My nephew realized during our texting the other day that he had failed to tell me about a sudden memory.
While eating gummy bears, he wasn’t paying attention as he popped one after the other into his mouth until he really liked one. He stopped chewing and checked the half-eaten gummy, a clear one.
That triggered the memory of my mother (his grandmother who mostly raised him) telling him that those were my favorite gummies.
We then texted a while about how and why we have such vivid memories as humans as well as how we know things.
In short, our memories and bodies of knowledge are swirling with many elements of our experiences. I mentioned to my nephew that I usually ask classes of students if they recall the first time visiting a friend’s house and thinking it smelled weird (or even bad).
Virtually everyone immediately perks up because this experience is so vivid in our memories.
My goal in that brief exercise is to help students confront how we associate “different” with “bad,” and as critical educators, we must move past that judgmental state.
But this texting was also a trigger for me.
I am resistant to and very rarely fly—not because I am afraid of flying (yes, I am rational enough to know flying is far safer than driving), but because almost all of the experiences around flying trigger my anxiety.
Flying is a series of first experiences (a nightmare for me), racing to meet schedules beyond your control (including sudden gate changes and flight delays, etc.), and worst of all, a toxic soup of cramped spaces and loud noises.
Last week, I attended and presented at two conferences requiring me to fly from Upstate SC to Detroit (Troy, MI) and then to LA (Anaheim) before returning to the Greenville/Spartanburg SC area. That trip involved 6 plane flights and three hotels over just five days.
The very worst part of the trip was finally arriving at LAX from Detroit, a segment of the journey that began just after lunch EST and involved me walk-running through the Houston airport and having no food from noon EST until midnight PST.
As noted above, I struggle with my anxiety in any new situations and securing an Uber at LAX was my very first Uber experience—which nearly drained me as finding a way to secure a ride through the App wasn’t working in the airport and then took 1.5 hours to complete after reaching the pick up area outside the airport.
I found myself standing at my hotel around midnight being told that they were completely full, and despite my having a reservation, they were moving me to another hotel.
That other hotel was just on the opposite side of the convention center from the hotel where I stood, but the manager gave me the wrong directions leaving me wandering around Anaheim near Disney, again, after midnight.
Sweating, exhausted, and starving, I opened my Google App and discovered I should have turned left instead of the right I was told.
I dropped into bed, still no food, completely exhausted about 1 PM PST, where I stayed only about 4 hours before being up to (finally) eat some food, make my move to the original hotel, and make my major roundtable by 12:30.
Most of this trip felt like standing in line or being packed into seats far too small for humans and everything—every thing—costing far too much—with human choice cast to the ditch all along the way.
It’s a small world after all.
As we stood packed together for one of the flights home, I had a sudden memory like my nephew.
I thought “lemmings.”
My adolescence was spent in the 1970s. I recall vividly discovering the new music of The Police when waking up one morning in my childhood bedroom. The song was “Roxanne,” and The Police would become one of those foundational parts of my music-crush history.
In those formative years, a starting metamorphosis occurred.
Concurrent with my introduction to reading and collecting comic books along with being a closeted science fiction novel fan, I was increasingly drawn to popular music lyrics.
Pink Floyd, The Police, Eagles, Billy Joel, and others provided for me some of the first places that I recognized purposeful writing—of course this genesis of my own love for reading and writing poetry.
Standing in line, mindlessly herded, I thought “lemming,” and also that I learned the word from “Synchonicity II” on The Police’s Synchronicity. That album and song title also led me to explore the word “synchronicity.”
My earliest memory of learning words from popular music is “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, a song that drove me to both the dictionary and the Bible.
Toward the end of my year 61, I am also fascinated by my experience with the word “lemming” because like “coyote,” it provides a wonderful example of how idiosyncratic reading, learning to read, and knowledge are for us humans.
The Police were using “lemming” to evoke the song’s message about the dehumanizing aspects of modern life:
Another working day has ended
Only the rush hour hell to face
Packed like lemmings
Into shiny metal boxes
Contestants in a suicidal race.
“Synchonicity II,” The Police
When I heard this song 40 years ago, I had no real access or inclination to check the association being made with lemmings, what turns out to be a fabricated story of animals who are suicidal:
So why is the myth of mass lemming suicide so widely believed? For one, it provides an irresistible metaphor for human behavior. Someone who blindly follows a crowd—maybe even toward catastrophe—is called a lemming. Over the past century, the myth has been invoked to express modern anxieties about how individuality could be submerged and destroyed by mass phenomena, such as political movements or consumer culture.
But the biggest reason the myth endures? Deliberate fraud. For the 1958 Disney nature film White Wilderness, filmmakers eager for dramatic footage staged a lemming death plunge, pushing dozens of lemmings off a cliff while cameras were rolling. The images—shocking at the time for what they seemed to show about the cruelty of nature and shocking now for what they actually show about the cruelty of humans—convinced several generations of moviegoers that these little rodents do, in fact, possess a bizarre instinct to destroy themselves.Do Lemmings Really Commit Mass Suicide?
So here is the complicated reality about “lemmings” and how I came to know the word.
First, I hear Sting’s British pronunciation any time I think of the word. My Southern version is quite different, but I know the word in a layer of subtle ways to say the word aloud.
Next, I now know not only the flawed but enduring meaning of “lemming” (the metaphor for mindless human obedience that is self-defeating), but also the fascinating and disturbing back story to how an Urban Legend and cultural myth come to be.
To read with comprehension, we humans certainly need a complex toolbox of decoding, word recognition, and knowledge; however, how that toolbox is formed remains mostly idiosyncratic and very difficult to prescribe.
I imagine many of my teachers were given credit by proximity for my developing (and often) advanced literacy throughout my junior high and high school years.
Yet, my word recognition and knowledge base were overwhelmingly fostered out of school—reading comics and science fiction, listening for hours while staring at liner notes in pop music.
Also in my seventh decade on this planet, I watch my grandchildren blossom with literacy that is grounded in video games, YouTube, and cartoons. Their knowledge base, like mine, comes disproportionately from their hobbies, the things they love.
Our literacy, if allowed, is inextricable from our passions.
This is Freire’s writing and reading the world, using our language to make sense of the world we are given and to create the world we want and need.
Here is the great and sad irony: Formal schooling and the teaching of reading are all too often the perfect context for evoking the enduring by inaccurate association we all have with lemmings.
We have a faction of people who persist in “all students must” approaches to very small children coming to know the world and the enchanting beauty of language.
Like the commuters packed like lemmings/sardines in their cars, like all the travelers with me marched through boarding and then packed into those planes, children pre-K through grade 12 are marched through schooling and taught that reading is not in fact beautiful but a way to create the sort of workers The Police recognized: “He doesn’t think to wonder why.”
We will goose step into 2023 with “lemmings” being the perfect mascot for who were are, thoughtlessly on a suicide march that was manufactured in a Disney studio.