Recently we took a trip to the local science museum–because science is real, and fun, and interesting, and because my kids always do better in museums with hands-on experiments about centrifugal force than they do in museums with hands-off paintings on the wall. Nevertheless. Toward the end of the day we made our way to a large space dominated by a Rube Goldberg structure with balls and pulleys, chutes and ladders. More than anything, it looked like a life-size version of the game Mousetrap we used to play as kids. The true purpose of the From København to Singapore exhibit, which involved push and pull cargo ships and lots of plastic balls, was lost on me. But just by watching, I learned a lesson.
The space was packed. There were parents on the sidelines, some, like me, continually checking their phone for news about the downfall of western civilization. Ok, maybe that was just me. But those very adult worries were swallowed up by what was going on in the room. What was going on in the room was this: a room full of about forty kids–all working together–in order to make things happen.
There was a hodgepodge of languages, Danish, English, Spanish, Russian. There were toddlers pulling little cargo boats and kids in their early teens loading them up every time they ‘docked’. There were boys unloading and girls shoving more balls into the chutes to start the process all over again. And yet somehow these kids, who’d never spoken to one another or met one another, all worked together to move those balls from the København side of the room to the Singapore side. They were all working together for the greater good.
Kids seem to get this idea naturally. Never mind that the greater good in this case was a hands-on experiences in a science museum. You put a bunch of kids together in a room and give them a task, and more times than not, they’re going to figure out how to make it work. They don’t give a rat’s ass about what the kid next to them looks like or what language they’re speaking or whether they’re a boy with long hair or a girl with overalls on. You give them a job, and they figure it out. They’re not concerned with the who, only with the how.
The larger message wasn’t lost on me.
There used to be a lot more working together for the greater good, for a common goal. Sure, there are always those actively seeking to undermine others, just as there is always going to be the one kid who crosses his arms and refuses to budge until he gets a turn with the cargo ship. But overall, there was a sense that to keep things working the way they’re supposed to, whether it’s an exhibit in a science museum or a country, there has to be push and pull, loading and unloading toward a common goal.
After 9/11, as a New Yorker, I witnessed the real life version of that science exhibit. A city coming together for the greater good. First responders weren’t going to leave someone buried under the rubble because of their religion or because they didn’t have documentation. Blood banks weren’t going to turn away donors because they spoke a foreign language. In a time of crisis, we reverted back to the same instincts I saw in those children. We worked together for the greater good.
Something’s changed. A lot of things have changed. There’s no one thing to put your finger on, no smoking gun, no one cause and effect. But it’s impossible to deny that at the moment, we seem to have two distinct groups, both convinced they are acting for the greater good. But instead of actually moving those balls from København to Singapore, they’re actively working against one another until all we’re left with is a giant mess of balls in the middle of the room going nowhere fast.
I’m sure there were kids there yesterday who were tired of loading balls who wanted to steer a toy cargo ship. But the whole thing would have come to a standstill without everyone working together. Those kids instinctively knew that. They knew they couldn’t do it on their own. They couldn’t do it with only the people who looked like them or spoke the same language. If they did, the balls would stay in their chutes, on their own side. Blue with blue, orange with orange and never the twain shall meet. Going nowhere fast.
I don’t have any answers. But I’m starting to think I should just ask a room full of kids what they think we should do with this giant mess of balls we seem to be standing in the midst of.