The Silver Dollar
When I was a
little boy in Dunsmuir, in
the mountains of northern California,
both sets of grandparents lived in Medford,
less than a hundred miles away across the
Oregon border. Medford wasn’t a real city. Not by
any means, and it still isn’t. Not like Portland, San
Francisco, or even Redding, fifty miles below us
at the northern end of the Great Central Valley.
Medford had sidewalks and some stoplights,
and there were one escalator and
a few elevators in town. That
made it a city to me.
In Medford’s Buster Brown
shoe store I encountered the fluoroscope,
a now-extinct machine that blasted Xrays up
through people’s feet onto a flourescent screen, where
they could see their toes wiggle right through their shoes.
Grandma Gass took me back there many times so I could
watch my toes wiggle. Who knows what the Xrays did
to my developing testicles? Of course that’s why
they made flouroscopes illegal, but if you
want to read up on it you’ll see
that it took a while.
Medford was exotic
and mostly unknown from my
child’s-eye perspective, but it was also a
safe place for children. My grandparents lived
about 8 blocks apart on a busy street and a quiet
one, and none between them had much traffic at all.
When I could walk that far, we started walking
between them when we were visiting, and
they let me go it alone for the first
time when I was about five.
While I was
in training for the big event
and practicing, parents lagged far behind,
observing my behaviour, inferring my thoughts,
and wondering how to improve them. My first solo
must have been tightly planned: parents and
grandparents at both ends, aware of time
and timing and ready to switch
into rescue mode.
They supported my
adventure without interfering
in it, and the rules soon loosened to
allow me to explore. How that loosening
happened, as Mom and I reconstructed it later,
reveals something important about how people
learn, I think, and most of what I’ve written,
spoken, or done in teaching & learning
relates to those insights in
one way or another.
I remember nothing
of my first solo trip and little but
momentary flashes of any of the others:
“Clean-looking gum on sidewalk. Study it
thoroughly. Proudly decide to leave it in place
and move on.” But one thing is clear. While the
loosening of my rules for navigating between elders’
homes in Medford was governed by my parents,
in the sense that they didn’t let it get out
of hand, they in no way caused
my horizons to expand.
I did that by myself
as they loosened constraints
they had placed on my action. Loosening
constraints was neither free nor easy in that
world. If I wanted more freedom I had to make
the case that I was ready for it. In addition to the
sense of freedom that I experienced daily in familiar
stomping grounds at home, navigating in that
strange place offered the excitement
and the thrill of exploring the
were clear, but seldom specific
or detailed. Usually, they were incomplete
or ambiguous in one or several ways and I think
that’s significant. Ambiguity demands interpretation.
Interpretation demands engagement. Engagement
demands mindfulness and decision
making is the richer for it.
Pay attention. Keep
my wits about me. Know where
I am at all times. Be prepared to make
hard decisions. Have fun.
I couldn’t even
complain about instructions.
I had to make many of
them up myself!
“What do you expect?
I’m not going on your adventure.
You are, so how am I supposed to know
where you’re going, what you’re going to
do when you get there, or when you’ll
be back if you don’t tell me?”
All I need
is an idea. If have to
look for you, I need to know
where to start and don’t
want to guess.”
“What’s so hard
about that? Just say what
you’re going to do and do it. If you
change your mind, change it. But
give me an idea where you
might go next.”
That was in Dunsmuir.
Both places, rules
were ways of navigating, not maps,
lists, plans, or routes. The most effective of them
were both clear and ambiguous. They included all
important details, no unimportant ones, and conveyed
both a Big Picture and a sense of purpose, or what
my expeditions would be about. She often sent
me off with things like “Keep your wits
about you. I’ll see you when
you get back.”
In the Medford
navigation problem, four
simple rules boxed me in, kept me
from getting lost, and protected me from
heavy traffic on two streets. The rules boxed
me in and gave complete route-finding
freedom within that box.
There was only
one rule, actually – – don’t
go outside the box. Don’t cross Columbus
or Main, don’t cross Peach, don’t go north of Palm.
My grandparents lived near opposite corners of
that box, and its 12 square blocks offered
much to explore. That’s a lot of
houses and front yards
to look at.
I could turn right,
turn left, or go straight at corners.
