There’s an after-school program for gradeschoolers that meets in the classroom next to mine.
When I left my classroom yesterday afternoon, there was a girl, maybe 9 years old, hair in high tight pigtails with colorful plastic balls on the rubber bands, standing in the hall with her back flat against the wall, looking bored and chastened while her classmates played inside.
She looked at me, and I smiled at her and locked my door behind me.
“Are you a boy?” No emotion yet, just checking.
“Nope,” in a cheery tone.
“A lady?!” her voice incredulous, quiet and breathy.
She raised her hand to her chin. “You have a beard?” sounding confused, like she was checking her facts, wondering if I was an optical illusion.
She considered this for a moment as I walked by her, towards the stairs. ”How?” a straightforward question, curious about new information, the kind of tone I hear in my science classes.
“It just grows there,” shrugging my shoulders.
“You should shave it,” she instructed me, having resolved the issue.
“Nah. Too much trouble. And I kind of like it,” smiling.
Her eyes bugged out a little.
At this point I was at the stairway door. “Have a good afternoon!” I called to her as I left.
I forget which trans* writer said that they were friendly towards kids asking them gender questions but drew the line at puberty. The writer felt that after about age 12, a person should know better than to ask personal questions of a stranger (or a family member, neighbor, or co-worker for that matter).
I don’t feel the same; I like it when adults ask me curious and non-threatening questions. But, there’s something particularly fun about having a kid ask me about my beard. Their emotions flicker so rapidly, covering a charming range from shock to decisiveness to wonder as they work to fit these new pieces of information into their world.
A good friend of mine has a two-month old, who I’m lucky enough to get to spend lots of time with. It’s fascinating trying to figure out what her tiny brain is making of the changing lights and sounds that swirl around her. When she’s not sleeping, she spends most of her time wide-eyed, staring intently at the ceiling fan, a nose, a hat, a picture of black and white dots. One minute she’s smiling and then next she’s upset, but she spends a lot of the time in between with her little brow furrowed in puzzled concentration. As children sort out the world around them, they spend less and less time astounded, puzzling through the mysteries of everyday events. Grade schoolers still do it a lot, middle schoolers somewhat, adults almost never.
When I teach science, I get to reawaken that “what the heck?” response. I get high schoolers, who think they have it all figured out, to be amazed. I get to make them curious by showing them something completely perplexing. I love the bug-eyed “What just happened?!” look on their faces when I convince them, for example, that plants are made of air or that a clump of atoms has the information to make them who they are. (I feel particularly proud of myself on days when they actually, literally say things like “Whoa!” or “Wow!”)
I’m only just realizing this now, as I write, but I think this is part of what I like about having my beard. I get to give adults the experience, rare in their grown-up lives of routines and schedules, of encountering something utterly new and yet not dangerous or even upsetting. Usually if an adult encounters something completely new, it’s a scary situation like a disease or a car crash. Outside, perhaps, of international travel, it’s hard for adults to find new experiences in the daily routine of work and home.
On a kid’s face, the stumped curiosity is more visible, but I like catching glimpses of it on an adult’s face, too. I like when an adult is willing to break through everything in their brain telling them they should understand everything already. I like it when an adult is willing to engage with something puzzling, rather than pushing the experience away under the guise of politeness or dismissing it as unimportant to their life.
I like curiosity, fascination, inquisitiveness, and wonder. I like it in babies, I like it in my students, and I think I like it in the people who go a little bug-eyed as I walk by.