Thursday, June 28, 2007

Chalk is cheap

In the early 1970s,I attended Phillips Academy, Andover Massachusetts. In my junior year I took mathematics from a professor nicknamed "Mad Mac."

He had many highly effective classroom practices designed to keep bored students awake. Some of them involved beaning people with flying pieces of chalk, or speaking for quite some time in a monotone before suddenly and instantly raising his voice to a rebel yell, delivering a shock that hit hung-over, hormone addled teenage bodies like a bucket of ice water.

Another thing Mad Mac would routinely do was to literally go berserk, scrawling equations on the chalk board at breakneck speed. As the sprints escalated, he often began to run past the end of the board itself and extend the numerical madness onto the classroom walls. He would carry on like this, seemingly unstoppable, until the chalk board was entirely full.

Then he would pause for effect, scrutinize us intensely from behind the bottle-thick lenses of his bible-black, 50's mad scientist eyewear and ask us,

"What comes next?"

At that, he would spin around on his heel like a posessed dervish and attack the blackboard with an eraser until, in just a few seconds, it was completely blank.

Then he would pause again, before delivering the next revelation in a samurai slash of chalk, spitting out one mathematical banzai after another like a certified psychopath.

This erasure tactic was a great way of preparing us all for some new and quite astonishing revelation. More often than not, in moments like this, the concept that was introduced changed everything we had already learned: recast it in a new light, thrust it into an unknown context we had never encountered before.

Our memory of this life so far is like a blackboard that is filled with countless hieroglyphic scrawls. Our personality perpetually--tyranically-- recalls all that has gone before us, and filters impressions of everything that arrives through this.

Nothing we encounter ever assumes its own color; in passing through the filter, it picks up all the colors the filter already has in it, and it arrives wherever it is going within our body or our psyche permanently changed so that it fits the configuration we have assigned,rather than a configuration appropriate to where it began.

As I grow older,I become increasingly convinced that we need to erase the blackboard. Turn around, look behind us, and in one encompassing gesture, erase everything.

Everything.

What could happen then?

Something may arrive that has its own color. The color green, for example. Or any old color you please, just so long as we understand-- we don't know this color,

it is new.

Every single association and emotion I have that I bring to a particular situation assigns characteristics to it that it does not actually have. Erasing the blackboard might give me a chance to reinvent everything that already exists within me. If the blackboard has been erased, the possibility of discovering a new formula, a bigger, more comprehensive formula that includes all the previous formulas within it suddenly exists.

Right now that formula is unknown, unsuspected. There is no way to know the new formula now because the blackboard is full, and the presumption is that everything on the blackboard is complete as it stands.

It's an act of faith to do this. An empty blackboard is frightening; hell, everything I ever knew is up on that damn blackboard.

Have at it, my friends. Chalk is cheap.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

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