I didn’t have to plan ahead at all, even if
I’d never been there before. Little kids being
what they are, I might have taken forever
sometimes within that rule, so it took
another rule to get me there:
two simple rules increased my
freedom, increased my confidence,
increased my competence, and
expanded me in many ways.
Here’s an example.
numbers and street signs
helped me “see” where I was at all
times, like I was walking on a map. One
day, walking and imagining the map, I “got”
something that astounded me. As long as I
stayed inside the box and didn’t backtrack,
all routes were the same length. If
I walked them at the same speed
they took the same time.
realization relates to a contradiction
between two geometric principles that both
seemed true. All routes are the same length and
take the same time if walked at the same speed. But,
and everybody knows it, the shortest distance between
two points is a straight line. I could draw that shortest
distance on a map but I could never walk it, even though
it was shorter than any real route I could take because
I had to stay on streets and sidewalks and couldn’t
cut across. Thinking about the simple rules that
kept me inside the box helped me think
outside that box, and outside
boxes in general.
contradictions is a key part of
learning to think. Thinking about puzzles
like those helped me think about others. Here’s one
that followed from that contradiction. On the road
back to Dunsmuir one day, I realized that “As
the crow flies”, taken literally, works
only in flat places like maps.
With all the
mountains in the way, the
shortest route between Medford
and Dunsmuir would be all tunnel!
We’d go right under the Siskiyous, the Big Rock
Candy Mountains where Pussy Sue got lost for a
few days and I saw that graffiti, Shasta Valley,
the towns, and the rest of our regular trip.
And the shortest route to the other
side of the world would go
through the red hot
centre of it.
just background for
what I want to tell you — it sets
a stage that gives some local colour and
gives you a feeling, hopefully, for the feelings
I felt navigating inside my box in Medford. How
free I felt, how trusted, how much a real person,
and how proud. What I want to tell you
happened inside the box but it isn’t
about the box. It’s about
the feeling and all
that can flow
The Silver Dollar
On the way to
Grandma and Grandpa Dale’s
on a sunny day, I found a silver dollar
on a sidewalk. To me, they were big shiny fun
things to play with, with interesting pictures on both
sides. They were heavy enough to throw high in the air,
made great loud sounds when they bounced, and were
easy to find in the grass when you lost them. My
pants sagged from the weight when I jumped
or ran with one in my pocket. I’d never
had one of my own. For all those
reasons and more, I was
happy to play with it
all the way
opened the screen
with the dollar in my hand,
my mother’s older sister
did you get
that dollar? You
got it from your mother’s
purse, didn’t you?
You stole it!
get it from Mama’s
purse. I found it on the
sidewalk and picked
it up. It’s a silver
it’s a silver dollar,
and I know you stole it!
You’re in big trouble now, Buster,
because stealing and lying
are bad things
it on the sidewalk
and picked it
you find it then? What
street was it on?”
me even more. I couldn’t
read very well yet or remember
what street it was on. While she stood
there waiting for me to lie to her again, I
tried to rewind my memory back to
finding the dollar and read
the sign once again.
Which way was the sun shining?
Where were the shadows? What were
the houses like? Were there big
or little trees? Which side
of the street was
What street was it?
What was its name? What was
its name? I blurted out “Court Street!
I found it on Court Street!”
“You couldn’t have
found it on Court Street, you liar!
Court Street is way over on the other
side of town. You stole that dollar
from your mother’s purse
and I know it!”
Mom came in the room
and asked what was
“He came in here
with a dollar in his hand.
When I asked him where he got
it he said Court Street. He stole
it from your purse and he’s
lying to cover up!”
kept her cool
like she always did.
She said something like
“Let’s go see where you found
that dollar, Lee, just you and me.
Can you show me where
great! I knew I could
show her and we went out the
door. She kept her cool all
the way and I got to keep
mine and get my
We were on a mission.
We got to
the place, then walked
beyond it and returned to re-
enact my discovery and re-experience
my joy, and we celebrated that. Then we
walked to the end of the block and read
Myers Court, not Court Street, on the
sign and I learned from my error
in reading and remembering.
Later I reflected on
many kinds of
difference can a word make?
How many meanings can it have?
