A scan of the inside cover of Flatlands by Edwin Abbot. The title is displayed at the top, and the subheading is "A Romance of Many Dimensions."

The Flatlands of Learning

In addition to teaching Astronomy and Math to the third grade, I oversee their lunch. During this period, I read aloud to them so that they can be edified by excellent stories and so that they eat more quickly and have some time for charging around outside before their next class starts. One morning last week, I was on the way to school when I realized that I had left the folktale collection I’ve been reading from at home. Fortunately, I had a book on the shelf of my office that I loved as a third grader: Flatland. If you’re not familiar, Flatland is a wild adventure in dimensional geometry – think Gulliver’s Travels if Gulliver was a literal square from a 2-dimensional world who discovers worlds with 0, 1, and 3 dimensions.

I grabbed the book off my shelf, stashed it in my bag, and ran to class.

It did not take very far into the lunch period for me to realize that, while Flatland may be an exciting bedtime story book for one child who loves fantasy worlds and math, it is a less-than-gripping choice for a lunchroom of squirrely students. Not only are the first few chapters written in an antiquated style far outside the typical third-grade lexicon, they are page upon page of incredibly dense exposition. The perilous adventures I remember do come eventually, but only after the reader has a thorough grasp of how perspective works on a two-dimensional plane, lower-dimensional weather mechanics, the incredibly complex caste system the different shapes function in, and much much more.

After the third student raised her hand to request that she be allowed to sit quietly and read her own book, I paused and polled the class – did they want me to keep reading this book, or should I grab another from the shelves of the classroom? (Perhaps one of the classroom’s astonishingly large number of copies of Mr. Popper’s Penguins?) Or would they rather I just let them finish their lunch in peace?

One child’s hand immediately shot up. “I don’t understand most of what you’ve said,” he told me, “but I really want you to keep reading.”

That child is going places.

This particular incident took place the afternoon after our school sorting ceremony, in which my wife and I had the privilege of being placed into St. Anne’s House. Despite a distinctly ecumenical tilt, my church upbringing was overwhelmingly in the Protestant tradition, meaning I had very little prior knowledge of St. Anne. I had the vague impression that she was the mother of Mary, but not much beyond that. Being a dutiful student, following the sorting ceremony I set out to read whatever I could about the saint, preferably from the most ancient sources possible. I was surprised to find very little in the way of primary sources on the topic. I came across several allusions to a much-disputed early document, some passing reference in an oral tradition or two, and the indisputable fact that the Mother of God must herself have had a mother. But even all of these together left me with little more than a scattering of hints and guesses.

At this point I should disclaim that my most informative sources have been the “About St. Anne” section of the websites of a dozen or so parishes and schools bearing her name, sources which I would chide any student for relying on. Alas, the constraints of time forced me to leave off my inquiries there. I look forward to further study as well as my more learned colleagues’ corrections.

Nevertheless, though it is not the intended focus of the house, over the following week the mystery shrouding St. Anne oddly became one of my favorite things about my new house affiliation. The unknown is inescapable in day to day life. For both students and teachers, the simple act of walking into a classroom in the morning requires preparation for absolutely anything to go down. The spirit of scientific inquiry that I attempt to spark in my students lies in believing that there is something beautiful to be sought beyond a veil of unknowing. The human spirit thrives in pushing beyond its boundaries. In confronting problems too large for it. In moving a thousand miles away from work, friends, and community in Chicago because of a rumor of something incredible happening at a small school in Houston. St. Anne reminds me that the unknown can be a beautiful blessing.

Flatland will not be gracing third grade lunch again. Next week we’re moving on to Trumpet of the Swan, also a delightful, worthwhile read, but one that should be more appealing to the more restless members of the class. But it is my fervent hope and prayer that someday the rest of my class and I will be able to follow the model of the one student who was willing to shout, “that is too hard for me – give me more!”

Nihile Sine Labore.