Agnes Weiyun He
January 2003, Long Island, NY
“How do we know there was a Big Bang?” “Is there anything smaller than electrons, protons and neutrons?” “What is going to happen to planet Earth when our sun becomes a white dwarf?” “How does a telescope make small things look bigger?” “How do we know that Jupiter is heavier than all the other planets put together? How did we measure Jupiter's weight?” These are some of the most pressing questions that occupy Luran's mind day and night recently. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he said matter-of-factly, “An astronomer — oh, and also a paleontologist.” Everyone compliments that Luran is bright. We agree, not because he already knows more facts than what is available in the 1st Grade school curriculum, but because he asks the most thoughtful questions.
We wonder what Luran will remember about being 5-6 when he grows up - the Model T that he built first with egg cartons and then with K’nex after reading a book about Henry Ford, or the little piano sonata that he practiced for almost a month, or the multiplication math problems that he solved at home, or the weekend soccer games, or the bicycle (without training wheels) races with neighborhood kids, or the summer daily swims, or the 700-800 Chinese characters he was able to read, or the 30 some Chinese classical poems he knew by heart, or the hurricanes on Neptune, the supernova, the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Apatosaurus that he read and scrutinized for many many days and nights, or the little pot of plant that grew and blossomed under his care, or the chess and Chinese chess games he loved to play and refused to lose, or the snow sledding in the toboggan. To record and retell his life in the past 1-2 years is impossible; below are merely a few themes with illustrative vignettes.
I am always amazed at Luran's keen observations of the physical world (maybe because my own abilities in this area are so deficient!). One day (September, 2002) he was home sick. He had vomited the day before in the school cafeteria. I held his hands in mine while he was lying in the couch. He said, “Mommy, you can't hold my hands too tight.” I asked why. “This is like the train cars coupled together. If it's too tight, the train can't turn.” Luran's most remarkable gift is perhaps his ability to reason. A little over 4 years old, he asked Daddy why humans are born with legs, but not with teeth - since we use neither at birth, if teeth protrude only when they begin to be needed, why not legs? What a question! But how logical! He is often quick to draw inferences. Summer 2002, Daddy was on a business trip and I was calling the airline to find out about his arrival time. The airline uses a touch tone automated system. Luran: “Who's talking?” Mom: “Nobody.” Luran (to his 3 year old sister): “Nobody's talking. That means everybody is dead. Bad guys crashed the airplane. Our Daddy is dead.” (Speaking of the sad impact of September 11th!)
More than anything else, Luran loves to solve problems. That explains why he loves math. We never have to encourage him to do math problems. The minute he sees an incomplete equation or a pattern with a blank, he would want to finish the job. For his language arts homework, his teacher usually gives eight to ten choices from which the students should pick four each week. Luran almost always prefers problem-oriented assignments (such as sorting long and short vowels, putting the scrambled words back to order) to the open-ended ones (such as describing a day that is special). From the school library, he has borrowed nothing but non-fictional books with titles such as “How do birds find their way?” In the same spirit, he loves mazes - both solving them and creating them. We teach him read Chinese at home. A most effective way to sustain his interest in the reading materials is to ask him questions or assign some tasks before each reading (e.g., With regard to the story yegong hao long, we ask him, “In yegong's room, how many places are decorated with pictures of dragon?”). This way he can really focus and he is genuinely satisfied when the questions are answered and the tasks accomplished. In fact he likes this mode of reading so much that he asks us to do the same when we read English language materials together. After we read a page or two, he would say, “Mommy, now you ask me a question.” (And Yiran has followed his example too!) Since summer 2002 Luran has been building helicopters, dump trucks, motorcycles, horse wagons, windmills, etc., etc. with K'nex (a kind of connection toy that comes in plastic pieces of various sizes and shapes). At first he followed the models in the book carefully. Then, inspired by Daddy, he began to improve on what the book says and to experiment with his own ideas. One day, he told me very proudly, “Mommy, I realize there is a problem with the model. The wheels don't go smoothly. And I fixed the problem!”
Another salient attribute of Luran's is his sense of righteousness. We are sometimes at a loss as how to advise him. On the school bus, several kids were misbehaving, throwing jackets back and forth and calling each other names. The school Principal got on the bus and asked what happened. Of all the kids (K-2) on the bus, Luran was the only one who volunteered a truthful report - a report which alienated him from the problem kids (who are also our neighbors he plays with!). It is hard for him to tolerate something that he perceives as wrong or not good enough. At home, he enjoys coaching his sister Yiran how to read, write, and play games. At school, he tells his classmates what is right what is wrong (while oblivious of how others might feel about him). We sometimes worry. We worry that he may not mix well with his peers. But so far he seems happy and eager to go to school.
