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Guest column | Jerry Cowling

Column: Learning doesn't end with school days

Local schools are back in session, and perhaps it's a good time to contemplate the actual process of learning. I hope we can all agree that regurgitating facts and figures on a standardized test is not proof of true learning. So what exactly is learning?

The best illustration of the moment of learning is the climactic scene in The Miracle Worker. This is, of course the story of Helen Keller, a child who lost her hearing and sight very early in life. By the time she became prepubescent Helen was totally out of control. Her wealthy Southern parents were at their wits end about how to handle her.

Enter Annie Sullivan who was almost blind herself. Annie had a plan: communication through hand signals. However, this little girl and this Irish woman have some pretty fantastic battle royals. Who's going to win? The stubborn little Southern girl who doesn't want to learn anything or the strong-willed Irish woman who's determined to pound learning into her head?

In the big scene at the end Annie drags Helen out to the water pump to force her to fill a pitcher which she had just knocked off the dining room table. She pumps the water, sticks Helen's hands into the flow and repeats the finger movement to water.

Suddenly, it dawns on Helen that the wet stuff equals wa-wa, one of the only words she learned before going deaf, and it now equals the finger movements. Once she had the learning moment, she picked up more words quickly, urgently wanting to know the signs for everything.

My wife said she witnessed a high school science teacher having a similar epiphany while he drew the life cycle of the fern on the chalkboard. Actually, he was a football coach assigned to teach science so he memorized what he was supposed to say and what to draw on the board while his mind was already on scrimmage practice after school.

On that particular day, he stopped in mid-sketch, took a step back and stared at the illustration before him. The students watched as his stooped shoulders straightened as though endowed with a miracle elixir. He erased what he had drawn so many times before and replaced it with a new version, created by his newly acquired learning of what the life cycle of the fern truly meant.

My wife went from bored incomprehension to thrilling understanding because the teacher finally understood what he was teaching. Anyone who wants to learn about the life cycle of the fern can ask my wife. She knows.

On the other hand, my wife never had the moment of learning with the mysteries of the playing the piano. After 12 years of lessons she was in the dark. She knew what the notes on the page meant. She knew how to put her fingers on the keys. But the concept of how it all blended together to create the ethereal quality of music eluded her. At her church, everyone loved the way she play Onward Christian Soldiers. She could bang that march tune out to beat the band, but don't ask her to attempt Clair Du Lune.

I can honestly say that I was in my 50s before I finally found my writing style. It's not like I didn't know grammar and syntax. I just didn't know how to make the words sing. Better late than never.

When were your best "aha" moments? They can come at any age so keep on the lookout. And I hope all the children sitting through classes this year have that experience of widening their eyes and letting their mouths go agape. "So that's what the teacher is talking about.''

Jerry Cowling is a freelance writer and storyteller living in Brooksville.

Column: Learning doesn't end with school days 08/28/14 [Last modified: Thursday, August 28, 2014 2:20pm]

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