Volume: On Taking Up Space
All elementary school science teachers introduce the concept volume the same way. They fill plastic cylinders halfway with water and instruct their students to record the measurement of the water. Then they ask, “how would we find the volume of something that isn’t liquid?” Because their students haven’t mastered the finer points of multiplication and dimension, their goal isn’t a complicated equation but a simpler method. The students wonder, theorize, and attempt to answer until the teacher brings out the piece de resistance: the objects.
These are typically the same hard plastic objects they used to learn to add and subtract, differing combinations of tiny blue cubes, (the kind that come in single cubes, fused until of ten or a hundred) the rainbow of tangrams, and colorful little bears. They instruct their students to drop their chosen object into the water in front of them. The students do so with glee. Then with grubby hands and fat pencils, they measure the water again. To their surprise, the water has risen. Their teacher assures them, this is the measurement of the volume of the object. The goal of this lesson is simple but effective: to understand that objects take up space and that that space is measurable.
The boy who sat across from me in science class when I did the volume experiment had a history of kicking kids under his desk. He was a terror who left the knees of his victims bruised. The teacher knew it, the students knew it, and I knew it from experience. After being kicked multiple times and having my complaints brushed off by Mrs. Klein, I solved my problem by folding my legs in configurations that made them untouchable. I’d wrap them around the legs of my desk. I’d hike them up into my book holder. I’d sit cross-legged in my chair. I didn’t complain anymore.
I doubt Mrs. Klein knew she was starting a process of folding and compacting when she half-heartedly scolded the desk-kicker. The way we learn about how to behave is never in the ways that mature people, adults would like us to. But by the time we have the words to describe the real problem we are already trained to find the comfortable spot sitting on our heels.
I often envy the people who seem to unapologetically take up space. I have a coworker who is somehow always in the way and somehow always unapologetic. He stands in the door way of a busy kitchen and forces you to ask him to get out of your way. Then, if you’re ever caught in his path, he gives you about a half second warning before he puts his hand on your back and directs you out of his way.
The thing about this guy is that the world just molds around him. I avoid him and being in his way. I change where I stand so that he can’t run into me. I’d rather change than to deal with is obtuseness. He is the hard plastic bear and the rest of the world is the water.
As an adult I am having to learn that I deserve to take up space. I have a body and this is it’s size. I try not to think too much about having to push past people to get off a crowed subway. I try not to take my coworkers herding personally. I have to force myself to move around my tiny kitchen when one of my roommates is also there. I am slowly, slowly unfolding the neat creases I’ve put in myself.
To take up space is to believe that you matter, that you matter enough for your matter to be measured. But a lot of us are not hard, plastic toys. While we are learning how to measure how much a person matters, we are so soft and moldable. It is much easier to fold yourself inward so much that you’re untouchable rather than suffer perpetually bruised knees.