figure out why it worked this time and not the 500 other times you tried. Learn that one thing.and you'll go from zero to knowing at least one thing."