I felt a kinship with Alley rather quickly. She was uninhibited, talkative, and at the endearingly tender time in life where one has many ideas, facts, and experiences but still hasn't quite figured out how to put them all together. But most of all, she asked a lot of questions.
It seemed Alley was always asking questions, guilelessly, but also without tact. Her parents corrected her for the more serious grievances they overheard, guiding her with a light parental touch. Her soft-spoken sister, age twelve, was a bit harsher in response, with many an eye rolled, but no less loving.
Alley was aware she got in trouble a lot, and it weighed on her, as much as something can weigh on such an ebullient kid. She didn't understand why her questions were met with such hostility, or why she was often chastised for not listening closely enough.
On the last night of the trip, Alley and I engaged in a very serious, and sincere, two hour discussion about the various issues she was facing. Sitting in a hideously Pepto Bismo-colored Chinese restaurant, we discussed her fear of fourth grade, the concerns she had regarding division, and the details of her friendships and sports activities. We also talked about the nature of inquiry.
Alley explained her confusion over people's reactions to her questions. We talked about the etiquette of asking questions, about timing and content. We talked most about the contract you entered into when you asked a question -- requesting an answer from your conversational partner, and promising to listen. But mostly I kept reminding her how important it was to keep probing, to remain curious.
Females are shown to be more verbal than their male counterparts, it seems in our society a boy's words, however few, hold more weight. Girls are stifled. Additionally, children of both genders are discouraged from asking questions. Asking for clarification on the homework assignment or a classroom rule is appropriate, certainly, but questions that go beyond these limited domains are often seen as challenging to authority. Children are silenced.
These realities were reason enough to encourage Alley to be her loudest, most inquisitive self. But two personal experiences, one old and stale, the other new and surprisingly fresh, brought a new urgency to our conversation.
When I was twelve, I was told by my Catholic school principal that I would no longer be able to ask questions in class. He drew an iceberg on a piece of paper, with a water line that left the slightest beak of frozen water bobbing above the surface, the vast majority of the block submerged below. "This is just the tip of the iceberg," he said, circling the ice berg and looking meaningfully at me. I cried so hard I needed my inhaler brought to me; I begged for my mother, who was never called.
This first edict was brought on my new interest in the historical realities of the Bible, and my desire to probe our religion class texts further, to separate falsehoods and misinterpretations from the truth. I admit I was driven not only by academic integrity; I was rebelling against my community, driving the sharp point of my Crucifix necklace into the fleshy sides of my "teachers" and "friends."
The second time I was told I was too "analytical," that I asked too many questions, that I need to stop "trying to figure everything out," I wailed like I had six years before in my middle school principal's office and my breathing difficulties, which had lied dormant for years, returned with a stunning force. This was made worse by the fact that I was no longer a petulant child, but an adult, who had been working sincerely and with great earnest to fulfill my duties.
These words came from my study abroad professor, spat at me on a beach in front of our travel group and their host families, in the middle of a Bastille Day picnic. There was no drawing of an iceberg, despite the availability of stick and sand, but it was made to seem that my unrelenting intellectualism was only the tip, that her grievances were innumerable.
Each situation resolved itself differently, but both left me with the same sense of disorientation. Each incident alienated me from myself. An essential aspect of my identity had been picked apart and, because the criticizers were in positions of power, effectively banished. I lost a part of myself in the principal's office that day, and it took several years for it to return. That same part was dislodged (but not lost, not this time) on that perfectly-manicured beach what seems like a lifetime later. I am still working it back into place.
The hope I am happy to express, to share with the world, is the hope that Alley will be more successful in responding to similar situations when they arise, for arise they will. But my secret hope, the wish I fear will never be realized, is that one day we will live in a world where are all are free to speak, to share with each other, to inquire.