In Honor of Oliver Sacks: “Home School” Day

Yesterday the little one felt sick-ish. The kind of sick that comes from school starting in August, and it being so hot, and yes maybe there is a little tummy virus going around. The kind of sick that let him swim in the ocean with his brother at sunset last night.

Sunset 1

The kind of sick that inclines his mother to let him sleep past the time he’d have to wake up and rush to get ready for school this morning. The kind of sick that prompts her to declare this Monday a “home school” day, because where his mind travels when unencumbered is vastly more interesting than what happens in any one day of school.

To wit: He enters the dining room this morning, where I am reading Oliver Sacks’ obituary, one of this era’s most unique life stories: sent at six years old to an English boarding school with an abusive headmaster at the onset of World War II; returned home at ten years old, to fall in love with the periodic table of elements and its unchanging, unemotional constancy; taught at eleven years old by his surgeon mother to dissect humans; and growing to become the unconventional, compassionate scientist and humanist we came to know through his words.

It is into this mindset my boy presents himself for evaluation. He holds his stomach with both hands, a low grown emanating from his lips. (And to think he says he doesn’t like acting…).

I look up from the newspaper and feel his forehead, kiss his cheeks.

“I don’t think I have a fever,” he preemptively says. “I feel a little cold.” This spoken observation turns his gears. He sits down next to me and thinks. “You know what’s weird,” he continues. “When it’s 80 degrees outside we feel so hot. But when we touch our skin and we are 98.6 degrees, we feel normal.”  And…I have made my decision. We have a question that will be more fascinating to him than fractions or long division or today’s grammar lesson. I declare today a “home school” day.

I should know better; experience teaches me that his spoken observation will probably be the length and breadth of his inquiry. That I have exaggerated ambitions for how a “home school day” will go. That he will spend his day not exploring human biology but playing Legos (okay, fine) and pleading to watch noxious cartoons (which will turn me into a white hot meanie). But it’s early yet, and my fantasies are not yet splattered.


Legos 3

So we hope for a day that is not wasted. A day that would honor Sacks, who wrote after his diagnosis of metastasized cancer, “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me….to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

I come to my blank page, the calming sound of Legos being sifted and rearranged in the room next to me, and begin a morning of writing. I pray for that unadulterated voice to play in my head, the one that must be captured in the moment I hear it, because it evaporates just as quickly. When it comes it is a flash of nirvana. It is finding true north.

When the words don’t come like that, which is most of the time, I must poke around for them, writing too much, sweeping away the excess. The goal in it all? To create characters that reveal the beauty and mystery of the human experience as richly as the character the world has known as Oliver Sacks — as intriguing, seductive, textured and fascinating a character as any that has ever been written.

The Legos still sift behind me. Questions are asked, prompting more questions — “Are sharks mammals? What makes a mammal? Is it hair? Why do our heads grow so much hair?” A day of inquiry and investigation is still possible. He has yet to sneak off with his iPod, and I have yet to have to snatch it from him, leading to the inevitable kerfuffle. There are books yet to write and to read. Discoveries yet to make. The day is young. Everything is possible.

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5 thoughts on “In Honor of Oliver Sacks: “Home School” Day

  1. Hi Laura! I really loved this. As always, your words resonate with me and leave me feeling thoughtful and inspired. And hopeful, even though I too feel a bit of that sick-ish feeling that comes with the end of a summer watching my boys thrive in their natural environment and then sending them back to school!

    • Thanks, Becky. It is probably even harder for you, given the gorgeous natural environment your boys are lucky to have and to avail themselves of! My sons natural habitat in summer is frequently the couch in front of the xBox. 🙂

  2. This is a lovely way to honour Oliver Sacks. He was an inspiration for me in my work and an inspiration for my students. If you haven’t read his recent autobiography, “On the Move” do read it. It is wonderful Here’s my review of it on Goodreads: (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1386145233). And if you go to OliverSacks.com and click on the Oliver Sacks Foundation, you can donate to a fund to secure his writings and talks for science in the future, and help others to continue the narrative tradition in neurology, neuropsychology and medicine (a goal dear to my heart).

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