1+3+5+3+7+1+9+23+48+5 will always equal 105.
You can add the middle numbers last or add the second and fifth numbers first, and you’ll come up with the same answer.
However, it’s different with words.
Present the exact same words, in the exact same order, and the exact same format, to different individuals, and you’ll receive a different response every time.
That’s the beauty of words. As individuals, and when combined, words carry the experiences of their readers with them. Each individual will leave with a different interpretation.
Look to Lois Lowry’s introduction to the now-a-major-motion-picture edition of The Giver:
I had always received lots of letters from kids, frequently writing as a class assignment (one began, “This is a Friendly Letter”). Over the years, of course, they have more often become emails. But that didn’t compare to the mail about The Giver: first of all for the volume—the sheer number of them (even now, twenty years later, they still come, sometimes fifty to sixty in a day). But now the letter writers were different. Sure, many of them were still kids. But a startling number were much older. And the content was no longer the school assignment letter, the obligatory “I thought this was a pretty good book.” Instead the letters were passionate (“This book has changed my life”), occasionally angry (“Jesus would be ashamed of you,” one woman wrote), and sometimes startlingly personal.
One couple wrote to me about their autistic, selectively mute teenager, who had recently spoken to them for the first time—about The Giver, urging them to read it. A teacher from South Carolina wrote that the most disruptive, difficult student in her eighth grade class had called her at home on a no-school day and begged her to read him the next chapter over the phone. A night watchman in an oil refinery wrote that he had happened on the book—it was lying on someone’s desk—while making his rounds (“I’m not a reader,” he wrote me, “but man, I’m glad I came to work tonight”). A Trappist monk wrote to me and said he considered the book a sacred text. A man who had, as an adult, fled the cult in which he had been raised, told me that his psychiatrist had recommended The Giver to him. Countless new parents have written to explain why their babies have been named Gabriel. A teacher in rural China sent me a photograph of beaming students holding up their copies of the book. The FBI took an interest in the two-hundred-page vaguely threatening letter sent by a man who insisted he was actually The Giver, and advised me not to go near the city where he lived. A teenage girl wrote that she had been considering suicide until she read The Giver. One young man wrote a proposal of marriage to his girlfriend inside the book and gave it to her (she said yes). But a woman told me in a letter that I was clearly a disturbed person and she hoped I would get some help.
Diverse interpretations arrive with books and films and paintings, because we each take what the artists create and make their works our own.
For me, their works double as keys.
I don’t read books, or listen to music, or watch films, or examine paintings for enjoyment. I access them because they unlock my imagination. When my mind gets interpretin’ things start unlockin’. I have a hard time reading F. Scott Fitzgerald, because whenever I get a few lines in, the lock opens and the ideas roll out, or they start clicking together, like the innards of an old fashioned watch. In these moments, I don’t want to know what the artists intended. All I want is to swim in my own mind, ride my own thought waves.
But, sometimes . . . Interpretations are bad. (Insert record scratch.)
Last week, the word profound arrived with my 4th grader’s homework. Her understanding was that it held the same meaning as the word deep. This understanding came from an example that used the word profound:
The ocean is profound.
Using the ocean sentence as guidance, she created her own sentence:
The pool is 12 feet profound.
She understood profound to mean deep, but her understanding of deep wasn’t quite there. She was dancing around the flat and sharp areas flanking that sweet tuned spot, hence the 12 feet profound pool.
She didn’t quite get it, and that’s ok. We talked about the 12 feet profound pool (and the prodigious bear) and how sometimes words don’t mean what you think they do, and how it’s good to think about the pairing and sequencing of words. We also talked about interpretation, and using the best words to say what you mean.
This led to me reading the 4th grader, and the 8th grader who was hovering, an e-mail to Steve. I’ve never done this before, but it was a teaching moment, and I didn’t share the person’s name, so . . .
Hi, I am XXXX, (A Follower). I’m 17 years old and I am from XXXXXX. In my school I must make a presentation of an American writer and talk about a book by the same person. I chose you because I get excited with your book “The virtues of war”. My teacher says that we must answer the following questions: “Why do you write this?”, “When he wrote this?” and finally “What does the work represent for him?”, I need to finish this in three weeks. Could you answer the questions, please? I would be very greateful .. I’ll be attentive for your Answer 🙂
The 4th grader gave me a blank stare and left the room. (A shame she hasn’t perfected the one cocked eyebrow she’s been practicing. Would have fit well here.)
The 8th grader told me he thought it made sense. The student needed answers that only Steve could provide, so he did the right thing.
I asked my son what happens when his own teachers ask about the writings of someone like Abraham Lincoln, who you can’t contact for answers. What does he do?
I explained that what the teacher likely wanted was for the student to do his own research first. Steve’s done interviews and has an entire site on which he discusses the craft of writing and why he’s made certain decisions in the past. There’s a lot “out there” already to help the student get started. Instead, he took a short cut. My interpretation of the student’s letter was that he didn’t want to do any heavy lifting.
I pointed to the 8th grader’s copy of The Giver and asked if he’d read the introduction.
I sent him to the page on which Lowry wrote about the student who once e-mailed the request, “Please list all the similes and metaphors in The Giver.”
The 8th grader knows of similes and metaphors and what a pain it is when you have a teacher who wants you to guess the exact meaning, without discussing the meaning she has in her head, so . . . He got it. However, he was still on the fence because he is 13 and heavy lifting isn’t what 13 year olds identify with best, so… I picked up the hammer and drove my point home. The student wanted an answer in three weeks. He asked a complete stranger to put down his life’s work to do someone else’s homework.
Would you do someone else’s homework?
The 8th grader doesn’t enjoy doing his own homework, so he jumped off the fence and landed on solid ground next to me.
This led to the 8th grader going down the rabbit hole of disbelief. How could anyone do that to Steve? Does this happen a lot? What’s wrong with that guy?
The 4th grader came back to hold up my door frame and share that she thought the student was lazy. (The 4th grader’s super power is hearing. She’s both the holder and sharer of secrets in our house.)
I stepped back because it felt like we were heading into trolling territory.
I’m the one who stated that I didn’t think the student wanted to do heavy lifting. I still believe that, but lazy? Is it the same thing? And per my son’s comments, did the student understand the mistake he was making?
So we talked about how to write letters and our intentions, and a few other things related to words and writing.
The 4th grader slipped out again.
The 8th grader talked through his negative comments.
We agreed the student was on the clueless side and that maybe the work was overwhelming, which is why he asked for help. We also agreed that it’s best to do as much as you can on your own before asking others for help—and work on using the best words.
In addition to being unexpected, the conversation was enjoyable, and even . . . profound. Not 12 feet profound, but . . . yeah . . . profound.