COLUMN: Sixth sense not so common among teenagers, wild animals

Friday, March 11, 2011 | 11:55 a.m. CST; updated 9:46 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 15, 2011

One recent evening I stepped outside and noticed the day’s high temperature of about 65 degrees had dropped sharply. That shock reminded me — thanks to the clairvoyant Doppler Dave — that there was a front to move through and leave a low of around 25 degrees. I could even hear him say “temp er a choo er” with each syllable enunciated in his smooth radio voice.

Then I heard it — crickets chirping. My first thought was: “Oh, cool. I love that sound.” My second thought was, “Oh no, they came out too early and they’re going to die.” In the nanoseconds between the first and second thoughts and what came next, I felt sorry for the little guys. As I am not an insect rights person, I got over that emotion quickly and went on to the third thought: “How could they be so dumb? What happened to the 'sixth sense' nature’s creatures are said to have?”

Some claim wildlife can detect natural disasters hundreds of miles away. I would point out that death was minutes away for these crickets and they were still playing their songs like the violinists on the deck of the Titanic.

I want very much to believe in the mystical extra sense. Nature is more majestic with mystery; plus, scientists seem to need an enduring riddle to keep their britches fitting. There are curious observations that, to a layman like me, just smell paranormal. Butterflies migrate hundreds of miles with no map, while I need a Garmin to find Cunetto’s in St. Louis. When dogs bark at mailmen, it seems perfectly obvious to me that the dogs are supernaturally feeling junk mail and bills, and they are very angry.

However, I have always loved science. Chasing nature’s riddles is both humbling and gratifying. That side of me questions any theory that suggests a sixth sense when all a person has to do is see a dead bird in front of a large clear glass window to know that there was no backup sense when the bird’s sight failed. Like my crickets, nearly every year after an Indian winter the trees say, “You know what really frosts my buds? March.”

Every day on the way to work I pass the spot where I killed a dog with my car last year. Remembering the scene — the dog had this stupid grin on his face as it rounded a parked car before attempting to cross the street. There was no sixth sense. There were no signals going off between his ears, no other sense saying, "I don't know what it is, but I don't think I should be doing this." My car was not sneaking up quietly to ambush the mutt. The second sense is hearing. Second.

I only bother with this because a similarly enduring riddle survives in education: explaining student behavior.

On one hand, a reasonable person can believe that moods are swayed by inexplicable means. My dad drives a school bus and confidently asserts that student behavior is in sync with the moon. He has twenty-some years of monthly observations that suggest a full moon equals an empty skull. I like to think of it as the Father’s Almanac.  Many other cultures have come to the same conclusion. For example, the English word lunatic comes from the Latin word for moon, luna.

However, a true sixth sense is thought to be a positive force. The moon and its cycles tend to lead fools into horrible calamities, such as growing extreme body hair and fangs, bringing Egyptian mummies back to life or falling in love.

If anything, there is some force stealing intuition instead of giving it. There are more than a few teenagers who cannot even remember the past, let alone anticipate future consequences.  An example would be with cell phones in class. When I talk to fellow teachers from other schools, I hear the same story: No matter how many detentions or referrals, no matter how many notes to parents or extra essays — every day cell phones come back in the classroom, and every day the mistreated students are shocked that they are punished when caught. Pavlov’s dog would figure it out eventually. “Cell phone equals bad. Cell phone equals bad. No cell phone.”

Note to students: If you have your hands under the desk or in your hoodie's front pocket and you are unusually attentive with awkward eye contact that makes you seem constipated — we know you are texting.

My favorite part is how as soon as the last bell rings and the outlaws turn the corner into the hallway, the phones come off the hip like guns at the O.K. Corral — as if teachers have the memories of Dory from "Finding Nemo." Really, it feels more like Bill Murray’s character from "Groundhog Day," where we spend most efforts trying to get people to remember previous conversations.

Teenagers are not unlike toddlers who get busted grabbing cookies out of the jar without understanding that sound travels: They really need another sense, and it just doesn’t seem to be there.

So, I don’t have a set position on this. As part of nature, humans have as much capacity for intuition as any other creature. All I know is that with students, if there is an internal voice saying, “Don’t do it. I don’t know why, but just don’t do it,” it needs to be much, much louder. Or maybe try a text.

Brad Clemons likes teaching because he enjoys speaking to people who are forced by law to listen and agree with him.

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Robin Nuttall March 11, 2011 | 4:50 p.m.

Brad, as a science lover I think it only fair to point out that you were not hearing crickets that warm night last week. You were hearing frogs. Spring Peepers to be exact.

And I thought the same thing. However, as frogs, they'll just burrow a bit deeper in the mud and wait out the freeze then start singing again.

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