Though many adults only consciously experience existential angst after being forced to learn about Spinoza in an intro to philosophy class, children are surprisingly perceptive to the fragility of life, and for some, the quest for meaning begins early. Take, for instance, what one first-grade teacher learned when his viral tweet about a first-grader's response to a riddle showed kids can be WAY deeper than adults. It was adorable, of course, but also rather enlightening.
According to the Washington Post, Bret Turner, a teacher at the Head-Royce school in the San Francisco Bay Area, prepared a short riddle for his first graders on Tuesday as part of his puzzle-of-the-week series. "I am the beginning of everything, the end of everything, the end of everywhere. I'm the beginning of eternity, the end of time and space. What am I?" The first answer? "Death." Turner, on the other hand, was just looking for the letter E.
"The first guess from one of my 1st graders was 'death' and such an awed, somber, reflective hush fell over the class that I didn’t want to tell them that actually the answer is the letter e, which just seemed so banal in the moment," Turner tweeted, along with a photo of the Sartreian riddle:
And while the above student may have provided the most fatalistic answer to Turner's riddle, other students were just as willing to push past the superficial nature of the puzzle and unlock the secrets of the universe within it. "Before I finally revealed the 'correct' answer to the riddle, to a largely unimpressed audience, I fielded other guesses that continued along a similarly existential vein," Turner tweeted. "There was 'NOT everything,' 'all stuff,' 'the end,' and maybe my favorite, 'nothingthing.'"
Turner was surprised to see the tweets go viral, though he suspected his students wouldn't be particularly impressed by the news, probably since they're too busy compartmentalizing their brain space for headier matters.
The letter "E" riddle story is a funny one, but children are actually surprisingly perceptive when it comes to parsing out the "meaning" of life — when I was a little kid, I can recall lying awake one night thinking, "I know I exist because I can think, but what if everyone else doesn't exist?" Then, many years later, I read Rene Descartes' Meditations on Philosophy in a class and became familiar with the principle of cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am," which is exactly what bothered my little brain all those years ago, but this time I had to take a test on it.
But while philosophers pontificating on the meaning of life may put you to sleep in a lecture hall, six-year-olds doing it is simply adorable. Take, for instance, some of these awkward questions young children have asked their parents, a number of which, like "Do kids die?" and "Why do Grammy and Mema believe in god but you don't?" skew rather existential. Then, of course, there's the slew of super creepy children's books, like The Twits and The Witches by Roald Dahl, or Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, or the Grimm brothers' fairy tales — all of these seem entertaining on their face, but are really about violent sociopaths beset on torturing children. It's no wonder children think so much about death when all their story books are about dead parents and bad guys who tear their own bodies in half.
Meanwhile, some of the respondents to Turner's viral tweets had their own deep thoughts regarding the letter "e" riddle, though it seems none were quite as on par as the original first grader's. We can't all be such good thinkers, after all.