My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 6, #6,
March 4, 2001


Her postal sage
Who promised answers
By return of mail
Explaining why
Sometimes it seems
The world has failed
He wrote back
Everybody's got a hole to fill

Bob Geldof

I was listening to Bob Geldof's The Happy Club recently and for the first time really registered it when he sang "Everybody's Got a Hole to Fill." He was talking about that vague undefined "I want" that my niece was talking about when she was two, and got this puzzled look on her face and said, "I need SOMETHING." She didn't know whether it was food or water or a walk in the park or a hug, but she knew there was something missing.

That hole keeps us restless trying to fill it -- maybe if we move someplace else, or buy a bigger house, or get that big promotion, or find the perfect drug or shrink or guru, we'll find the missing piece and we'll be happy at last. That hole is a wonderful marketing opportunity, and there's no lack of advertisers ready to convince us that their cars and jewelry and designer jeans will do the trick, no lack of politicians willing to fill us up with anger and enemies, no lack of cults offering to trade their certainties for our confusion.

But when I heard the song, my first thought was not about the hole in ourselves, but the hole in the universe that needs us to fill it. I thought the song was about finding our mission, the reason the universe needed us. I think maybe the biggest hole in ourselves comes when we haven't worked out that question: why am I important? Why do I matter? What am I alone capable of accomplishing? What wisdom do I have to pass on? If Kurt Vonnegut is right about the world being full of karasses -- groups of people who, without knowing it, are working together to achieve an important goal -- what karass am I part of, working to achieve what goals?

To my mind, that's the most important function of education. Yes, schools need to teach basic skills, but in our new passion for testing and accountability, we mustn't forget that the teachers who change lives, the teachers who are loved, are the ones who respect children's minds and imagination, and show them that they matter. I'm not talking about teachers who preach easy self-esteem, either, but about teachers who demand a lot from their students and convince them they are capable of learning anything. With such teachers, students will get their self-esteem from hard work and mastery.

I have in mind people like Maurice Ashley, for example, the Grand Master player who founded the Harlem Chess Club for children. Nobody had ever bothered to teach these undeprivileged black kids to play chess before, but as they played, they discovered to their pleasure that their minds were better at problem-solving and analysis and strategy than they'd ever realized. Their new-found pride in themselves made it worth the time consumed by competition, practice and homework (which they had to keep up with to remain in the chess club).

I'm talking about people like Daniel Fader who got his classes in a ghetto school "hooked on books;" LouAnne Johnson, who convinced kids who thought they were dumb that they were funny and capable and worthwhile; Kenneth Koch, who taught children that writing poetry was a way of talking about their "wishes, lies an dreams;" and Koch's own English teacher, Katherine Lappa, who "encouraged me to be free and deep and extravagant in what I wrote, so that I could find what was hidden in me that I had to say." I'm also talking about all the mothers and teachers and librarians who read to kids and fill them with the wonder of words and show them that whole worlds are waiting to be discovered in books.

As surely as their students learn their value in the world, these teachers find in their students' success the hole in the universe that they uniquely fill, the justification for their presence in the world. Others find their place by giving back to their community, like John Bryant, who was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles; he became wealthy as a stockbroker, but felt complete when he started a program in his old neighborhood to teach his friends and neighbors how to handle their finances.

My former husband died last week. Mostly my sorrow is for me and for all the other people who will miss him. Ultimately it was what he wanted; he was in pain, he was worn out from the battle his doctors insisted on fighting, and he saw no hope of ever getting his life back. But one genuine regret I have for him is that he died without ever understanding how much he mattered in the world. The hole that he filled in the universe was making other people see themselves through his eyes. He was like a flattering, gently lit mirror, where people always looked prettier, kinder, wittier, and more loved than they'd believed they were. When someone tells you often enough how kind you are, you can't help becoming kind, because you don't want to disappoint him -- you have to assume the virtue if you have it not. The world would be a finer place if there were more people like him.

What I would wish for all of you is that you will find the hole in the universe that you alone can fill, figure out what makes you matter in the scheme of things. It doesn't need to be grand and splashy -- a talent for loving is as important as a talent for building empires. It just needs to pass the It's a Wonderful Life test: you should be able to point to your life and say, because I was here, a child was happy, or maybe a life was saved, or a patch of prairie was preserved, or an idea was planted . . .

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NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.

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