Pastimes and Times Past

Que Sera, Sera
Doris Day

Pastimes and Times Past

Children’s Games
Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Those who were around in the 1950’s will remember the song as will the Alfred Hitchcock fan who has seen the remake of The Man Who Knew too Much. Doris Day sings this song at the beginning of the film. It is about growing up and how one plans for growing up (the song not the film). It is, of course, not something easily done. How many adults are doing things they dreamed of as young children. But even those with a “Whatever will be, will be” approach to life and the future have to have a certain amount of training to be prepared for that “whatever will be” when it comes along.

The painting also captures the world of childhood and wonder. It is difficult to view properly in such a small scale but it is a street scene of children playing various children’s games, hence the painting’s title. I do not know if this is intentional or just the nature of children’s dress at the time but most of the children look an awful lot like adults. To me this suggests that a lot of what children do is in imitation of the adults around them, but it also suggests that adults, or many of them, do not entirely lose the childlike or the childish.

I like to tell people that the passage of time makes me grow older but no power on earth can make me grow up and I think this sentiment might be in the painting as well. Playfulness is a quality that must be nurtured if we are to survive the world as it is and, maybe more importantly, not take ourselves too seriously. It often seems that the purpose of education, as it is practiced today, is to drive the child out of the person, to make the student a productive and responsible member of the society but not necessarily a happy or content member.

My seniors are starting the book Great Expectations this week. It is a book about aspirations, growing up, and how we treat those around us, especially those that have treated us well. Pip is a self absorbed child, as many children are, but he has been derailed from a path of contentment by malicious forces in the society in which he lives. Some of these forces, Uncle Pumblechook for example, probably mean Pip well; believe that fortune has worked to Pip’s benefit, even if Pumblechook is looking to his own interests in the process. Most of the adults in Pip’s life have advice for him that is intended to make him a productive member of society and this advice though often given to puff up the advisor is not ill intentioned, which is probably true of most of the advice adults give to the young.

But the adult that Pip is closest to, and hurts the most, is Joe, a man who has preserved the child within but who also behaves as an adult should when the situation demands. More than any other character in the book Joe is content and it is a similar contentment that he desires for Pip. But Pip acquires other aspirations. You have to read the story to find out how this all works out and how Pip got so far off track. But his story mirrors how many come of age, looking to status, position, and the good opinions of others to make one happy. The young are forced to decide what they will do when they are often more attracted to the bright surfaces of things than the darker realities that can lie underneath.

Children on the Beach
Mary Cassatt

What many try to preserve of childhood is the carefree quality of childhood found in this painting. To be able to play at the beach without having to worry about where the buckets and shovels come from or how they are paid for. The sailboat in the distance looks inviting and carefree in its own right, but in order for the sailboat to look like this there must be those on board doing the hard work of keeping it on course and before the wind. If the boat is a “pleasure” boat those on board no doubt enjoy the work that they do, but if it is a commercial vessel there may be a different reality.

I met a young man while I was bicycling through England who was in the Merchant Marine. He seemed to enjoy what he did, but he did not really have a choice. He took an exam in the sixth or seventh grade or thereabouts that suggested an academic career was not for him and he was placed on an educational track that would prepare him for a trade and that trade became the Merchant Marine. I had an uncle who began in the Merchant Marine, went on to the Navy and submarines, and on to other things naval and seemed to enjoy it. He had opportunities to become an officer but enjoyed being a common sailor and so went as far as one can go without becoming an Officer, a Chief Petty Officer or something of that nature. Perhaps the young man I met felt about his career as my uncle did, I hope so anyway.

But it concerns me when the adults in a child’s life get too heavy handed about directing the child’s future. It may be that we will all spend our lives working on commercial vessels but I would like to think it is possible to approach our work in the same spirit as those on the pleasure boat; whatever the purpose of the boat, to generate profit or pleasure, the work is much the same. As a teacher I often wonder what is the role of education in preparing one for the world of work, in preparing a student for a career. I know what the image of school and education often is, I know how students often react to what I attempt to do, but I do not know if at the end of the day I have given students clarity about the future and how to prepare for it. Perhaps all anyone can do for others is show them how to use the tools that will help them find clarity.

