The Man of Science And the Alphabet Girls

SPENCER and I went to the diner for breakfast the other morning. I had my usual, the $1.99 special: two eggs scrambled, home fries, toast. Spencer looked the menu over, calculated the cost of hot chocolate, hamburgers, two versus three pancakes and then settled on the special plus bacon. ``A good breakfast for a man of science,'' he told me. We turned to the comics and I explained Calvin and Hobbes to him while we awaited ``The Man of Science Platter.'' That wasn't the first time I had heard him refer to himself as a man of science. Driving home from school one day, sitting in the back of our car with his friend Jonathan, Spencer was looking through the map book.

``Where's Boston?'' he asked.

``Here,'' I said. Then he showed Jonathan where California was, and said: ``Here's L.A., where Gramma Evelyn lives.'' And then: ``Go ahead, ask me anything. I'm a man of science.''

Well, he is a man of science, preoccupied with cause and effect relationships, how and why things work, including celestial mechanics, as is every 7-year-old boy. In fact, it wasn't until Spencer explained the relationship between the moon and the tides that I really kenned how the moon caused the terrestrial tides. ``It's easy,'' said the man of science. ``When the moon is full the tide is in. When the moon is just small, the tide is out.'' Good enough for me.

His understanding of the natural world crops up in unexpected places. His friend Forrest, staying overnight last weekend, brought G.I. Joe Action Figures with him. Spencer doesn't usually play ``Army Guys'' too well without a more experienced ``Army Guy'' player to initiate the game, but he and Forrest had invented a terrific game, judging from their enthusiastic banter as I climbed the stairs toward the play room. I was a little surprised to find all of the G.I. Joes dangling by their ankles from red yarn pinned to the bulletin board. Curious.

Elementary! Spencer had been studying spiders in his second grade classroom: what they eat, how they are born, their day jobs. What happens to flies when they disappear from the radar screens? Spiders mummify them in silk. Aha! Spencer and Forrest are playing spider and mummifying G.I. Joe Action Figures.

Would the toy company executives ever have imagined such a macabre use for their plastic figurines? Perhaps it's no less macabre than the fantasy games they are intended to inspire! And Spencer and Forrest weren't trying to be macabre, just being men of science. Come to think of it, this explains the Barbie and Skipper dolls hanging from the reading light by the sofa in the living room.

Younger sisters Hilary and Ariel don't have this fascination with cause-effect relationships or learning how to explain why things work or taking apart the floorboards in the bedroom or putting paper clips into wall sockets, like their brother.

The focus of their play is either communicating or a giddy circular chase through the downstairs. They count to six in unison then, shrieking, run through the kitchen, dining room, and living room before counting again and renewing the cycle. Or they will sit at the kitchen table and draw rainbows or the letter ``A.'' For the girls, simply making contact with each other is play. Having a three-sided relationship, one side being a text (the alphabet, six numbers, or the names of aunts and uncles), is a preoccupation.

The other day my main man of science reminded me of a wonderful insight into childhood, a quality which all of the kids share, regardless of gender. Spencer and I were having ice cream sundaes together and talking about insects. He is going to be a fly in a play at school, I learned, and so I asked him his lines.

``I don't have to say anything, I just point to my body parts: the heart, the brain, the antennae.'' He then informed me that insects don't have bones and that's why ``they squish so easily.''

The notion of insect thoughts intrigued me. ``What do you suppose insects think about?'' I asked him.

``Well, ants don't have brains but they know where they're going. And they can smell dinner a half mile away,'' I was informed. His tone, without being a smarty pants, suggested that nothing seemed beyond understanding.

When Hilary's class adopted a tadpole, which came in a kit complete with growing powder, she was thrilled more by the contest for the naming of this little transparent fin-with-eyes than with its evolution into a frog. Her suggestion was ``Alphonse,'' a literary allusion: We read a book called ``The Mysterious Tadpole'' a while back about a Scottish uncle who gives his American nephew a Loch Ness Monster larvae for a birthday present. The name ``Twitcher'' won the contest in Hilary's classroom and he shows no signs of exceeding normal tadpole stature.

All of this naming and knowing reminds me of the time a friend was observing one of our kids working on a puzzle. ``Isn't it wonderful,'' he remarked, ``the way they trust that there is an answer!'' It's a simple thought, but how often do we take it for granted? The children have encountered nothing in their lives to suggest that an answer could ever actually elude them. There always is an answer, just as a pollywog always drops its tail and becomes a frog. Nor is this powerful confidence based on an accretion of evidence, experimentation, or study. A true and valid answer can just as easily be a leap of the imagination. After all, Spencer's explanation of the tides is quite valid - and it would make a terrific poem.

Of course always having an answer without the breadth of experience that supplies a context for the answer can be problematic. For instance, the night we trimmed our Christmas tree this year Spencer came into the kitchen to inform me that he had found a burned-out bulb on one of the strings of lights. ``I took it out for you,'' he informed, and then went back to the tree. A few minutes passed before he came into the kitchen with 20 bulbs. ``I noticed these others were also burned out,'' he said earnestly, ``so I took them out.'' Of course he hadn't seen the relationship between removing that first light bulb and the ensuing blackout down the rest of that string of bulbs. Ah, modern times.

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