I visited a senior kindergarten classroom yesterday. “Mr. Rainey, look at this castle we built!” Colorful plastic chains dangled from uneven wood-block walls above a presumably menacing mural of faces, hand-drawn on 8.5×11 printer paper in bright purple and blue marker and secured with Scotch tape to leer at small passers-by. “Isn’t it scary?” Yes, I conceded. It is very scary. “Mr. Rainey, do you see the owl?” I looked up at a paper bird pinned to one corner of a bulletin board that asked, “Guess whooo’s coming to read?” in block letters over a photo collage of happy students with their classroom guests. “Isn’t it scary?” The child’s eyes were as wide as those of the harmless bookish owl to whom he had pointed me. Yes, I conceded. It is very scary.
Many if not most holidays remind us to be grateful–Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Labor Day, Memorial Day. Halloween, by contrast, reminds us to be fearful. This morning as all of our Lower School students paraded through the first floor of Olson Hall in their wonderfully creative costumes, they were advised, in keeping with tradition, not to walk across the MICDS seal set into the floor of the foyer. “What happens if you step on it?” asked one. “Maybe you fall into a hole and never stop falling!” answered another. A stately school seal becomes a sinister black hole. An inviting owl becomes a monstrous bird of prey. Things are not always what they seem in late October. It is very scary.
Just as athletic competitions simulate combat under controlled conditions, the rituals of Halloween simulate existential alternatives under controlled conditions. Both are, essentially, theatre. Both are performative. They present opportunities for our evolved, civilized selves to indulge our primitive selves. “They’re the faces of the stranger,” sings Billy Joel, “but we love to try them on.”
In ways that have nothing to do with costumes or candy, Halloween confronts us with the limits of our comprehension–and gives us permission to admit those limits. Ruth and I traveled to see our daughter in Delaware last weekend, and while I was enjoying my free hot breakfast one morning at the Holiday Inn Express (but of course!), I heard Marvin Gaye’s familiar voice come over the lobby speakers: “People say believe half of what you see, son, / And none of what you hear.” I always thought he was singing about betrayal, but maybe he was actually singing about the limits of human comprehension. Things are not always what they seem in late October.
Writing this week in a brief essay titled Cognition Without Computation, the Australian roboticist Rodney Brooks notes that “long-held theories get superseded pretty frequently,” offering as one example the erosion of three decades of conventional wisdom that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the accumulation of protein plaques in the brain. (“Now it is postulated that the lumps of plaque are a side effect of the disease, not the causal mechanism.”) Another example is the rise of quantum mechanics, whose consequences “are still being discovered and often still disbelieved.” Brooks observes that quantum entanglement–causing change to one thing by measuring the property of another–“is still routinely described as ‘spooky.’” 🎃 Things are not always what they seem in late October–well, ever actually.
Years ago, I shared with my son’s first-grade teacher an outlandish story about events at school that he insisted had happened the day before. “You know,” she said, “first-grade teachers hear a lot of outlandish stories, too, about things that happen at home.” We had worked together for several years, and we knew each other well by that point. She smiled a little and arched an eyebrow at me. “How about this?” she said. “I’ll only believe half if you’ll only believe half.” A school seal on a hallway floor might not be a sinister black hole after all. A bookish owl might not be a monstrous bird of prey. Things are not always what they seem.
The French writer and Nobel Prize winner André Gide once said, “Believe those who seek the truth, doubt those who find it.” The Long Island songwriter and Grammy Award winner Billy Joel once said, “You may never understand how the stranger is inspired, / But he isn’t always evil, and he is not always wrong.” Is it incomprehensible that I would quote them side by side? Late October allows us to admit the limits of our comprehension! Long live Halloween.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. I wish you a very joyful, spooky weekend with your family and loved ones.
Head of School