Learning How to Ask Questions Again

asking questions

It was a bright and sunny day at the Youth Jamboree. Boyscouts and Girlscouts flocked the place: riding horses, walking over small challenge courses, learning broadsword sparring, eating, and more. There we were, four ladies manning the booth for the wildlife center, letting kids pet snakes and lizards, showing them a screech owl up close, and making sure nobody walked out without some brochures and hand sanitizer.

Out of the three other volunteers, I had only met one before. So I struck up a conversation with another one of the girls when the crowd had gotten smaller on the account of lunch. Abby (whose name has been changed) was a student at a local college, finishing up her Freshman year. Of course, she asked me where I went to college. Something in the air that day was making me extra confident and sure of myself, so it simply rolled off my tongue that “I am doing my own college – participating in a lot of internships and volunteerships like this one…”, which was excellent, considering I had not done so well in that area with the dental hygienist a few days prior.

I then asked Abby what she was majoring in. “I haven’t declared a major, yet,” she shrugged. That led me to ask what she was thinking about. “I don’t know, maybe English or something,” she shrugged again, seeming rather like she didn’t want to talk about it. I told her that English was a great idea right before we were mobbed with more people.

When I work events, I like to hold the animal in such a way that it catches the public eye and leads them into our booth. Kids and sometimes adults immediately start asking questions… how I love it when the kids question everything! They are so fascinated by animals they don’t normally get to see and pet, and they want to know all they can about them. I eventually find that a good way to segue into, “We have our own festival coming up soon!” and “if you want to come hang out with us and the animals more, we actually have a whole bunch of animal camps!”

Abby, on the other hand, had a surprisingly different approach.

“These are our non-releasable program animals,” she would tell people as soon as they came into the booth. She went on to educate them on what “non-releasable” meant, why our animals were non-releasable, and shoved some brochures in their hands.

When there was another lull in the crowd, she said to me: “I hate it when there are kids that come in and start asking questions! They never give me time to talk!”

The comment caught me completely off-guard. All I ended up saying was: “Um, yeah.”

What could I have said??

The point of this is not to make myself look good or Abby look bad. She was a very sweet girl with many good qualities. It was simply these couple of interactions which stood out to me and led me to start thinking – are both the urge to ask questions and the willingness to answer them eventually squashed by compulsory schooling?

Regardless of whether this is caused by mainstream education, I have realized that I’ve almost completely ceased asking questions. Or, if I do ask them, I do not actually knowledge that I ask them: I dream up a solution so I don’t have to deal with the uncomfortable state of uncertainty.

This is unfortunate.

My 12-year-old brother Robert has really been an inspiration to me lately. He has absolutely no qualms about asking questions – he is constantly inquiring about many things which have never crossed my mind to question before. Here are just a few examples:

“Why are water towers so high up?”
“In clay animation, how do they make things fly through the air?”
“Why are tires rubber?”
“Why aren’t roads rubber, so we can have metal tires?”
“Do British people not have coffee tables, since they drink tea?”
“Why are ant traps called roach motels? The roaches don’t even fit in there.”
“If we play ‘Uno,’ do Mexicans play ‘One’?”

One very simple question in particular stood out to me: “How do they make cheese?”

I said, being a know-it-all: “Come on, Robert, we know how they make cheese. It’s…. they…. I …. um…. oh. How do they make cheese??”

This led us on a long trail discovering how cheese is curdled (with Rennet), what Rennet is (an enzyme from the 4th stomach of an unweaned calf), and if cheese can be made in a way a little more cow-friendly (it can, with juices from a few plants, often thistles). I relayed all of this to my friend Liam, who then asked yet another question I hadn’t even thought of: “How did people discover that an enzyme from a calf’s 4th stomach curdled milk anyway?”

That still remains to be answered. If you know anyone who might know, please refer me to them.

So, these past couple of days I have been wondering, how does a person learn to ask questions again? Fortunately, asking a question about asking questions is a start.

I think the first place to start is not to take anything for granted. Yes, flamingos are pink, but why are they pink? Why is a corn snake called a corn snake? How come earth worms are so hard to pull out of the ground? What makes the wind blow, and why does it blow in different directions? Why is the sea salty? What causes cats to purr? Who invented all these grammar rules we are supposed to follow? Why is Facebook called Facebook? What is the point of bumble bees?

I know the answer to about half of those questions; the others I had to contemplate before they came to mind. I have to stop and force myself not to take elements of my daily life for granted. Younger people seem to do this naturally; every time I work with kids, I always hear at least one or two questions I had never thought about. Sadly, I have to answer “I don’t know.” To those questions.

However, I found comfort in a small section about saying “I don’t know” in Anna Botsford Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study: “…any teacher can with honor say, ‘I do not know’; for perhaps the question asked is as yet unanswered by the great scientists. But she should not let lack of knowledge be a wet blanket thrown over her pupils’ interest. She should say frankly, ‘I do not know; let us see if we cannot together find out this mysterious thing. Maybe no one knows it as yet, and I wonder if you will discover it before I do.’ She thus conveys the right impression, that only a little about the intricate life of plants and animals is yet known; and at the same time she makes her pupils feel the thrill and zest of investigation.”

Feeling “the thrill and zest of investigation.” Oh, how lovely it sounds!