Ariadne’s Threads

A friend of mine is an art teacher in junior high school. Last year she got a book that contains Ariadne’s threads, several odd mysteries that unfold piece by piece as the story goes on. This used to be a TV-show in the 90’s in Finnish television.

Ariadne’s thread is basically a party game. The host is the reader that tells a short story.

A man walks into a bar and asks for a glass of water. The bartender pulls out a revolver and shoots a hole in the ceiling. The man doesn’t get any water but still he thanks the bartender and leaves. What has happened?

The guests start asking questions to which the host can only reply yes or no. Some of the Ariadne’s threads are short riddles you might remember from your childhood and sometimes they are Agatha Christie-like long murder mysteries.

After getting a permanent teaching job my friend started telling Ariadne’s threads to her students. When the students are finishing their work, she tells a mystery and the students have the end of the class to figure out the right clues. Now, she tells me, she’s known as the “mystery teacher” in her school and when the class nears its end, students eagerly await the weekly mystery.

Last fall I was substituting a class that I felt was difficult to manage. They were 1st graders and they were all over the place. I’m not the one to demand old-fashioned strict discipline, but enough is enough. At least you have to have basic manners.

When the school bell rang they ran out like a rampant herd of horses leaving a mess behind them. And after an afternoon of straightening the desks and picking up shoes, books and pencils, I thought, this is not my job, the kids made the mess, they should learn to clean it too.

The next day I made sure we had more than enough time to clean the classroom and when we were eventually ready, we had some extra 5 minutes left. As a substitute teacher I never let the kids go home early, I’m legally responsible for them till the last minute, and I don’t want to be thought of as that substitute teacher that finishes her classes early.

So 5 minutes left, the kids are standing next to their desks all set for the bell to ring to fly them from the classroom like exploding rockets. So I told a riddle. It wasn’t an Ariadne’s thread, but a riddle a 7th grader had told my friend, the mystery teacher.

What grows and grows the more you take away from it?

And the class was instantly silent. It took them the remaining 5 minutes to figure out the answer. And they had pretty good ones too! Hair grows although you cut it, trees grow although they drop their leaves and even the universe grows and grows no matter what happens inside it (pretty impressive idea for a 7-year-old).

The answer is obviously a hole.

And for the rest of my time with the 1st graders, each day I told them a riddle or an easy mystery. And even when the bell rang they didn’t run out of the class as fast as possible, but stayed put until the riddle was solved.

I don’t always tell riddles in every school and class I teach but it’s a good way of grabbing the students’ attention before the day is over.

Last week I taught 2nd graders for three days and yesterday, after saying goodbyes and wishing a happy weekend the class just stood there and didn’t move. We didn’t have extra time so I figured the students would rather go home than stay a few minutes longer on a Friday, but one of the girls was wondering where the riddle of the day was and the others were nodding. “Easy one this time!” shouted one student. Others agreed.

Since we’d been studying poems I told them a poem like riddle, but unfortunately it’s difficult to translate it properly:

It fills valleys, hills and tunnels but you can never fill a bucket with it.

It’s kind of nice to have your own thing. And also a routine the kids know to expect. And before the answer is figured out (or given) no one has left the class even when the school bell has already rung. Although the school bell marks the end of the class, I think it’s still the teacher that gives everyone the permission to leave.

Oh, the answer is fog.

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