“There is only so much we can notice all at once.”
So writes Rachel Hadas in “Only So Much,” a poem about attentiveness and distraction. A baby perceives creation as “one great blooming buzzing confusion,” according to William James, and some of us relive that perception in times of stress or illness. Hadas convincingly chronicles a civilized mind careening among activities – painting, writing, recalling a dream – avoiding an unhappy reality. For her speaker, the wiry runners of strawberry plants recall the brain’s neural networks and her efforts to ground herself – a vivid image.
For a month last fall I worked with a bright, funny, always-moving seventh-grader with attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity and a Jamesian baby’s perception of the world. It’s too much with him and frequently overwhelms him, like a bucket with too much water poured into it. Antaeus-like, he thrives on grounding. Recently his mother called and asked if I would tutor him twice a week after I get out of the high school where I work in a special-education center. With ground rules and a generous wage, I agreed, and our first session was Thursday.
Seated at his mother’s kitchen table, with my younger sons in the dining room doing their homework, we calculated the volume and surface area of prisms and cylinders, drafted a short story on the theme of rescue and a eulogy for Gandhi, and answered questions about Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-Li Jiang. We had a good laugh over the definition of “study session” in the glossary of Red Scarf Girl:
“A small meeting intended to change someone’s behavior or thinking by studying Mao’s work and government documents. Held as needed, these sessions were used to improve revolutionaries and re-educate others.”
“That sounds like you, Mr. Kurp,” he said.
Holding this kid’s focus on a narrowly defined topic is like collecting smoke with a butterfly net. It can be done, but briefly and imperfectly. We labored for two hours, and for perhaps 20 minutes of that time my student worked with real absorption and dedication. By his standards he was Goethe. In the final line of her poem Hadas writes:
“But there is room for only so much attention.”