Adaptation, Semiotics, and Being Cool with Things

Chimpanzee with his hands on his headMy awareness of adaptation began in Mr. Johnson’s 6th grade class. I was a 5th grader who school administrators felt belonged there, rather than with peers my own age. This, unbeknownst to me at the time, required a great deal of adaptation. Being smart in school was not sexy then like it is now.

Mr. Johnson began explaining the concept of adaptation using chimpanzees as context, specifically how they never sleep in the same place twice. Chimps make a new bed for themselves every night. Mr. Johnson explained how this was fascinating and went on at length to help those of us in class imagine what that would be like. He said this repeatedly: “It’s all about what you get used to

While Mr. Johnson told his stories about chimps and adaptation, I played with a small, red stapler that said GIANT on it in big, white letters. Before he began, it had run out of staples and I needed one to bind one of my completed assignments with. I had already reloaded it with one of those bound stacks of small staples but continued to futz with it. It was splayed open like a Swiss Army knife as I listened. As I got more and more into what he was saying, I paid less and less attention to what I was doing. At one point, I pressed the stapler back together, closing it on itself with a kerchunk, putting a staple squarely into the center of my thumb. It happened so fast, as I was so engrossed with Mr. Johnson’s propositions, I hardly felt it.

Mr. Johnson was talking now about signs, traffic signs, specifically, and how new signs have little or no power because they have not been looked at much yet. People, drivers, have not had time to adapt to their existence yet and so they are likely to be ignored. Regardless of words or symbols, he continued that the average driver overlooks many details.

He went on and I looked at the ends of the staple through my thumbnail. I could see them clearly. My instinct was to pull it out. Instead, I paused and thought about adapting to having it in my thumb. What challenges would it really present? Beyond the obvious, such as infection, etc, I imagined what it would be like to tie a shoe with a staple in my thumb, wash my hands, the potential discomfort of grabbing things tightly, such as climbing a rope, and the pain I may have to adapt to.

The staple remained in my thumb for the duration of Mr. Johnson’s lecture. I did not want to pull it out during because I knew it was a puncture wound. I did not want to bleed like a stuck pig and have to excuse myself from his class. I was already on everyone’s radar as a misfit for being moved up a grade and drawing more attention to myself was the last thing I wanted to do. Instead, I waited patiently. I calmly listened to the lesson on adaptation even as I sat there, adapting to injury, working against my instinct to do otherwise. I quickly realized that urgency is often a product of conditioning. I imagined letting the staple become a part of me. It would not kill me. It probably would not even affect me enough to impact my overall quality of life. I sat there wondering what urgency means in other parts of the world. It’s all about what you get used to.

So, wherever you are now, Mr. Johnson, thank you for illustrating those ideas for me in that time and place. It was one of the most memorable lessons ever. It was powerful for the synchronicity of my wonky experience, too. As I was learning about adaptation in theory, I was applying it in realtime. Mr. Johnson, you never knew it but your lesson was more successful than you intended. As it unfolded, I was introduced to being more aware of myself and my instincts. I was learning to be more mindful of choices, to adapt and, as a result – I am more aware of what I get used to whether I am stapling myself, listening to someone, or – reading the signs.