Several months ago, in an after school conversation with an Ambleside parent, it was recommended that I read the John Green novel, The Fault In Our Stars. This parent promoted the book by saying something to the tune of, “it’s about these teenagers that have cancer, I found myself sobbing for hours at the conclusion of the novel.” Now, she actually said many other great, insightful things about the novel, but what I heard was “teenager,” “cancer,” and “sobbing.” Needless to say, I didn’t rush out and buy a copy. I believed the book was good, but the description left me feeling about how I feel about haunted houses. That is to say, Sobbing and being scared are generally things that I feel strongly about NOT paying someone to induce. Those emotional responses typically come upon us unprovoked and free of charge, so, like fruit, I prefer to experience them organically if possible. But then it happened, another Ambleside parent said it was one of his favorite books and proceeded to give me a copy as a Christmas gift. Now I was going to have to read this book that I was fairly confident was going to leave me in sobbing despair at some point. Essentially, it was as if I had been driven to a haunted house and then given a ticket for entry, so I went in. I put down the Bonhoeffer biography that I had been pleasantly reading from the perspective of a historian comfortably detached from events that occurred 70 years ago. I picked up The Fault in Our Stars.
At first I wondered why these respected readers had recommended this book, written from the perspective of a sixteen year-old girl, by a thirty-something year-old guy, which is a little off-putting to think about, but then I really started to enjoy it and found myself picking up the novel at every spare moment. Moreover, while I disagree with some of Green’s existential meanderings and loose treatment of chastity, there are many takeaways from the novel, for Green has some insightful things to say about the human experience, and it’s very refreshing to know someone is writing a book for teens that doesn’t center around schools of witchcraft and vampire love. Not that vampire love is wrong, just tired.
One of the takeaways for me came when the father of this teenage girl with cancer, says to his daughter,
“I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed.”[i]
I put the book down at this point and thought for while. “The universe wants to be noticed.” I wondered, isn’t this the heart of every parent’s hope for their children: that they would notice the way things really work? To see truth as it is, and then respond only as truth demands. And then it struck me, this is what we are after at Ambleside. Charlotte Mason was trying to cultivate in her students the habit of noticing. Everything we do has at its core, the notion that we are drawn into truth by our capacity to notice. An idea has seizing potential only in so far as its audience has the capacity to notice. Miss Mason wrote,
“If we enquire into any person's habits of life, mental preoccupation, devotion to a cause or pursuit, he will usually tell us that such and such an idea struck him. This potency of an idea is matter of common recognition. No phrase is more common and more promising than, 'I have an idea'; we rise to such an opening as trout to a well-chosen fly.”[ii]
Naturally, as a devout fly-fisherman, this line of Mason’s resonates with the core of my being, thus I have read and referred to it often. But what I have never really considered about the image of a trout rising, and its context, is what has always left me dumbfounded when preparing for a fishing trip: the incredibly miniscule size of a size #20 midge pattern (pictured above). How in the world am I expected to catch the big one with something so small, so insignificant? The night before a trip I tie about 10 of these little things all the while casting doubt on their ability to be spotted by the 20 inch rainbow I am seeking. To soothe my nerves I turn to my trusted entomology guide that assures me that this is on the trout menu and my day will be filled with surface busting rainbow trout flailing at the end of my line, and it always turns out to be true. Well, not always, but we can’t blame the midge for that. I digress…
Here’s the point, in order to be nourished, trout must feed on insect larva, about the size of that tiny midge pattern, or smaller. In order to feed, they are equipped to notice. In order to accomplish such a feat, trout have the benefit of strong natural instinct and great eyes. Similarly, I suspect for the human soul to be nourished as it was meant to be, the mind must be accustomed, instinctually, or better suited for us, habitually, to notice; and not just notice what is plainly before us, but also those elements of human existence that seem insignificant. For the fabric of the Universe, which is defined, in part, as “the totality of all matter and energy that exists in the vastness of space”, is comprised of endless, seemingly insignificant details that beg our attention, for they, as we, are the glory of God. In this sense, the Universe does want to be noticed, and we must be equipped with the habits of mind and body to notice it.
More practically speaking, at Ambleside this looks like opportunity; students are afforded the time and resources that give them the opportunity to notice the infinite detail of an infinite Universe. More specifically, this may look like kindergarteners with tears in their eyes after facing the reality of an orphan in a storybook; a first grader enthralled in the detailed construction of a snail habitat; a second grader seeing and depicting the creativity that exists in a poinsettia; a third grader who is given the time and resources to notice the extremely awkward detail of a platypus; a fourth grader given the opportunity to watch and depict a blooming hyacinth, a fifth grader learning that exhaustion from finishing a mile strong has great intrinsic value; or a sixth grader stretching to find the beauty of order as it exists in mathematics; a seventh grader discovering the often overlooked beauty in the creativity of the beetle family; an eighth grader given the opportunity to feel the energy that spills from a Van Gogh as it does for those willing to stand before it with the intention of knowing. Or maybe, it’s noticing the peace and adaptability of a teacher in the midst of danger and sudden change. These are just a few scenarios that occur in an Ambleside education because our focus is noticing. What is an education if not the cultivation of a person’s ability to notice the Universe they inhabit?
We are all called to notice. We know our existence and that of our Creator more intimately when we are skilled in the craft of noticing. And perhaps most importantly, an Ambleside education implores its students to look beyond, rather than to, themselves to find the God and their purpose. And not only implores students, but offers them the habits of mind and body that equip them to readily move beyond self in order to notice the Universe in all its elegance as it unfolds before their lives. This fact separates Ambleside from the rest and makes me grateful to be here, and not anywhere else on a daily basis.
*Disclaimer: This blog is not an endorsement of John Green's novel The Fault In Our Stars. I do not reccomend this book for members of its targeted age group as I think it may send the wrong message about the beauty and importantance of abstaining from activities reserved for later years, and it is a bit vague about the nature of spirituality, in my opinion.
The trout photograph is included with the written permission of the photographer. Please visit his website to see more of his work: http://www.ginkandgasoline.com/
[i] John Green, The Fault in Our Stars, p.223
[ii] Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 105