The Conflict Between Learning & Knowing

In Mrs. Drozda’s second grade class, I learned that every story must contain conflict. Not just contain, in fact — it must revolve around conflict. This was unwelcome news.

My mind balked: So this conflict thing is going to keep happening forever? Worse, even… if it stops, we’ll run out of stories?

By age 7, I had already been appointed group therapist (a foreshadowing of things to come). Perhaps it was my friends, arguing over who could be Baby Spice in our game of dress-up, who had cast me in this role.

More probable, though — growing up in a family of addicts had set me up to crave harmony in the relationships around me. Either way, I witnessed a lot of conflict, and I believed it was my duty to make it stop.

I also felt a duty to protect stories. Somehow I knew even then that without stories, we would be forgotten. My arm shot up.

Mrs. Drozda had cuticles that stretched in a thin layer over most of her nub-like nails. She looked the way I imagine Hillary Clinton would now had she gotten out of politics in 2001, opting for a low-key life and cutting her own hair in front of the mirror late at night. She was my favorite teacher.

Everyone hated Mrs. Drozda. I liked how stern she was. It made me feel safe. But when she affirmed, to my dismay, that stories always contain conflict, I put a stranglehold on my pencil. I couldn’t decide between doubting my leader and swallowing her bitter doctrine.

I thought perhaps she just needed a chance to reconsider.

I scrambled to her side later in class. “Mrs. Drozda,” I hushed, scanning the room. “Are you sure about this? Some stories might just be nice… like a walk in the park.” I smiled meagerly, feigning confidence to sell my point.

Soon, we were having a private ‘conversation’ in the hallway. “Why are you questioning me, Chelsea?” Her tiny fingernails fluttered about. “You’re a good girl.”

It’s clear to me now that Mrs. Drozda was sincerely perplexed. While I was silently being destroyed by the realization that conflict was going to continue as long as stories did, she was wondering how to keep me aligned within a system of learning that she understood.

Childhood is always a process of drawing back protective layers, like curtains that conceal harsh light. Inevitably, some things are pulled back too soon. In this case, I hadn’t yet learned that my contract as a student meant I had to accept ideologies as facts — that I had to choose between allegiance and inner faith, a lesson I would come to understand well while doing my time in future hallways.

This is the conflict between learning and knowing.

Years later, I found out that Mrs. Drozda’s lesson centered on an exclusively Western notion, and that a story can, in fact, exist without conflict. The amendment came too late, like a belonging returned once it has been replaced. Grace is subtle in that way; we often get what we need, but only once the skin has grown back, changed.

By then, I had come to understand that a story may be possible without conflict, but a life is not. Mrs. Drozda had taught me something, just not what she intended to.

Conflict takes its place haphazardly, forming the hallways of our lives. We tell stories to find our way through them. It is conflict that requires stories, not the other way around.

Mrs. Drozda might be glad to know that I made it through that system of learning, but not without losing some important things. By and large, I chose inner faith, and it cost me dearly — but not as dearly as I imagine it would have to sink into doubt, trying to forget what I already knew to be true.

So now my work is to reclaim those things: the stories that others have all-but-erased, stories which demand an inner faith that is very difficult to measure.

Now I use my voice to tell about the goodness of questioning, about the truth which raises its hand and waits to be called upon and curtains which, when pulled back, expose a light so bright that it forces our eyes to adjust.