The teacher’s name, Mr. Snodgrass, was printed on the chalkboard in careful block letters. Mr. Snodgrass himself stood before us. He was in his early thirties, I’d guess now, though at the time I identified him as solidly middle-aged, an adult, somewhere in that slow, unwieldy moment that seemed to go on forever. He wore wide-wale corduroys (corduroys were very 1975), a plaid shirt, a woolen tie, and a pencil behind his ear. He surveyed us from behind his thick glasses with a wide, close-lipped smile, and then he turned sharply toward the door and left the room.
We gaped at the place where a teacher had been, stunned into momentary silence by his surprise exit. Then one kid scrambled to the front, bowed, and said, “Nice to meet you, ladies and gentlemen,” and slid back into his chair.
The door opened and here came Mr. Snodgrass again, this time wearing teddy-bear ears and oversize sunglasses, the kind you’d buy at a fair.
“Hello, gang,” he said, all smiles.
We rumbled a greeting.
“Notice anything different about me?”
“Uh… you’re wearing ears,” said someone I’d know later was Jim, a football player.
“And glasses. Funny glasses,” piped up a little person (named Nancy).
“Right. Anything else? Anything else, boys and girls?”
We weren’t sure what he was getting at.
“Come on, come on, look at me! I’m the same guy as before–right? But with a difference.” Mr. Snodgrass whirled about and stood before us again, arms outstretched. “Well?… Well?”
“You’ve become a whirling dervish,” I said, breaking the silence. It was my first unnecessary utterance of the day.
“And you were… Amanda?” he said, frowning toward me.
“Alison, very possibly I am a whirling dervish. But today I am looking not for generalizations, but for details. Details! Details, my friends!”
With that, he pulled the tip of a bright blue handkerchief out of his shirt pocket. He waved it in the air, then flung it on his desk. He took off his big glasses and his furry ears.
“The English language, my friends, is an exact science. We learn English so that we may provide a very, very clear picture when we speak or, especially, when we write. When you observed me this morning, it didn’t take an Einstein to see that I had funny ears and funny glasses, but you neglected to notice I’d also added a blue hankie to my ensemble. This little detail escaped you. Why? Because you had stopped looking. It was more subtle than the rest.
Your job, my friends, is to notice the blue hankie. Leave no blue hankie unnoticed.”
~ excerpt from History Lesson for Girls, by Aurelie Sheehan
* * *
I kind of wish I had a reason to teach a writing class today, so I could do this. To teach the skill of writing, but more importantly, to teach the skill of noticing. The skill of seeing. The skill of never stopping the looking.
To never stop looking is indeed a skill.
Tyler taught me this game he invented for whenever he’s bored: his Noticing Game. When he’s in the car on a long, familiar drive, or when he’s waiting for me to finish a conversation so we can leave wherever he’s finished being, he plays The Noticing Game. He looks around him, intent on finding something he’s never seen before.
(It’s a joy to raise an artist. He teaches me.)
Yesterday was our last day at the pool, the last day before it’s all closed up for the autumn, winter, and even the spring. I found myself consumed with seeing, playing Tyler’s Noticing Game.
I saw the woman to my right, knitting a baby cap with soft blue yarn. (That’s a rare discovery at the pool, the waterside knitter.)
I saw the woman on my other side, sunbathing and recovering from some kind of augmentation, as symmetrical, puckered bruises spilled out of the sides of her bikini top. (Actually, my sons noticed this. And it led to some colorful conversation about the where and why of such purples.)
I saw that Tucker’s hair is down over his ears again, and that this second round of braces on his teeth are doing their job.
I saw that Tyler’s cowlick is irrepressible, even when it’s wet from swimming.
I saw Peter’s tan, the lines on my olive-skinned man who soaks in the rays of sun like he’s drinking dye.
I read this week, “Once there is nothing less for you to notice in the around you, absolutely nothing left to see, that’s when you should feel the freedom to look at your phone.”
Leave no blue hankie unnoticed.