It’s very difficult, as a child, to figure out which parts are the important ones. Context and causes will always be secondary to shiny little details when you’re too short to see the adult world, let alone comprehend its intricacies.
Kids will remember, for example, that a hippopotamus’s milk is pink without retaining the reasons they can’t have one for Christmas (no matter how many times they’ve been told). I think that’s part of why many of us have vast repositories of completely useless knowledge as we get older, remnants of nearly forgotten, lopsided investigations of dinosaurs, Arctic expeditions, or medieval Europe.
I remember cultivating my collection of pointless information, assured by a thousand children’s books that esoteric details would be the deciding factor in my survival in the adult world. Elaborate puzzles, I assumed, would be encountered as frequently as things adults and the essentially adult “big kids” actually complained about, like taxes or long division, so I needed to prepare. I memorized riddles, solved mysteries alongside the children detectives in my books, and committed every way Batman outwitted his foes to memory. Logic and recognition of a specific name, poem, leaf, or type of rock could obviously mean life or death, so the more obscure the fact, the more greedily I collected it.
This (fortunately) has never been as necessary as I’d hoped. No ancestral fortune or miraculous medication has ever hinged on the name of the third Prime Minister of Canada or the chemical composition of grass, and even if it did, I could just as easily google it.
I don’t know about yours, but my stockpile of random facts has only ever served to fill pauses in conversation. It’s rarely even gotten me extra credit on quizzes. The whole thing is almost disappointing enough to make a person want to return their childhood, leave a nasty review, and demand a refund.
That said, there was one chunk of knowledge that shook off its cobwebs the other day in English class when my teacher mentioned that an ancient Greek tragedy would be included on our reading list. During the Peloponnesian War, I remembered, some Athenian prisoners escaped death and slavery in Sicily by reciting what they remembered of the Greek tragedian Euripides’s work, which was treasured by their captors.
That’s just about the only real circumstance I’ve encountered where seemingly irrelevant information had an immediate, tangible effect on anyone's life. It’s a beautiful story; it shows the power of art and all that, but it also flies in the face of my younger self’s plan for her seemingly inevitable adventure. I’d figured that the information necessary for any great triumph or escape would present itself along the way as heavy-handedly as it does in the elementary school library’s chapter books, flashing as brightly as the moving parts in kindergarten computer games.
But information never comes in handy when it’s supposed to. The Athenians didn’t learn Euripides knowing that they’d need it in Sicily just as I didn’t learn their story knowing I’d put it in this column. Even in school, teachers will name half a dozen benefits of understanding a concept or process before mentioning its place on the upcoming test.
So, celebrate your hordes of factoids. Sure, you don’t know if you’ll ever need to know something, and you certainly can’t predict why or how you’ll use it if you do, but that’s no reason not to keep looking, especially with all of human knowledge at your fingertips. Read on. After all, the very next article could be the one that saves you, in the end.
Erin Stoeckig is a junior at Mayo High School. Send comments on teen columns to Jeff Pieters, email@example.com.