I stand at the front of a diverse group of teens sitting in a well air-conditioned classroom of Pasadena High school.
I point to the spunky 15-year-old who introduced herself when she walked in out of the heat, Regina, would you mind bringing yourself and your chair up here to sit facing the wall? I promise it will be worth it.
As she shifts herself and her chair, I move the classroom’s old-school, metal overhead projector to throw a bright light on her braids and a shadow of her onto the wall.
THE ALLEGORY OF PLATO’S CAVES, I announce theatrically and follow with, A spontaneous, improvised telling. Starring Regina.
She adds, As directed by a rabbi who’s friends with Dr. Farrar—a rabbi who is now a high school math teacher, right?
Doc Farrar had been my beloved history of education professor when I was getting my masters in Education at Pepperdine.
Perfect, yes, that’s me, and I continue, Plato’s allegory of the caves—allegory, a fancy word for parable.
Me: Regina is born and lives her whole life seated in that chair, in a cave, with a wall in front of her and a fire that she cannot see behind her.
I pause and look around the room to measure engagement.
DO NOT, I say louder than necessary eliciting a chuckle from the group, ask important questions like, ‘Why is she in the cave?’ ‘How did she get there?’ or ‘How does she eat or poop?
THIS IS AN ALLEGORY. We do not ask such ridiculous—or logical—questions when we are learning from an analogy.
I negotiate quickly and quietly with students in the front rows to borrow two pens and hold them between the bright light and Regina’s head, forming two stick shadows on the wall.
Me: Regina sees before her shadows of people—in this case, one named Bic and one named Sharpie—as they walk between her body in the chair and the fire behind her.
Me in falsetto, dancing the ballpoint about: Hello, Regina, how are you today?
She doesn’t respond. I don’t know why. She seems lost.
I up the energy and channel my high school persona from when I performed as a magician at kid birthday parties. I shake the pen wildly about, ‘Hello, hello, Regina. Hello, girlfriend, how are you doing today?’
The students laugh but not nearly as uproariously as when Regina mimics me back, talking to the shadow on the wall, Yes, Bic, yes, girl, I hear you. I’m sorry, I was thinking about the last time I ate and pooped. I didn’t mean to ignore you. We cool.
I face the class and explain, Regina routinely has conversations with Bic and Sharpie. To her, these shadows are reality. To her, this is normal.
Shouted by a classmate for a laugh: She ain’t, though.
I extend my hand to Regina, as a prince might.
She reaches for my hand as I continue, Then, one day, magically, she is brought out of the cave. For the first time, she sees the sun in the sky and she says—he sees the sun and she says—
Regina, enthusiastically, with her hand up at her brow, squinting: O.M.G., THE SUN!
Me: Perfect. Yes. And?
Her: And W.T.F.!
Me: WTF, indeed, yes.
I address the group—If all of your life you lived in a cave and all of a sudden you see the sun, you are going to be confused. New information, especially when it’s big, is often hard to absorb.
I again address Regina: Question—where do you want to be right now, after seeing the sun for the first time?
She points to the now-empty chair.
Me: Yes, back in the cave. But what’s the problem? What’s the problem with just sitting in the chair, pretending you’ve never seen the fire behind you and having realized that it isn’t the shadows of Bic and Sharpie that are talking? What’s the problem?
Her: I know the truth.
Me: And what’s the problem with that?
Her: I don’t want to live fake.
Me: So what do you do?
Her: I go back outside. Right?
Me: Yes, but there’s a problem with that…what’s the problem with going outside?
Her: I don’t like it outside. It’s not familiar. And my family and friends are in the cave.
Me: So which do you do?
Her: I tough it out.
Her: I wait in the sun until the sun isn’t so scary.
Me: Perfect. Exactly what Plato wrote. Word for word. Exactly. Only better. I thank you, Regina.