I had a smooth know-it-all fourth grader in my school named Leland. Leland Washington Carter III to be exact. He was a talker and knew that fast talk could help him slip out of many a tight spot. He had a sparkling charm that won him unusual latitude among his peers and teachers. He knew that language had power and he could spin a story with deft speed. His charms made him stand out. He was a favorite, but also one to watch.
Then, a change came, turning young Leland from a fast talker into a wide-eyed and quiet little man. His new-found silent ways intensified over a period of two weeks. When I pried, I never got more than a few intriguing bits shared in private from his three aunts– that he had been with his family at a weekly church service, and that in the context of the service one Saturday, Leland became silent and – to use the words his aunts used – received a “visit from the witness.”
When week three came, I had little more than an uneasy feeling to go on, but I made a call to social services to file a report. That same day, Leland stopped coming to school. Through the neighborhood network I learned that the Carters had moved. No one had a forwarding address. I was left with unanswered questions and a deep wondering about what might befall him in his next home.
Leland’s story reminded me of my uncomfortable relationship with the unknown. I can adjust to what little I control by inventing little happy-ending stories, but even with every tool at my disposal, I see but a small fraction of what transpires each day. I also know that ignorance is part of the larger human experience. At three pounds, an average adult brain has 100 billion neurons, 100,000 miles of capillaries, and one quadrillion connections. But with all of this capacity, the best we can attain is an “A” for Effort.
I work in a business that specializes in opening new horizons. Still, the unknown puts me on edge. Whatever Leland experienced that day in church frightened me and drove me to involve outside agencies. I will likely never know where the truth exists in this case and can learn only from my reaction to what I didn’t know.
We have to keep kids safe, but we also have to get better at managing what we don’t understand. We might learn from a child who sorts the world by a simpler cognitive geometry or one who can see things we can’t. The unknown can yield insights to a more flexible mind that older minds might disregard. How ironic that schools are better at saying hush to the inexplicable than they are at leading the way toward the utterly amazing. I don’t know Leland’s story, but I know that a fear-based default can cause us to miss an immeasurable amount in pursuit of a safe and pleasant dreams.
Simple truth speaks its own blunt story. It may bring tears and it may make us frightened. Shutting it out makes us no stronger. Learning comes (and leadership follows) through practice with the things that do not fit. The invitation for me is to allow the inexplicable to remain in play a little while longer, and to use this time to build greater skill at navigating an ever-increasing flood of things I can’t explain.