Guest columnist Gene Stamell: The wise ask why




Published: 06-24-2024 4:44 PM


It is a ludicrous endeavor to attempt to fit all human beings into two distinct categories. But if my life depended upon my doing so (or if I were to refuse to do so at the risk of being condemned to sit in a cinema, watching “The Piano” over and over and over, until the end of my time on Earth), my categories might be the following: people who ask why and people who don’t.

Take, for example, an encounter I had a few weeks ago at Home Depot. It was an early Saturday morning. I wheeled my cart up to a checkout counter with two bags of charcoal, some grill accessories, and a can of spray paint. A Young Man (16? 19? 23? Who knows anymore?) who was certainly needing several hours more sleep, stepped up to the cart and scanned my items with a scanning gun. The following conversation ensued:

YM: Date of birth? (Maybe this was his way of saying good morning?)

Me: Excuse me?

YM: You know, what’s your date of birth?

Me: You want my date of birth?

YM: Yeah. I need your date of birth.

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Me: That’s interesting. Why do you need it?

YM: Well, you’re buying spray paint and they tell me to ask for a date of birth.

Me: OK. 6/12/50 — that’s 1950 ( I figured I’d better be clear with this young fellow). But why, exactly, do you need it?

YM: That’s what they tell me to ask for. Maybe some people sniff the stuff. I don’t know.

Me: Hmm. But I could sniff the stuff and I’m 73.

YM: Yeah. I guess so. I guess you’re right.

Me: So, how old does someone have to be to buy spray paint?

YM: I don’t know. I just ask for a date of birth.

Me: Wait. You mean you don’t know the age requirement to buy spray paint?

YM: Nah. They just tell me to ask for a date of birth, so that’s what I do.

Me: So, what you’re saying is, anybody, any age, can buy spray paint?

YM: Probably. If they tell me their date of birth.

Me: But it doesn’t really matter when they were born, since you don’t know the age requirement.

YM: Well, that’s true. They just need to tell me their date of birth.

Me: OK, then … I guess that explains it. Have a good day.

YM: Yeah, You too, man.

Dear reader, need I say this was my favorite, most entertaining interaction of that entire week? It brought me back to the winter of 1972, when I was student teaching in a high school English class in West Hartford. We were reading Harold Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter,” an existential play in which Gus and Ben find themselves in the basement of an unidentified establishment, with a dumb waiter moving up and down in the walls, delivering food orders to them, despite there being no kitchen. It is an absurd, one-act drama about following blind authority.

To emphasize the theme, I asked my college roommate to come to school wearing a jacket and tie (a big ask in 1972!). He walked into our classroom, opened a briefcase and said: “No one will talk for the next 10 minutes.” Everyone obeyed his order without a single question. After he left, we had a great discussion about what had just occurred and why we had gone along with an unknown person’s demand.

I have been teaching in elementary school classrooms for close to 48 years. On the wall above the door of my third grade classroom, I used to hang the following sign, a paraphrase of a Chinese proverb: “He who asks questions is a fool for 5 minutes. He who asks nothing is a fool forever.”

I have known countless children who have been content to come to school, follow directions, and happily please their teacher without asking any questions at all. Students like these need both encouragement and direct instruction in how to form and state opinions.

I have also known students (a minority) who question almost everything, kids who are genuinely curious, independent-minded, and often a bit rebellious. They are learning, sometimes the hard way, when and how to question authority and disagree respectfully.

Many of these students need to develop better listening skills and a deeper sense of compassion for others.

Now, perhaps more than ever in our country’s history, it is crucial for children and adults to ask why, to learn to question what passes for “truth” or “facts,” to feel empowered to come to independent decisions based on credible sources and sound reasoning.

My young friend at the checkout counter asks for a date of birth without knowing the age requirement for buying spray paint. I can only hope he asks enough questions to understand his choices when he steps into the voting booth next November.

Gene Stamell does his questioning in Leverett. He can be reached at