Illustration for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Norman Rockwell

I think this painting by Norman Rockwell probably captures if not the reality of school the spirit of it, or how it feels, if only metaphorically, to be a student. In the painting a number of students appear to be taking delight in seeing a fellow student put on the spot so to speak, being beaten by an adult in authority. Teachers cannot work their way through a supply of willow branches, as the instructor here has done (notice the broken sticks on the floor) but they can put students on the spot, make them feel inadequate because they cannot read a passage in a book or solve a math problem in front of a classroom of their peers. I remember when I was a freshman in high school I had started to nap in an algebra class. The next instant I heard my name called. I did not hear the question, I did not know what was going on in class but I saw an equation on the board and gave the answer to that equation. Evidently that was what I was supposed to do because the instructor was pleased and things moved away from me. I felt very pleased with myself and have obviously remembered the event to this day nearly fifty years later. But that was the exception and certainly not the rule; I have just forgotten most of the other less pleasant class room experiences.

From Big
Gracie Films and Twentieth Century-Fox

In the film all the character wants is to be big enough to ride the exciting rides at the amusement park, so he makes a wish. He wakes up a child with an adult’s body. He cannot stay at home, he does not have enough money to support himself, and he does not have the skills to make his way in the work force. He finds his niche in society and gets a different kind of education from the one he got in school. In many ways the education he received packaged as an adult was more meaningful than the education he got in school but what he missed out on was some of the play. He was literally a kid in a toy store so he was not deprived of the toys themselves what he was deprived of was another to enjoy the toys with him. We never lose our hunger for community. Even the shiest most introverted, whether a child or an adult, yearns for a community in which to participate.

As an English teacher I make it my life’s work to foist books on young people that would rather be doing something other than reading books. This may not be true of all students but it is true of many students. What is often missed in the stories we tell in school is the stories. We make them into objects for analysis; things to be pulled apart and dissected like a dead frog and it is no wonder that many students have no more interest in them than they do in dead frogs. I read an essay by Philip Pullman. It is his “Isis Speech“. I do not know what Isis is as an organization, only as a myth so I do not know what the purpose of the speech was or of the organization to which it was given. I do agree with what he has to say about the teaching of literature and the importance of teaching it.

Among other things he believes that we all love stories and that it is often the story that is removed from a book when it is studied in school. But he also believes that stories we study in school need to be challenging and difficult. That just as human beings have many layers to their personalities so should the stories they tell each other. One purpose of studying stories is to see that there is more to most things than meets the eye. When we are reduced to who we are on the surface of our personalities we are reduced to stereotypes and one way to outgrow stereotyping others is to see beyond the stereotypes in the stories that we read.

Stories are what many of us had read to us by our parents as children and what we in turn read to our children. It is in telling stories that we come to understand the world, but it is also in telling stories that we come to find what is delightful in the world. For me stories are how I guard against growing up, stories preserve the magic and mystery beneath the surface of life and the mundane activities that fill up much of what we call living. Life is my beach and the books I read are my bucket and shovel.

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15 thoughts on “Pastimes and Times Past

  1. I believe the painting represents that adults don’t really lose the child in them. In the movie Big, Tom Hanks is trapped in an adult body and he brings out the child in the store owner when they play music on the giant piano at FAO Shwartz in New York. It’s true that the quality that is most preserved in childhood is the easy, carefreeness that children possess. Tom Hank’s character learns a lot about the responsibilities of adulthood, but misses being a kid again. He missed his friends and having someone to play with.

  2. It’s really true that stories read in school usually aren’t even considered storied by the students reading them. The students automatically think that because the reading is forced upon them, they won’t be able to enjoy it. I disagree. I think the story is the best part of the book, and the meaning behind the story is often very creative and deep. I think that stories help to keep you young because it is up to you to decide what you believe and what you want. It makes you use your imagination and find your own creativity if you let it. I also find it true that while many children can’t wait to grow up (like in Big, for silly reasons like being able to go on a ride) but once you actually grow up, you often envy the carefree life you once led, worrying only about your shovel and bucket and not the money spent on them. That’s why it’s important to have something that makes you feel young again, something to keep you from growing up.

