Who Are You?: Alice's Dilemma and Why Teachers Can't Be Caterpillars


by: Alex Stubenbort

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.”

“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar, sternly. “Explain yourself!”

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”-Lewis Carrol

One of the best things about being a parent of young kids is the fact that, as a full grown adult, you have the ultimate pipsqueak-sized excuse to relive all of the wonderful adventures that made childhood great! Tasks that seem ridiculously nonsensical in your former life as a mere childless grown up seem to be revived in all of their nostalgic wonder when experienced alongside and through the eyes of a child. Such tasks include, but are not limited to, building sheet forts; treasure hunts in the woods; "flying" on trampolines; and sword fighting dragons. However, other tasks continue on in your adult life + infant with the exception of a few minor changes. For instance, you still grab a bite out to eat from time to time; except, now you pack diaper bags full of distractions for your offspring to avoid public embarrassment. You still relax after a long day's work; except, now you "relax" by laying on the floor as your toddler uses you as his personal jungle gym. You still enjoy watching a great movie; except, now your "great movie" options consist of quasi-musical Disney installments. This is my reality. 

  However, while perusing my family's Disney Channel DVR'ed programming last week, in an attempt to distract the kiddos long enough to breathe, I stumbled upon a gem that even I was interested in revisiting—Alice in Wonderland. Sure I've seen it in my college daze since childhood, but it had been years since I opened Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, and I figured that the Disney interpretation would serve as a fine abridged version. Admittedly, I watched intently and was thoroughly impressed with the animation for a film produced in 1951. However, one scene in particular has haunted me for the week that has followed—the scene depicting the dialogue between Alice and the hookah-smoking caterpillar.

If you are not familiar with the scene, an Alice that has spent her entire day undergoing a number of physical, emotional, and mental changes stumbles upon a caterpillar that presses the question, "Who are you?" Unable to give a confident answer, Alice admits that after the day's events she's not entirely sure anymore. However, the caterpillar presses on, "Who are you?" Alice avoids the question once more by explaining that it is impossible to describe herself as she is no longer, in fact, herself; yet, the caterpillar demands, "Who are you?" Alice attempts to redirect the question back to the caterpillar to no avail. "Who are you?" Alice begs for empathy by appealing to the fact the caterpillar itself will someday be in an incredible state of change. "Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?"

  Ultimately, Alice folds to the prescriptions of the hookah-smoking caterpillar. She eats from the sage's mushroom and attempts to reach the "preferred" height which will, in theory, help her "find" herself. Much has been said about this exchange. However, like so many of my fellow millenials, I'll turn to Spark Notes and treat it's analysis like truth with a capital "T":

Though (Alice) seeks guidance and compassion from the Caterpillar, she finds only further self doubt under its brusque scrutiny. Regardless, she defers to the Caterpillar’s authority, just as she did with the White Rabbit in the previous chapter. Alice’s confusion peaks when the Caterpillar seems to be able to read her thoughts, answering her unspoken question 'just as if she had asked it aloud.' Her identity is so confused now that her thoughts no longer seem to be her own.

Teachers, take note. Like Alice, our students are constantly being asked, "Who are you?" Society, parents, the media, and their educational systems are asking them at every turn, "Who are you?" Missing from this pressing question is the act of empathy. All too often, our students insist, like Alice, "I don't know!" And how could they? Our kids are, by definition, in a constant state of change. To pinpoint personality in a state of constant evolution can be exhausting. If our students grow tired of being pressed for answers to such a tough question before they've arrived at a self-realized response, they will often, like Alice, submit to what their teachers prescribe them. And that is dangerous; especially when working within our current, narrow-minded view of what a student "should" be.

It is my sincere belief that our new-found obsession with standardization is killing creativity, ingenuity, and innovation. As our kids are searching for the "correct" height, we can't force feed them our proverbial sage's mushroom. We must allow the time and space for our students to find themselves in the midst of change. We CANNOT attempt to fit them into the assembly line's mold of what the state or nation has proclaimed "successful". Therefore, when helping a student find themselves, know when you're dealing with an Alice and handle with care.

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