Why You’ll Never Beat Me at 20 Questions

I used to teach a philosophy class back when my brain was working. It was a basic introduction to philosophy as this was still high school after all and we covered the Western wise men and their women counterparts as well as a few Eastern fellows. We came to Aristotle in the early stages of the class, when the students still weren’t sure what philosophy was other than an irritatingly abstract set of questions and a brand of fancy hand lotions. I knew they needed something concrete to grab on to or they’d drown in a sea of “what ifs” and “ids” and “cogito ergo sums.”

Young teacher Jamie: my former self.






Yes, we also played with Nerf guns…it was a matter of necessity.









So we played twenty questions. Aristotle was a scientist at heart. He loved his categories. He loved order. That’s all you need for such a game. The master deducer always wins. Find the most logical player in the room and he or she will triumph. We split into teams and whichever team won got a free late pass on homework. It was cutthroat.

I was not as good then as I am now. I’ve had more practice. Communicating with Charlie is an endless game of twenty questions. He can answer “yeah”, “u-huh” and sign for “more” as affirmatives. He can say “uh-uh”, shake his head, or sign “all done” for the negative. He says other words too: “mama”, “go”, “car” but unless the particular scenario has me driving him somewhere, we are back to the game at hand.

Here’s how a typical afternoon pans out:

Me: “Charlie are you pointing to the car?”

Charlie: Shakes his head no.

Me: “The piano toy?”

Charlie: “Uh-uh”

Me: “The apple?”

Charlie: “Yeah” in a voice like he won the lottery. The apple is a VTech toy that has all letters of the alphabet and quizzes him on sounds and words. The kid’s understanding is on par with his peers (he knows every number, letter, word, color, etc). It’s getting it out of his brain and into the world where we hit the wall.

Dinner time is fun:

Me: “Charlie, do you want macaroni and cheese?”

Charlie: Vigorous shaking of the head for no.

Me: “Ravioli?”

Charlie: Waving his hands in front of his face like I’m trying to poison him.

Me (resignedly): “Peanut butter?”

Charlie: “Yeah” with an inflection at the end like I’ve just offered him the world. He’s not subtle. And his meals often include peanut butter and/or yogurt so that’s a game of twenty questions I can win in one.

Cora pretending to feed Charlie. Sweet and drooly.







We do not know precisely why his language skills are so limited other than it’s often an attribute of cerebral palsy. But we’re creating a workaround. He uses an iPad to touch pictures of the things he wants. His speech therapist at school films herself with him singing and saying words so we can play it back to him. We are also meeting with specialists at the children’s hospital in a month to test out other alternative communication devices. We’re working on it. And in the meantime, I’ll keep playing the game and I’ll keep winning because it’s not hard to read Charlie once you know the tells. Sometimes I wish I could create a user’s manual for him and pass it out like a religious tract for those who need or want to be in the know. On the other hand, that reduces the kid to an operational device, a script to be read rather than to interact with. Artistotle would chide, would recategorize. Charlie belongs with the rest of the homo sapiens. He belongs in the rational world.