Semper Legarus: Why going slow is key to going fast

Semper Legarus: Why going slow is key to going fast

My wife and I just met with my son's teachers for his evaluation. There's a lot of positive energy right now, because he's made incredible progress in a lot of areas. This was the first evaluation that did a deep dive into his technical skills: How is he doing in English, math, and other more granular skill sets related to his cognitive function, not just his ability to play well and follow directions. Before I continue, I should note that the school he goes to is exceptional. They are the embodiment of Maria Montessori, and yet with a keen awareness of modern life academic baseline requirements in both the US and in Japan. I haven't found another school like it after two exhaustive years searching.

During the review session, my son's teacher dove deep into a list of developmental and cognitive functions at his approximate age, supported by what felt like countless tests and the results of administering those tests to my son in recent days.  For example, when presented with a stack of a dozen legos and asked to order them by size, did he order them by height or by depth or other?

Another test was counting from one to twenty in English, as well as in Japanese.  Curiously, in English he would skip seventeen and barrel on to concluding at twenty.  I was curious why, so I asked. The answer? Don't worry, it's not uncommon for children to do this at this age. We just need to keep practicing.

In general, we were really pleased with the outcome.  Our son shows signs of creativity in select areas where he does things differently than the rest of the student population (I think this is a good thing), and his general level of competency is up to par with the rest of the student population.  Nothing to worry about, and he's creative and interesting to boot.

But what about that counting issue? I thought about it for the rest of that day. After a few hours, it hit me: My father dealt with the same problem with his students, and he had the solution, if they wanted it.

You see, my father was a classical guitarist.  He played professionally - concerts, weddings, other gigs - for a living. And he taught classical guitar at a college as well. One time, back when I was in junior college, I decided to take his course. In hindsight, I should have known what I was in for, but I was still rather shocked by the attitudes of the student population.

My father didn't need to point out to me the few students in the classroom that had never picked up a guitar in their lives until now, and yet they arrived to class with the expectation of playing like Eddie Van Halen. And yet, all they are working on Malaguena. And they were screwing it up. They were trying so hard to shred, they were actually sucking at it.

That was my son that night, at the end of dinner, when I smoothly transitioned the discussion into him reciting one through twenty. He wanted to be done with dinner, so he rattled off one through twenty as fast as he possibly could, practically slurring the numbers together. Guess which number he skipped? When I asked him to start over, mentioning that he missed a number, he exploded, "I don't known why are you doing that. I want to be done!"  I just calmly asked him to start over again.

He grunted, then started rattling off one through twenty as if through a machine gun.  I could barely make out the words as they seemed to come out in a stream.... "onetwohreefouriveixheveneightinetenelen....." Guess which one he skipped?  Good old lucky number 17.

"Again," I said. He scowled. I didn't care. "Do it again. You're still skipping number 17." He scowled even harder. And did it again. Skipping number 17. At this point he wasn't in tears. He was now raging against the parent machine. He was so mad that I had to keep my composure because it was both interesting and his reaction was, while mad and emotional, actually a little funny.

It was at that point that I channeled a little big of my father, Gregory Coleman, The Classical Guitarist. "I want you to count slowly, together with me."  At first he protested.  Then he protested again, and made a big stink.  I was unphased. "We are not leaving the table until we get through this."

He was mad. But he complied, and in the most defiant manner possible started to count, on tempo, one number every two seconds:

"one......

two......

three.....

four....

five.....

six.....

seven.....

eight.....

nine.....

ten....

eleven.....

twelve....

thirteen.....

fourteen....

fifteen...

sixteen....

........

.......

..........

..........

...................

......seeeeventeen.....

eighteen....

nineteen....

twenty....." 

"I DID IT!!"

He did it. The number was there in his head all along. He was just going too fast.  

When I was a child my father taught me the Latin words "semper legarus", always slowly.  He pointed out that there was a connection between the brain and his fingers, and that it often took a lot of practice to get these two in sync. I must have been four or five or six at the time he demonstrated this to me by playing a scale on his Ramirez guitar. Playing it to a slow tempo gave him time to get the fingerings just right. Then he could turn up the speed little by little, until suddenly his playing the same scale looked like a magical dance of his fingers on the frets of the guitar.

About a week later, I talked with my son's teacher.  She told me how he had excitedly he had shared with her "going slowly", and showed her how he was able to count without error.  I'm pretty sure he doesn't yet realize it, that all he was doing was reducing a self-inflicted error rate, and feeling much more confident and better for it.

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