Luran is not tolerant of his own mistakes either. The moment he identifies an error (or even just a shortcoming) in his spelling, math, drawing or Chinese character writing, he would want to correct it immediately and completely. It sometimes appears that he would need more erasers than pencils! When he was barely 5, one day he was practicing “Jingle Bells” with metronome set at 180. He practiced and practiced and still was not perfect. Everyone asked him to take a break and eat his lunch first; but no one could convince him. With teary eyes, he practiced until the music flowed flawlessly. We had heard of children being forced to practice the piano to the extent of tears; but we had never imagined that any young child would be so self-driven and so self-motivated! It is noteworthy that playing the piano is in fact not Luran's favorite activity — usually he would prefer to do everything else first, including writing Chinese characters, which can be a very labor-intensive and tedious job to him, before going to the piano bench. It was more the imperfection than the music that he was determined to conquer.
While Luran has been exposed to a great deal at home, he has learned something very valuable from his formal schooling: the love for expressing thoughts in writing. Before he started Kindergarten, he was already reading a lot in both English and Chinese but he rarely touched the pencil. It was when he turned 5 (the first Kindergarten semester) that he began to enjoy writing, first the alphabet, the musical note speller, then grocery lists, birthday party thank-you notes, illustrations for his sister, and occasionally letters to the grandparents. (Luran's language arts teachers use a rather eclectic approach - phonics plus what they call “collaborative literacy” with lots of interactive and individualized reading activities. Apparently they are doing a good job!) The grandparents were with us during the past Christmas and New Year. When they were here, waigong (maternal grandpa) taught Luran how to use the compasses. Luran wrote a note to waigong formally thanking him. Upon their return to Spain, Luran (and Yiran too, independently, albeit illegibly) wrote a farewell letter to Grandpa and Grandma respectively. With his own ability in writing growing steadily, his appreciation for others' writing has also increased. Each time he reads a new book, he wants to know the name of the author. Once after he illustrated a booklet for homework, he wrote on its cover: “By Mrs. Stolfi (his teacher), Illustrated by Luran He.” One day I showed him my own books in English and a book Daddy co-authored in Chinese. To see our names in print and as authors, his face lit up. He exclaimed, “Wow, I didn't know you are an author! Can I be an author too?” As part of his homework assignment, one day Luran interviewed me. He asked me what makes me sad. I said, “Not to be with my family and not to be able to write.” He paraphrased, “You mean you are sad when you are not an author?"
For some reasons, school (as well as the full-time daycare which Luran attended for 3 years before 5) has also been more effective in teaching Luran about responsibility than we have at home. Now if we tell him that something is his responsibility (such as cleaning up the play area, taking care of his plant, putting his dirty clothes in the laundry basket, packing his snack for the next school day), he is willing and eager to his job. He helps his sister very often also-reading to her, helping her play, putting on her socks and shoes, and always being “in charge” (because Yiran always wants to be “the leader”, Luran always gets to be “in charge” so that there would be at least an appearance of even distribution of power and responsibilities). Sometimes he even comes to the kitchen and asks me if there is something he can help me with! To encourage his sense of responsibility and also to curtail his tendency of enjoying spending money more than enjoying the items purchased, we have been giving him allowances - a dollar a week. We take care of what he needs; and he needs to save for what he wants. Once he overspent and ended up owing us $4+. That was a dear lesson and he learned from it well. He has never been broke again. Before Christmas he bought gifts for each one of us in the family and his two teachers with his own money (each costing no more than $2). Around New Year, he used one of the gift certificates that he received on his 6th birthday and bought his cousin a Power Ranger with remote control.
At around age 4, Luran began to realize that life has a beginning and an end. At 4 years and 8 months, one day he was reading a story (in Chinese) with me. The story was about a princess who was driven out of the kingdom by her wicked stepmother. The more we read, the more serious he grew. Finally I saw tears in his eyes. I asked why. He replied, “Mommy, if you die, we'll have a stepmother and then I can't come home anymore. So please don't die!” A moment later, he added, “When you are very very old, so old that you can't drive anymore, I will think of a way. I will make the sun rise again, I will make myself be 4 years old again, and I will make you be what you are now, then you won't die.” Now at 6 years and 3 months, he understands that even the universe has a life and that in about 5 billion years the life of our sun will too end. The other day we were discussing what is “natural” and what is “man-made". Luran said, “The sun is natural, right?” I concurred. Then he said, “How about me? Mommy, am I natural or man-made?” I was literally dumbfounded. I groped for thoughts and started haltingly, “Well, you are my child… well, human beings are sort of natural, but…” “Oh, I know!” Luran suddenly recalled a line from one of those books about the universe: “We, everybody, and the sun are all 'children of the universe'!”