A co-teacher and I turned our attentions to Nicholas, an energetic and imaginative three-year-old who often leads his classmates in elaborate games of pretend. The day was blissfully warm and bright. I had to squint to see his face, aglow with sunlight and unabashed curiosity. He clutched a plastic red batting tee in his hands, often used as a “blaster” among the children. This seemingly innocuous piece of plastic has blasted water, fire, clouds, candy, and tiny elephants that stick to your skin.
“Yes, Nicholas?” we asked, unsure of whom he was addressing. Perhaps it didn’t matter.
“Teacher, what do you imagine to be nothing?”
I cannot recall if silence fell as we processed his words. I cannot recall if I, the co-teacher, or both of us laughed in that way grown-ups laugh when a child asks a question of this nature. By “of this nature” I mean sophisticated, profound, and/or downright metaphysical. As if a small child were incapable of taking the notion of existence into their own fumbling little hands. I find it curious how the common adult response to a child’s sophisticated, profound, and/or downright metaphysical question consists of amusement, a laughter tinged with condescension and discomfiture.
Subsequently, the child is labeled inquisitive or precocious.
As if the questioner’s young age strips the question of its cogency.
(Not until I started working and playing with young children did I discover that stupid questions do exist. It’s just that they rarely come out of the mouths of babes.)
Poor Nicholas! There he stood, open and trusting, exercising his right to free inquiry, while my colleague and I realized our sore lack of preparation for an impromptu Pre-K Intro to Metaphysics course. In my paralysis, I deigned not to respond and maintained my role as Tickled Grown-Up. The co-teacher soldiered on and attempted to answer with an illustration that involved holding empty air between her two hands.
Nicholas listened, indulging her attempt, but his interest fast faded. He scampered off and resumed his play. I keenly felt that we had somehow failed him.
Teacher, what do you imagine to be nothing?
I honestly don’t know, Nicholas, and I have spent an entire week thinking about your question. What do you imagine to be nothing? For my part, I struggle to imagine Nothing as Any One Thing. I imagine that if nothing else, Nothing is all of what you, Nicholas, and your friends and your blaster that shoots tiny sticky elephants, are not.
Nothing is a life without questions.