A second-grader picks out a sparkly solar system sticker from my prize basket. Rectangular, about the size of a postage-stamp, the sticker has a purplish-blue planet and a tiny gray moon on a black background splattered with glitter stars. I notice he chooses one of the oldest stickers, leftover from my childhood sticker collection, PLUTO printed in white letters in the bottom left corner.
He points. “What planet is this?”
I try to explain that Pluto is not exactly a planet anymore, but it used to be.
A planet is a celestial body that
- is in orbit around the Sun,
- has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and
- has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.
The day after Christmas, my family goes to visit my great-aunt and uncle for the first and only time. I have just turned twelve. Driving south along the Ohio River to Marietta, the highway squeezes thin as a filament between the roots of the cliff and the river. We pass boulders swathed in caution tape on the shoulder. I keep a look out, watching the cliff for falling rocks.
The house on the cliff is yellow with a wraparound porch overlooking the Appalachian foothills and an automobile factory in West Virginia. We eat Great-Aunt Evelyn’s spaghetti bake and rainbow ribbon jello. I worry that the rock shelf underneath us will disintegrate without warning and we will fall into the valley with the sluggish river.
My dad says, “I want you to remember this place because we will never get see it again.” He tells me about spending summers there growing up, his pet box turtles and coveting his cousin’s old car with the three on the tree transmission.
Pluto is not a planet. Pluto was a planet for 76 years. Pluto has not been a planet for 10 years. Pluto is 1/3 rock and 2/3 ice. Pluto is a trans-Neptunian object orbiting our Sun. Pluto is a dwarf planet in the Kuiper Belt. Pluto wins a consolation prize.
The first day of training, my instructor hands out a list of questions intended to prompt rapport-building conversations with students.
Name three heroes/heroines and three villains.
What makes you happy?
Tell me one thing that is right and one that is wrong.
What is it like to be you today?
What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
What do you look for in a friend?
How many windows in your bedroom?
The last question puzzles me. It does not seem to belong with the others on the list.
The solar system poster on the classroom wall pictures eight planets and an asteroid belt orbiting the Sun in tidy concentric circles. The second-grader sticks the former ninth planet on his shirt and wants to know how far away Pluto is, so I look it up on Wikipedia.
Pluto is an average of 3,670,050,000 miles from the Sun. The elliptical shape of its orbit means that at aphelion, Pluto is 4,583,190,000 miles away. At perihelion, Pluto is closer than Neptune, at merely 2,756,902,000 miles.
“Farther than walking to Cub?” He names the grocery store a block from school.
“Yes, a lot farther.”
The distance to Pluto becomes something else I don’t know how to explain. Students often ask questions that I don’t know how to answer. Here are two:
“Why are you white?”
“Do all white people want to kill black people?”
Sometimes I avoid answering hard questions by saying, “That’s a great question. What do you think?”
Head on her desk, one of my third-grade students complains that she is too tired to read and too tired to go out for recess. I sit down next to her and ask: “How many windows in your bedroom?”
Eminent domain means dynamite.
Over time, constant exposure to stress hormones like cortisol changes the architecture of the brain, affecting areas responsible for learning. As a result, children who live with toxic stress often struggle with concentration, memory, organization, self-regulation, and forming trusting relationships. “They’re thinking about, ‘Where is Mom right now? And where am I going to sleep tonight?’ That’s a huge thing for an 8-year-old to carry.”
Before, I wondered why knowing the number of bedroom windows matters. My instructor said, go ask your students and you’ll understand.
I wait in the car while my grandmother walks the foundation of her parents’ barn for the last time. Her mother sold the horses when her father died. Now, she holds a funeral for the house and the outline of stones once a barn, and the cliff underneath. The house is not a planet anymore.
Earth’s moon is larger than Pluto. As a verb, pluto means to demote or devalue. Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld and judge of the dead. Pluto is a cartoon dog. Plutonium is the radioactive element with atomic number 94 and is sometimes used to power space probes.
Planet comes from the Greek planētēs, meaning wanderer, one without fixed course.
The third-grader tells me, “None.” They don’t have any windows in her family’s room at the shelter.
My great-aunt and uncle move into a condominium in town. They miss the view. The state of Ohio demolishes their house, then blasts apart the cliff to salvage the highway below. No foundation left to trace.
Looking out your window, what can you see?
The letters HHM appear beside nearly a third of the names on the attendance sheet. I learn that HHM stands for Homeless or Highly Mobile. Children in orbit between homes and neighborhoods. The regular busses don’t stop at the shelters, so at the end of the school day, one of my duties is walking students across the street to make sure they get in the right taxi. Even after I bike home to my apartment, I can’t stop thinking about how the kindergartners reflexively grab my hands as we step over the curb.
International Astronomical Union, “Pluto and the Developing Landscape of Our Solar System,” https://www.iau.org/public/themes/pluto/(accessed Oct. 24, 2018)
Innocent Classroom, “The Good Interview,” 2017
Anya Kamenetz, “How to Apply the Brain Science of Resilience to the Classroom,” National Public Radio, June 12 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/06/12/530893427/how-to-apply-the-brain-science-of-resilience-to-the-classroom(accessed Oct. 24 2018)
Oxford English Dictionary, “planet, n.”