Crystal Pirri on Learning from Cherokee and Grading Her Own Homework

Noodle Expert Crystal Pirri discusses inventing the word "scizzor," what Cherokee tribes could teach us about our own social lives, and when she knew she wanted to be a writer.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

I would love to live with a Cherokee tribe for a year. I have distant Cherokee heritage, and I've often wondered how life would be different if the tribes hadn't been driven out of North America and were still able to roam and live as they once did.

I imagine the greatest thing I could learn from them would be social (underscoring my interest in Social Emotional Learning) — how do they interact as a tribe, how do they solve conflicts (or avoid them), and how do they relate to one another personally and as a whole? What were they like to be around, what did they find funny, what was most important to them? Perhaps I'll never know.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

"Try and see." My parents didn't often give me the answers, they'd tell me to find out myself and were very forgiving about whatever disasters might ensue. As a result, I have a brazen, unchecked desire to try things and see what happens. I'll try anything that seems half-good, and I've had a ridiculous number of fun, interesting, and (a few) scary experiences as a result. We really live in a sort of child-proof society where so many dangers have been removed. We can do almost anything (and mess up royally) and still come out on top. Just try and see!

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

Anywhere outside North America. I think it's invaluable to experience a culture different from ours. Though we have a melting pot of cultures here in the United States, it still swirls into a fairly predictable soup. Elsewhere, we're caught unaware by the simplest things (cars on the opposite side of the road, unrecognizable constellations in the night sky, strange foods, and smells). Though we can "know of" other cultures thanks to video, photos, or exhaustive Wikipedia pages, we don't quite understand it in our bodies until we're physically somewhere else.

I've been only to English-speaking countries (Ireland, Australia, Canada) and I can't profess to have had the soul-stirring paradigm shift that visiting a non-English speaking country or developing country might have. But I certainly have been viscerally changed by the countries I have visited, and I would wish the same for any student.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

I was homeschooled from sixth grade to graduation, and my mom was very lenient with me. She often spot-checked my work instead of going over all my answers in-depth, and she let me grade much of my work myself so I could see the answers and learn from my mistakes immediately. That said, I thought I knew my spelling words so well one week that I didn't check the answers. Instead, I glanced over the page and "knew" it was right. She happened to check that assignment, and she was horrified that I'd written "100%" on a page that included the (non-)word "scizzors." I must've had an hour-long lecture on how I was only cheating myself and my future chances at being taken seriously. Now I know that when it comes to learning something new, I'm doing myself a disservice if I try to cut corners (especially with scissors).

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I remember the day I knew I would become a writer. I was in second grade, and had just finished reading a chapter book. I went to my mom, who was making dinner in the kitchen, and told her, "I'm going to be writer." I knew viscerally it was for me. Certainly, I thought the process of writing would be more idyllic (with less second-guessing and more epic 10,000-word days), but ultimately it is more lovely and soul-satisfying than I could have imagined.

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