Courts are short, quiet streets with little
traffic, or square expanses of pavement, some-
times with statues in them. Not like the highway
we lived on, or boulevards, avenues, or main
streets. (I didn’t know about Broadways back
then.) In some towns, Court Streets have
courthouses, but not Medford. I
found it fascinating to play
with words that way
as I learned
On the way
back to the house, Mama
said something like the following:
“Don’t pay any attention to her. She gets
pretty mean sometimes, and she accuses
people of things. Don’t argue with her.
Just let her rant. Pretty soon
she’ll get tired of it
“If she asks
you a question, just
tell her the truth, like you
did with Myers Court, no matter
what she says. If you have to cry, cry.
But there’s really no reason to, no matter
how mean she gets. And because you
know why? It’s because you know
the truth and you know
you told it to
“If you’re wrong
about something, say
so. But if you’re not wrong, or
don’t know you are, don’t admit any
thing to anyone. If you’re not sure, say so.
But give the best answer you can and don’t
worry about it. This time, you don’t need to
say you mixed up the streets. If she asks, tell
her you made a mistake. But I’ll talk to her
and I don’t think she’ll bother you about
it anymore. If she does, though,
don’t let it get under
Obviously I made
that speech up. Mama said
something that made me feel better,
happier about my Silver Dollar, and more
able to deal with difficult people, and that’s all I
can know for sure after all this time. Much later, as
we reflected on the incident as adults, Mom said she
did say something like I said she said. She said
things like that all the time. In this case,
all we remembered was the feeling
of what happened.
may be worth mentioning.
about my behaviour linked
several ways to characterize my
person: they labeled me as a liar, a
thief, caught, and guilty. Accusations
are assertions about facts and can be
refuted by evidence. Characteriza-
tions are labels we may wear
forever despite the
paid no attention at all to the
characterizations. They didn’t faze
her like they fazed me. She either assumed
they were invalid or saw no reason to discuss
them until she knew what had happened.
She addressed them indirectly, not by
defending me against them but by
helping me discover a mistake
I had made and talking
with me about it
On a closely
related topic, it has always
interested me that “sticks and
stones can break my bones but
names can never hurt me”
is such a strange thing
for kids to say on
It is even
more strange that adults
teach them to say it to themselves
and other people, and keep telling them
more and more when when they’re so
obviously already hurt and teasing
worsens every time! My parents
never told me that, and I don’t
remember telling my kids
that. But I’ve heard
parents say it
Do they mean
socially inflicted pain
then and I still don’t.
What I did understand then,
and still understand now, is that
characterization hurts so bad
sometimes that I’d prefer
sticks and stones!
That’s one side
of a coin. The other is if a
kid I thought was a chicken called
me a chicken, it didn’t matter and I
really didn’t care. But if a kid I
thought was brave called
me a chicken, it broke
is asymmetric in social
systems. It hurts more in one
direction than the other.
I hate negative
characterizations with a
passion. I’m similarly suspicious
of positive ones, though I’ve been
accused on occasion of being
addicted to them.
write any of this
down until 7½ years after
Mom died. We talked about it
several times over the years, usually
in relation to my work as an
educator and to our roles
simplifies the real layout of
streets in Medford in three ways that
simplifying my challenge. First, one home
was in the middle of the block of Palm just east of
Peach, so I had to walk half a block just to get to the
box that fenced me in. Second, blocks in the north
half of the box ran east-west and those in the
south ran north-south. Only Columbus ran
clear through from north to south. That
made for interesting jogs in streets
and some short streets like
would have been interesting
to explore alleys, but they
Here is the
real map if you’re
Silver Dollar story
ends with ‘the feeling of what
happens‘, which is the title of Antonio
Damasio’s book about consciousness that’s very
much worth reading. I use the phrase in
ways Damasio might not agree with
in several other stories, especially
Jorstad’s for Breakfast, a
collection of stories
his ideas specifically with
respect to humans, though they
rest fundamentally on neurophysio-
logy, and I apply them more
broadly than that.
an approach to emotional
healing, is similarly rooted in “the
meat”, in what he calls “bodily felt
meaning”. Again, I apply his work
more broadly. In that case, ideas
that help emotional healing also
help people learn, cognitively.
Things shift when light
bulbs go on.
A Gem of a Contribution
refers to a feeling that can
develop in classrooms.
Written September 12, 2003.
Edited February, 2021