Crab Gills and Barnacle Sex — Homeschooling’s Best Secret
How can crabs breathe both in water and out of water?
How do barnacles find a mate if they are stuck somewhere for life?
How do birds have such great depth perception that they can land on a tiny branch when they don’t have binocular vision?
Each of the above questions was asked me by my 11 year old homeschooled daughter. One was asked when she was three or four. One was asked just the other day. Each of these questions has stunned me, because each arose from a perceived paradox that seemed at first to defy explanation. I did not know the answer to any of these questions when she asked them. But the most striking thing about them is that I had never thought to ask them before. I had never noticed the paradox that seemed so glaringly, enticingly obvious once it was pointed out.
Why? When did I stop asking questions? When did I stop noticing things? Because all it takes to ask such interesting, thoughtful questions is openness to and curiosity about the world around you.
I think I stopped noticing and asking questions because of school. In school, there are teachers who tell you what you need to know. If you ask questions about anything else, there isn’t time, or the teacher can’t really answer the question, because the real answer if very complicated and opens up other questions and lines in inquiry. Because after the teacher has taught about the water cycle or whatever, it’s time for lunch, or math or reading. There isn’t time to wonder about what happens to the germs in the water when it evaporates. I was only supposed to be interested in specific things for a certain prescribed time of the day. And so the world became a less interesting place.
Once I started homeschooling, the world became a really interesting place again. It turns out that crabs can breathe both in water and out because their gills have adapted to be able to draw oxygen from the air as long as they are wet. And barnacles? Guess which creature in the entire animal kingdom has the longest penis proportional to its body?
I’m not the only one to notice this wonderful secret about homeschooling. I have seen other homeschool authors mention it. In one homeschooling memoir, a mom recalls arriving early to pick up her teenage daughter from the town library on a sunny fall day. A somewhat rare butterfly had alighted on the flowers outside the main entrance. The mom noticed this, rapt. She knew this species of butterfly because she and her kids liked to take field guides out into the woods on their walks, and she was excited to see this one in such an unexpected place. The mom watched as library patrons walked passed. Not one of them noticed this unusual butterfly. However, when the daughter came out, she noticed it right away and remarked on it with excitement. (This story is from Homeschooling: A Family’s Journey by Martine and Gregory Millman.)
When we started homeschooling, suddenly everything was something to be curious about, and not just for the kids, but for me. Homeschooling was like being given permission again to find everything interesting, not just the things that were on the syllabus. The life cycle of the ladybug. Tudor England. Chess. Norse mythology. The story behind the terra cotta warriors and the first Chinese Emperor. String theory. Black holes. The nature of crystals. Renaissance secular music. Fractals. Hitler’s rise to power. I’ve learned more about all of these things since homeschooling.
When I learn with my kids – and that is what it very much feels like – I don’t have all of the answers. In fact, I have just as many questions as they do. For example, what is gravity? No, really. What is it? How does it work? If you really try to answer that question in simple language – and not just in the dictionary-definition-for regurgitation-on-a-test kind of way – you will find it a compelling and difficult exercise. Allowing ourselves to really wonder into the mystery is exactly how we generate even more fascinating questions.
What we do know about gravity, of course, we owe to Isaac Newton, who did exactly what my daughter did when she saw the crab alive in a bowl in our refrigerator. When he saw the apple fall, he became curious and didn’t take his curiosity for granted. But the point isn’t about seminal scientific discoveries. It’s about pure, simple wonder and joy. Homeschooling has allowed us – all of us – to take our curiosity and wonder seriously.
I have become more intellectually vital since I started homeschooling my kids.
When my daughter was eight, I planted milkweed at the suggestion of a friend and fellow homeschool mom. My kids and I watched that summer as monarchs visited our yard, and delicately glued a single, tiny butter yellow egg under numerous milkweed leaves. When the eggs hatched, the kids took the magnifying glass outside to watch the little gray caterpillars eat their first meals. As the caterpillars grew, the kids took turns letting them crawl up their arms. And when they were done growing, we all watched in fascination mixed with not a little revulsion as the striped caterpillar skin split open and a bulbous, stubby green chrysalis wriggled loose from its constraining sheath.
By this time, I had reclaimed my wonder and curiosity, and I was riveted. I wanted to know more about this strange process that I had observed. What was going on really? Does the caterpillar heart become modified slightly into a butterfly heart? Does the caterpillar body shrink and morph into the butterfly body? How do the wings form? To answer these questions, I did something I frequently do now, but that I never did as a school kid – I looked up the answer. Yes, with the internet, looking things up is easier than it used to be. But I also think that I learned not to care enough to look things up as a kid because the answer to my question wasn’t going to be on the test, and because the class had to move on to another topic. There was no time.
But now as an adult, I cared enough about my curiosity – curiosity for its own sake – to look it up. I learned that, toward the end of the larval stage, the caterpillar’s body begins to digest itself from the inside. By the time it has wriggled out of its skin and become a chrysalis, there are no solid forms left. It is just a bag of fluid. The structures that will become the body and wings of the butterfly emerge from special cells within the liquid. And in subsequent years, I have held a flashlight up to the chrysalis, and seen that, indeed, it is just a sack of liquid. I have accidentally punctured chrysalises, and seen that a clear liquid oozes out. If the puncture happens just after the chrysalis forms, the butterfly develops normally. But if it happens a day or two after the transformation, the chrysalis turns brown and begins to rot.
What a profound and amazing process this is! I have raised monarchs every summer since then, and each time the caterpillars begin their mysterious and awe-inspiring transformation, I feel deeply moved. What is that experience like for them, I wonder? Is it painful, this process of inner dissolution? Can they feel fear? If so, I imagine they might be very frightened. This process of having all of your inner structures turned to liquid, only to fantastically reconstitute in a form of such exquisite beauty has served as an apt metaphor for me in my own life, and in my work with my clients in my psychotherapy practice. It helps me to remember to expect a spectacular transformation that arises from the darkest of times.
When there is room and time for curiosity, there is room and time for awe. For simply being overcome by the mystery of all that life is. This has been the biggest gift that homeschooling has given to me personally. I like to think it is the greatest gift I have given my children by homeschooling them. I can’t imagine anything more precious.
Raising monarchs has been a wonderful part of our homeschool every summer, but the population of monarchs has decreased precipitously in just the last few years. If you would like to learn how to raise monarchs while helping monarch conservation and at the same time supporting Talking Stick, click here.