“You’re sophomores now,” I told my new batch of high school students last week, “which means you’re realizing that there’s more going on than you used to think. For example, you’ve been lied to since kindergarten. Answer me this: what color is the sky?”
I’ve written about this debate in my first books, and carry the thread throughout the series, but I had never before asked it of my students. I watched to see what they did with this simple yet odd question. I was not disappointed.
A few shouted, “It’s blue!” because on the second day of school you’re still trying to impress the teacher.
A few squinted, dubious as to what the right answer was, seeing as how I’d spent the last five minutes explaining how we’d be learning to analyze and see “the bottom part of the iceberg.”
(I drew terrible pictures of icebergs on my board. The students asked, “Is that a potato floating in the ocean?” Yeah—see the “whole potato,” my friends.)
But in each class, a couple students glanced out the window before answering, “White and pale blue.” (It was a humid, muggy day because Maine has been thinking it’s Maryland all summer.)
I replied nothing for a few seconds, watching them process, think, and squirm in worry that I was just standing there, smiling slyly, until I finally I said, “That’s exactly what I was hoping you’d say!”
“What?” they exclaimed. “That it’s blue? Or white? Or . . .” And then more started looking out the window, as if I’d seen something they hadn’t noticed and maybe they should notice it, too.
I could barely contain my excitement—they were re-examining what they assumed was true. I love these moments when their neurons start firing!
Some kids had initially sniggered at those glancing out the window, likely thinking, So dumb—have to look out the window when everyone knows the sky is blue.
Some others had that twinkle in their eye that they were going to show me up by not giving me the standard, “Blue!” answer, which I pounced upon happily.
“So is the sky actually blue?” I pressed.
They glanced at their peers, now unsure.
“It’s only looks blue,” one 15-year-old remembered, albeit backwards, “because it’s reflecting the blue of the ocean.”
“Except,” I said, “I grew up in the deserts in the west, and the sky was very blue there.”
Rapid eye-blinking is a sign that new neurons are being created in students’ minds. That’s a fact I just made up, like the sky is blue.
Eventually I explained how the blue is merely an optical illusion and asked them what other colors the sky can be.
When they realized it can be every color, especially at night (black) and during sunsets (even green and purple) they looked simultaneously intrigued and disturbed by this “new old news”.
And when I told them the sky is different colors on other planets (and that the sun isn’t actually yellow but white, if they could steal a glance at it without hurting their eyes), a few students’ eyes bugged out (a sure sign that neurons are firing—it’s a scientific fact I also just made up).
Mars, 1997, with no blue sky in sight.
Blue sky is fake news. Oh, we didn’t mean to set out feeding our kids lies when they’re little–we’re just trying to simplify their complex world, cover the essentials, and worry about the deeper details later. That’s not a problem.
Except if we neglect to later dig deeper, think harder; then we become lazy thinkers. We don’t want to analyze, to see if everything we’ve assumed is actually true, because it’s not fun or entertaining. (Ask high schoolers what makes a “good class” and they’ll answer with, “It’s fun,” “We don’t have to work hard,” “We play games and watch movies,” or “We can get away with anything.”)
We want entertainment, not enlightenment.
That’s going to be a problem in the future, as it’s becoming a problem right now. It seems most adults won’t analyze the news, its sources, or its veracity. They’ll take whatever matches their present assumptions, rant on social media for a minute, feel they’ve done something good, then see what’s new on Netflix.
In the meantime, nothing improves, no one notices, and the sky continues to darken without anyone glancing at it to say, “I don’t think that’s a good sign . . .”
Rector Yung studied him. “Dormin, what color is the sky?”
“Blue,” he answered automatically. He didn’t even glance out the window at the blazing orange that leaked into the room, tingeing everything around them in a carroty hue. “Everyone knows that.”