The Missing Pan

Greg Benedis-Grab
5 min readFeb 20, 2024

I was sitting on the sofa petting the cat the other evening. Then Daphne called to me from the kitchen. “Do you know where the fry pan is?” she asked.

I thought about it for a moment. ‘Do you mean the ten inch Aluminum Core All-Clad fry pan?’ I asked.

“No” she replied with what might have been a bit of indignation. “The one you use to make the Bolognese sauce.”

“Oh, the three quart stainless saute pan, you mean?” I emphasized.

“Whatever! Do you know where the fry pan is?” she expressed exasperatingly.

Once Daphne listened to a podcast on neurodiversity and she says that it helped her understand some of our miscommunications. As she tells it, she focuses on what is important. I suppose in this situation the missing pan was important, because she wanted to start cooking dinner. On the other hand I focus on what is interesting. The exact specifications of our cookware is something quite interesting to me. On the face of it might appear more logical to take Daphne’s approach, as finding the pan is more important especially in terms of preparing dinner. However, as she was trying to locate the object, the properties of the pan intersect with where we put things and how it can be found.

Since we moved to Colorado this past summer, the kitchen was at first a source of stress for me, because I had yet to develop the intuitive knowledge of where everything was located. Despite the fact that we organized the kitchen together, it took months for my brain to build up a mental map of all the items such that I could quickly and instinctively reach for the right tool in the moment it was needed. This is actually a pretty good model for many types of knowledge. I have done the same thing learning how to play the piano. Through regular practice my mind and muscles can perform tasks almost instinctively and that allows me to do more. I think this is why I was at first frustrated by my lack of knowledge of the cookware locations. It interfered with my ability to improvise in preparing food. A similar connection can be made to other academic areas such as Physics. Through deliberate practice and training as Physics undergraduate student I got to the point where I could approach a new problem creatively relying on intuitive knowledge of how the principles of various laws of nature operated. So coming back to the kitchen, now that I had a mental map and I instantly could visualize myself grabbing the pan.

“The 3 quart saute pan is under the oven in the metal drawer,” I clarified.

“I already looked there and did not see it.”

That surprised me immensely, and I walked over to the kitchen. I looked in the drawer as if Daphne had not just told me it wasn’t there and I looked blankly. There was no sign of the pan in there. Now I was really confused. I looked around the kitchen. We put the pan in that spot because it did not fit anywhere else. I looked in a few other cabinets that were close to being big enough to hold it. This confirmed my thinking that the pan could not have been accidentally placed elsewhere. Then I looked up at the ceiling and thought some more.

“The thing is that the pan can not be anywhere else. Where could it be?” I asked the ceiling.

I thought about the fact that our children had been home over their winter break recently. I could see them putting the pan in the wrong spot but that was not even possible.

Would a thief come in our home, steal a really nice saute pan and then run off without taking anything else? That seemed unlikely. I sat down on the step stool that we use to access the higher cabinets to think some more.

As I was sitting there I had a moment of epiphany. It struck me like a lightning bolt on my head. A month ago I was looking for the lid to the saute pan and it was nowhere to be found. I kept searching all over the kitchen until I finally gave up. Then a day later I was opening the drawer under the oven and I saw a glint of metal in the back. I pulled the drawer all the way out and it turned out that the lid had somehow fallen behind the drawer and was lying below it. There was enough clearance under the drawer to allow the lid to fit down there without impeding the movement of the drawer. In fact I remember being surprised how much clearance there was under there.

As my mind processed this memory and started churning up thoughts, I got up from the stool and walked over to the metal drawer. I opened it all the way and there was the saute pan under the drawer. I carefully fished it out and presented it to Daphne. She was noticeably excited and congratulated me on finding the pan. Then she got to work preparing our dinner.

This experience in some ways was trivial because the outcome was simply finding a missing pan. On the other hand this story was about accessing a part of my memory that had been temporarily lost. It was making a connection between two experiences that allowed me to view the world differently and then come up with a creative and effective solution. As a teacher I can think of many examples when a student made a similar type of connection during a class session. Those moments gave me great satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment even though my role as teacher was to simply bear witness. Maybe part of the joy of those moments is that they are built upon a foundation of knowledge similar to the ability to creatively prepare food or solve a Physics problem as I described above. When students are able to accomplish that, it excites me as a teacher, possibly because I take credit for having laid a foundation of building intuitive knowledge. Or alternatively it could be that it is simply my pleasure in witnessing something so beautiful as a spontaneous connection and discovery.

Interestingly, in the kitchen example, even though I was the one making the connection, it felt as though I was bearing witness as well. Maybe the lesson here is that learning is not always something that the teacher or the learner makes happen, but instead is something that happens to us and is outside of the individual or individuals. Maybe sometimes learning is just having the opportunity to notice that something has happened that is bigger than any of us. And through that act of noticing, of bearing witness, we can experience a magical moment. It is certainly those moments that make classrooms magical places.

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Greg Benedis-Grab

exploring the intersection of coding, education and disciplinary knowledge