My Favorite Thing I've Ever Written

One more for my inaugural blog-gasm. This is my favorite thing I've written. It's not the best thing I've written, but this is the closest I've come to saying something worthwhile, and not just reefing words out to try to be funny. This also appeared in Volume One, although it predates the website.

It's OK to Not Know

Ignorance may not be bliss, but sometimes it's reality

I have explained over and over again to my sophomore English students that they may NOT squash two complete sentences together with a comma.  That creates a run-on sentence, which is incorrect and makes them look like uneducated ninnies.  They may leave the sentences as they are and add a semi-colon, or they may add the comma AND another word, such as “and.”  One day, one of those smart kids who always make me feel inadequate as a teacher asked, “Do you need a comma if you add the word ‘because’?”  My mind raced through my embarrassingly inadequate knowledge of grammar rules.  I had nothing.  I looked at the brainiac and said, “I don’t know.  This is not my area of expertise.”

The entire class gasped collectively, and one of them dropped her pen to the floor in slow motion.  I would have gotten the same reaction if I had told them I was a robot or a cross-dresser.  How could a teacher not know?  Teachers are supposed to know.  Every other teacher in the building knows.  A kid in the front row asked, “What isn’t your area of expertise?  English?”  Everyone laughed.  I left the room wondering why “I don’t know” is such a bad thing.  I didn’t know if a comma was required.  I could have made something up, but then I might have been wrong. 

In last month’s issue of Volume One, I wrote an article in which I again said “I don’t know.”  While discussing how life in Western Wisconsin will change if it stops snowing, I admitted that I am not entirely convinced that humans are or are not to blame for global warming.  After reading the article, my editor asked me, “How could six-and-a-half billion people not affect the environment?”  Like the comma debacle, I beat myself up for days.  When speaking about global warming or commas, I should just make something up or pick a side and go with it – I don’t want to seem uninformed or uncaring.

The appearance of being uninformed is exactly why “I don’t know” is such a terrible statement.  A decision or opinion gives the illusion that we have weighed the issue and come up with the obvious right answer.  “Knowing” our feelings on any given topic proves that we certainly do not spend our evenings glued to Dancing with the Stars.  Instead we research and contemplate.  It’s all very American.  We are cajoled to vote with no mention of informing ourselves on the politicians.  We commit to political parties with fanatical gusto.  We all have an opinion on the war, stem cells, gay marriage, and Janet Jackson’s breast when relatively few of us are directly involved in all of these issues, and none of us are familiar with all the facts and arguments.  We all believe we are right simply because we've made a decision.

I am going to try something different.  If I don't know, I’m going to say it.  I don’t know how much the government should regulate business, retirement saving, abortion, or drilling in Alaska.  Several issues ago, I vehemently defended Eau Claire’s City Manager style of government against the obviously asinine mayoral system.  I take it all back.  I have never taken a course in municipal government, and I’ve only attended one City Council meeting back in high school because it was a requirement for a merit badge in Boy Scouts.  I don’t know why the punctuation at the end of a quotation goes inside the quotation marks.  It’s not that I don’t care, or that I’m not going to try to learn more about these issues.  It’s that, as of right now, I just don’t know.

Somewhere in my history, I picked up the notion that, before you open Venetian blinds, the slats should be in the horizontal position.  Otherwise, they will wear out or break.  My wife always opens the blinds with the slats vertical, and I have spent a ton of breath and brain power bugging her to change.  I actually don’t know if one way is more conducive to quality blind function than the other.  Until I do, my “I don’t know” stands.  Please open the blinds whichever way you want.