Getting lost used to be more common. Just 10 or 15 years ago, before we could rely on our phones and satellites to keep track of us, we had to keep track of ourselves. And we did so imperfectly. At least, my friends and I did. Often, we’d plod along until we registered something recognizable – the Citgo sign by Fenway Park in Boston, that blue doored seafood restaurant, the bridge we crossed earlier in the day – and we would accommodate that new information. Or we would find our way to a map and orient ourselves.
Sometimes, though, we had to reach out for help. Lost friends would call with a very specific tone in their voice, a panicked, disoriented tone. The lost friend would rarely say, with calm confidence, “I’m not sure where I am, and I would love your help. There is a ‘Sonny’s Pizza Shop’ across from a dog groomer, and a sign that says ‘Fairfield, 17 miles.’ I think I’m still in Virginia. Do you have a phone book or know the area?”
Rather, the conversation usually started with the gasping burst of someone who has lost all perspective: “I was trying to get to Blockbuster (movies in the past were objects rented at stores) and I thought I knew how to get there, because I went once with Dereck (people in the past were called Dereck) and I only have 65 cents and I remember being on a road with a roundish-even-numbered-route like 8 or 80 or 36 or maybe 22 and I’m at a pay phone and I don’t know how much gas is left and please help me.”
"Take a deep breath," we would say, "what do you see?"
Knowing the area well, or having a map handy, was necessary. But telling our friend facts about the area or the map would have been completely useless. What was helpful was being able to imagine how the world looked to the lost person: following her wrong turns or embracing his errant logic. Only after empathizing with how the lost saw the world could we be helpful in getting them to take inventory of what they know and helping them to reorient themselves.
That old panicked, disoriented tone of lost friends is exactly the same one I hear from my students. They are disoriented. They don’t know how SAT questions connect to their Algebra II class, or how comma rules relate to semi-colons. Their minds race, but they only get more confused, more lost. They worry they don’t have enough time. They worry they won’t live up to expectations, or that they’re inferior to their friends. They resent the tests for measuring such inane, uninteresting skills.
Knowing how to test well, and the rules of grammar, and tricky facts of trigonometry is necessary to help my students. But if they’re lost enough, they don’t even know how far they are from where they want to be. We don’t get very far if I just say information at them. Telling them the best route is useless unless I know where they are and how they view things. Only then can we gain some perspective and help them reorient. Take a deep breath, I say. What do you see?
Most of the time, my students find their way, relieved to have the confusion behind them. More exciting, though, is when they learn to orient themselves. When they can retrace their steps and be aware of how their mental routes lead them away from where they want to go. Then, getting a little lost isn’t as scary as they feared. Then, getting lost is an interesting side effect of going somewhere new.