Sunday, April 6, 2014


As I soak up the sun and the melted snow gurgles down the storm drains on my way downtown, I am absorbed in the butterfly effect, and what evidence of it I might discover in my own life.

I remember where I first encountered the concept, in Anna Quindlan’s novel, Every Last One.  During a backyard visit, Ruby, close friend of the heroine, Mary Beth, mulls over the connection between her adolescent son’s personality and ordinary events in his early life.   “The butterfly effect, how the beating of their wings in Mexico could cause a breeze in our backyard,” Mary Beth reports.  She can relate it to their roles as mothers: “The breast-fed baby became the confident adult.  The toddler who listened to a bedtime story went on to a doctorate.  We flapped our wings in our kitchens, and a wind blew through their futures.”  I had to know more, I remember, almost forgetting to wave to a passer-by.
Intrigued, I recall Googling the concept.   I learned that the theory of the butterfly effect originated with meteorologist Edward Lorenz in 1960.  As he tried to replicate a weather model he had run a day earlier, Lorenz noticed that, during the second run, the second model was identical at the beginning, but diverged later.  Why would that be?  He realized that, in the second run, he had rounded off the starting number at the fourth decimal place.    A small change in one place in one system can result in large differences later.  A butterfly can flap its wings, and cause tiny atmospheric changes that might result in a hurricane in a distant location or prevent a tornado in another.  Really.   Absorbed in my mental summary, I push through the door of the Co-op and head straight to the deli for the local honey and the pomegranate-cranberry jelly. 

“Your number, please?” the cashier asks.  What is my number, anyway?  I refocus long enough to tell her.

“No bag, please,” I recite, as she scans the items.  I pull out both my wallet and the teacher bag my sister gave me as a retirement gift, and punch in my debit card PIN.  While the register spews out the bill, I pack the items, and throw the bag over my shoulder.  I endeavor to make small talk with the people in line behind me, but it’s a lost cause.   My mind doesn’t press pause on the butterfly effect movie.

At that point, I was hooked, it seems to me.  Besides the article on Lorenz, my Google search also turned up a book.  In The Butterfly Effect: How Your Life Matters, Andy Andrews applies the concept to history.  Andrews begins with an event circa 1864.
·  Mary Washington is carried off by bandits in Diamond, Missouri, with her infant son, George.  She is killed.
·  Mary Washington’s friend, Susan, traces the bandits and arranges a meeting with them for her husband, Moses.
·  Moses trades their only horse for the contents of a dirty burlap bag.
·  In that bag, Moses finds a baby, Mary’s kidnapped son.
·  He and Susan raise the baby and give it their own name, Carver.  The boy is known as George Washington Carver.
·  George Washington Carver becomes a botanist who develops a myriad of uses for the peanut and the sweet potato.
·  Carver is asked to mentor his professor’s son, Henry Wallace.
·  Wallace serves as Vice-President of the United States from 1941 - 1945.
·  Wallace hires Norman Borlaug to run a station in Mexico that hybridizes corn and wheat for arid climates.
·  From Africa to South America to Asia, Borlaug’s high yield and disease-resistant seeds flourish.
·  Those seeds grow crops that save an estimated two million people from starvation.
·  ABC News honors Borlaug, then aged 91, as Person of the Week on April 2, 2004.

A butterfly flapped its wings in 1864, and a researcher is honoured one hundred and forty years later.  The butterfly must have flapped its wings in my own life, as well, I ponder, as I stride home.   I conjure up the audience at St. Paul’s Home where my husband, our son, and I are the entertainment.  As I settle in my chair after the trumpet-piano duet with our son, my father says,  “Who knew those Saturday piano lessons would ever lead to this?”  Who indeed?  In my own family and my sister’s, counting adults and children,  the piano lessons have contributed to approaching 150 years of liturgical music in our parishes, Royal Conservatory medals,  singers in professional choirs, a bass guitarist and an accordionist in bands, a graphic artist who scored her own animations and those of her colleagues as a student, and a professional jazz musician and composer.   When my parents signed us up for piano lessons in the late fifties, the butterfly flapped its wings.

With two blocks to go, I think of Dr. Tom Rendall, who taught me Old and Middle English literature as an undergrad.  He used to say that when you teach an English student, you teach one person, but when you teach an Education English student, you teach hundreds.  Like the butterfly, he too set events in motion whose ripples continue:

·  I explore an idea on an imagery pattern in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale for my Chaucer class.
·  Dr. Rendall takes the time to attach three pages of hand-written comments when he hands it back.
·  He does not assign a grade. 
·  He allows the students to revise and resubmit. 
·  I stew about his comments for a month.
·  As I revise, the day before the due date, I experience an epiphany.  I get it.  
·  I understand how to preview the main ideas in the introduction, conclude a paragraph, write a topic sentence that will link to the preceding paragraph and introduce the new idea at the same time. 
·  I teach every middle years and high school student I encounter those skills. 
·  A former student tells me he has his job because he can write.

Ahead of his time in providing feedback and allowing revision, Dr. Rendall started something whose effects go on more than forty years later.  Imagine how many people he has affected, I speculate, home now, and unpacking my bag.  Straightening the bag out to roll it up, I stop.  I stare at the message on the front:  Teachers make all other professions possible. 

Of course.  Teachers count on the butterfly effect.  They flap their wings every day through a story, an encouraging remark, a comment, a smile, or feedback.  We have no idea how far the ripples we initiate may extend, the hurricanes that might churn up or the tornadoes that might change direction or even dissipate.  Maybe that’s why the notion of the butterfly effect has captivated me so much.  It reminds me of the impact even the smallest of my words and gestures can have.

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