The best question comes from a third-grader

I've been thinking a lot about interview questions lately, having recently gone through a stimulating interview process to be a K-8 principal. You have to answer a lot of questions in order to be a school principal, and I love a good question - better than a good answer, sometimes.

But my favorite question wasn't asked during my job interview. The search committee asked well thought-out questions about communications, code of conduct, and educational standards. They asked for examples of my past successes and failures, and listened to stories of my favorite school experiences. They asked questions I would have asked in their position, and they learned a lot of substantive things about me.

They did not, however, ask me the most important question: "Do you know what Pokémon is?"

I mean no disrespect to the committee, but this crucial question was asked a few days after my interview by Joey, and it got me thinking in a new vein. While meeting me for the first time, he took the opportunity to learn some vital information. Joey's going to be a third-grader.

I have heard of Pokémon cards, and the characters, movies, and cable TV shows that are part of the Pokémon universe. But I could not tell you the story of Ash and Pikachu without research. Sure, I can Google "Pokémon" and learn that "Pokémon are creatures of various size and special powers that inhabit this world, coexisting with humans." I can figure out all the names, brands, media outlets, and commercial implications of the fantasy characters. But that would be answering my question about Pokémon, not figuring out what it means to Joey. The fact that it was the most important question he could think of to ask when introduced to his new principal, started me thinking.

Pokémon reminded me of other card-character collecting fascinations I've encountered during my school career. Does anyone remember Pogs? Dungeons and Dragons? Stickers? Of course we all know traditional baseball trading cards. But it's not just about the current card craze, it's about what the collectors feel about their collections. This is where values are established.

Joey's simple question cut to the chase - Who is this guy? - and had a meaning deeper than he probably had intended. He was really asking, "Does my new principal understand what matters to me? Can he share what I value right now in my life?"

You might call this the "street level" of learning. I realized that before I can teach Joey, I need to know how he learns. I need intimate knowledge of his language and values - his culture. I should not assume that just because we live in the same town and work at the same school, we share common experiences. Schools contain multiple cultures.

Perhaps one day the No Child Left Behind Act will give a nod to the sophisticated implications of the quests and interplay of Pokémon characters. Who knows, a Pokémon curriculum might be a valuable way to teach conflict resolution, social studies, writing, even math. It would certainly capture Joey's attention.

In the meanwhile, I'll get to work on a more satisfying answer for him. Perhaps Joey has a few Pokémon card duplicates to get my collection started. I'm hoping he'll agree to tutor me on the finer points. I've got a lot to learn. Google informs me of this much: "Young Ash is a young boy with an insatiable curiosity about Pokémon. His knowledge of these mysterious creatures surpasses that of most of his peers." Sounds like Joey, which makes me feel as if I've found a good teacher - someone who will help me "to see the world in a [Pokémon card]," to hijack William Blake's phrase.

Todd R. Nelson is principal at the Adams School in Castine, Maine.

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