In an earlier post I made some reference to Thoreau standing on his head and looking at the world upside down. I had forgotten that this was sometimes literally true of him. How else would he come up with the following, when describing the reality behind the common expression, “the glassy surface of the lake”:
“When you invert your head, it looks like a thread of finest gossamer stretched across the valley, and gleaming against the distant pine woods, separating one stratum of the atmosphere from another. You would think that you could walk dry under it to the opposite hills, and that the swallows which skim over might perch on it. Indeed, they sometimes dive below this line, as it were by mistake, and are undeceived.”
How many adults do this sort of thing? In spite of Henry’s elevated discourse I’m picturing him standing on his head like a schoolboy.
And why do kids look at the world in odd ways? Simply because they don’t know not to. Henry either never learned, or managed to unlearn, the unspoken lesson that the world is right-side-up and should be viewed that way.
Good teachers understand the power of altered perspective, famously illustrated in the 1989 movie Dead Poet’s Society, in which Robin Williams has his students stand on their desks to get a different view of the classroom… an act that shows how he will approach literature.
I remember a real-life example from my own education. On one of the first days of an eighth-grade art class, the teacher told us to take off a shoe and draw it. He gave no other instruction, and the drawings were about a bad as you’d think they’d be. But then he told us to turn the shoe upside down and draw it again. In every case the second drawing was better.
The teacher explained that in the first drawing we were mostly drawing not the shoe before us, but our idea of what a shoe looked like. And that just didn’t translate well into lines on a page. In the second drawing we were forced to look at shapes and copy those… and for the first time we truly saw what was before us. It was the single best lesson I received in that class, and only slowly, over the years, have I started to appreciate its broader implications.
(About “A Year in Walden”)