(Meta)Physical Education is a series about the lessons that Alex Tzelnic, a Zen practitioner, has learned while teaching gym at a Montessori school. You can read more of Tzelnic’s stories here

In The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.” If that’s the case, my students must be exhausted.

After a decade in the business, we’ve achieved something of a role reversal. “Why?” I always ask them, like an eternally curious toddler who has just learned the word. I ask because their answers are magnificent. I’m reminded of a scene in The Office when Steve Carell says to an employee who just brought him a financial report, “Why don’t you explain it to me like I’m 8?” After the explanation, Carell pauses and then says, “Why don’t you explain it to me like I’m 5?”

Luckily for you, I have recorded these explanations. What follows are real-life koans, teacher-student exchanges that reinforce my belief in questioning. Because when the answers come from a kid, they’re usually pretty good.

Case 12: Roses are Red
A teacher was at the playground with a group of students when one of the students approached.

“Note to self,” said the student. “Don’t touch any relatives of roses.”

“What if you want to give someone flowers?” asked the teacher.

“Give them a bouquet,” answered the student. “That way it’s wrapped up and the thorns don’t get you.”

The teacher commended the student for his wisdom and the student ran off, punching the air.

Then he ran back.

“I’m kind of in love with Tara,” said the student.

“Oh!” said the teacher, surprised. “Thanks for sharing.”

“I want to give her a snapdragon. The petals are blue and purple, which are the colors of love.”

The teacher never again doubted the emotional capacity of a first-year. Also, he thought, I should really get my wife some snapdragons.


♦ ♦ ♦

Case 27: God, Fish, and Lies

A teacher and several students sat next to a pond. One little girl, no older than 4, was eating her lunch in the sand.

“Did you know God is not telling the truth about where the world came from?” she suddenly asked.

“Oh no,” said the teacher. “Why would he do that?”

“I don’t know,” said the girl.

“How do you know he’s not telling the truth?” asked the teacher.

“My mom told me,” said the girl. “He’s lying about making the world.”

“Hmm,” said the teacher. “I wonder where it came from.”

“From the fish?” offered the girl.

“Maybe,” said the teacher, nodding thoughtfully.

“But someone had to make the fish,” pointed out the girl.

“Oh yeah, good point,” said the teacher. “Who do you think did that?”

“I don’t know,” said the girl, and she returned to her lunch.

A breeze ruffled the surface of the pond, underneath which schools of fish swam, searching for their own lunch.

Illustration by Megan Dailey

Case 46: Lemonade
A teacher observed two students sitting on a basketball court in the summer sun, talking about lemonade.

“What is this even made of?” asked one girl, taking a sip.

“Actually,” said the other girl, “the lemonade is made out of the same stuff as you are. You’re both made of . . . ”—and then she dropped her voice to a whisper— “atoms!”

The teacher never again took a glass of lemonade for granted.

Illustration by Megan Dailey

Case 83: Tadpole Delirium
A teacher was walking with two students by a swamp. They spotted tadpoles writhing about in the shallows and paused to watch them. The tadpoles swam between rocks, under sticks, and through high grasses. Suddenly, two tadpoles collided and the boy exclaimed, “They just kissed or something!”

“Maybe,” said the girl, unimpressed. “But they’re probably just delirious from the heat.”

The teacher laughed. Wasn’t all kissing a form of delirium? A restless intoxication produced by heat? He had to concede that the girl’s response could be true, metaphorically speaking. Then again, it was really hot out. Maybe the tadpoles simply had a form of tadpole heat stroke. The teacher pondered this literal and metaphorical tension over an iced coffee.

Illustration by Megan Dailey

Case 97: How to Survive a Tornado       
A teacher entered a classroom to ask another teacher a question. He found that teacher engaged in conversation with a couple of students.

“They’re writing a report on what to do in the event of the tornado,” explained the teacher.

“Oh,” said the first teacher. “That is useful information. I was once almost caught in a tornado and had no idea what to do.”

The next day the report on how to survive a tornado was waiting in the teacher’s mailbox. He flipped through, gleaning the helpful information and enjoying the illustrations. He got to the page that explained what to do:

  1. Find an adult
  2. Stay calm
  3. If needed, take yourself through meditation

Read the first installment of “Kids Sat the Dharmdest Things”

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