It always comes down to a tiger entering the room.

In response to my own question of “What are we trying to reproduce?” I ask the kids, in this case the 6/7 students who are just starting to explore genetics, “What would I do if a tiger came in the room?” The question seems to come out of left field, especially as we were just talking about how traits are passed down from one parent to the next.

“Ummmm…. What would you do?” someone always asks tentatively.

“I’d first yell ‘Tiger!’, then I’d throw a chair through the window and run.” I follow with, “Would I try and save anyone other than myself?” Pretty quickly everyone points to my son, who happens to be in the room. “Anyone else?” My daughters are named next. “Any more?” My niece and nephew are identified.

In our desire to get as much of our DNA into the next generation as possible, wherever that DNA may reside, there is this obvious “symptom” of our genetics – it’s called family. We don’t often think of family as a behavior, but that’s exactly what it is. The most general definition I can come up with for family is looking out for those people with whom you share something important. What I like about this generality is that it moves into that part of biology we get to change and control most directly- culture.

We live in a world that is increasingly disconnected. The Greater Good Science Center out of Berkeley recently highlighted a surprising increase in “feeling alone” in students, with girls showing a 48% increase in feeling isolated and left out, and boys reporting a 27% increase. What is emerging from these studies is the recognition that direct, face-to-face connection with people is fundamental to who we are.

Wonderfully, it turns out that the most powerful thing we can do to combat disconnection is to reach out to those people around us: our immediate family, our friends, and the tens and hundreds of people we come into contact with. Perhaps the greatest power of this connection is its simplicity- it often takes little more than a smile to engage someone. Add someone’s name and an even a basic observation- “That is a great coat”- and pretty quickly a different world opens up.

Our students need these connections, and we need them, too.

Nowadays, it is rare for a tiger to enter a room. Metaphorically, though, a certain disconnection stalks us all. The antidote is reaching out and being present with people. One of the most fundamental things we can offer our students is our attention.

Start with a hello and a smile and go from there.

7 December 2018 – Harry Weekes