  3. in response to the comment of “But it concerns me when the adults in a child’s life get too heavy handed about directing the child’s future,” I couldn’t agree more. I can understand a parents want to play a role in their childs growth and decisions, but when suggestion turns into commands and dictation, the relationship can become strained. Speaking from personal experience, my mom and dad parent very differently. My dad follows more of an “I’m the boss and ruler of this house” philosophy while my mom knows that I should haev some insight on things that effect my life. For me, when people tell you what to do you are more likely to rebel and go against what they were telling you. I believe that children need to be allowed to make some mistakes in order to learn from them. Parents should be there more as a subtle guide but that the child should get to make the final decision on things that will effect their lives. After all, it is ‘their’s’ not the parents.

  4. I would definitely agree that student’s don’t see school-assigned books as actual stories. To pretty much every high schooler, the only useful knowledge to be learnt from those books is the knowledge to pass the test on it. For the most part, anything forced upon teenagers immediately causes disdain. A few years back, I was taking drum lessons from Music of the Bay. I loved to play the drums, but didn’t always love the repetitive exercises that were all too necessary to master the instrument. My mom would force me to practice, and I eventually didn’t want to play at all. In response, she canceled my lessons. My desire to play quickly came back when I didn’t feel like I was required to do something. The same is true with school reading. The mere fact that you need to read it makes it hard, for me, at least, to really get into the book. I didn’t enjoy reading Walden last term. When it came time to write the emperor notes, I had to actually think about what Thoreau was saying, and thought that it was interesting. It easy to say “Oh, this book stinks, it’s about a loser who lives in the woods and does nothing for two years” if you never stop to consider his thoughts on life and nature. Most students don’t and that’s why they don’t enjoy books.

  5. I think there is an important point here in the drum lessons. If one is to become a musician, one who views music as a professional as opposed to just playing at music, lessons will probably be required and even where not, the drill, the scales are necessary if one is ever to become a skilled musician. When I teach literature I always have in my mind somewhere the idea that I am trying to prepare the next generation of “professional” readers, those that think about the deeper meanings in a text and how a text is constructed. I agree with you that a small percentage of students have that interest, but I think some do. It is like preparing the next generation of scientists and mathematicians.

    J. D.

  6. I can relate to the statement, “But it concerns me when the adults in a child’s life get too heavy handed about directing the child’s future”. I once had a friend who’s parents tried to control everything about his life. It got to the point where his parents were forcing him to play school sports he had no interest in. Sometimes parents may feel the need to do these kinds of things because they never got the opportunity in life so try and force their dreams on their children. I believe that no one should ever have to do something they don’t want to. Part of life is making your own decisions and, learning to live with those decisions.

  7. “Isis” is Oxford University’s literary magazine. The Isis Speech was delivered at Isis/Oxford university. Fine, rich insights.

  8. Thank you so much. I was very curious and when I did a simple web search I came up with all sorts of technology sites that did not seem to have much to do with the writing and study of literature. I agree it is a very fine essay.

    J. D.

  9. The books we read in school sometimes can seem dull, or feel like it’s a challenge to read. When I was in middle school, my ELA teacher had us keep a journal, and wanted us to write to a certain prompt based on what we were reading at the time, and I disliked having to stick to those guidelines, especially if she wanted two responses per book. I would finish the books within a day or so, so only one response could be warranted, and I would receive a bad grade. Now, we have to analyze, not just summarize what we’re reading, and to me, it’s more interesting, because you’re digging deeper into the story and looking behind the words and trying to grasp the meaning. It could be compared to music in some respects, when you first begin to learn a piece, you learn the notes, and then the rhythms, and as you become more comfortable with the piece, you add dynamics, and shape the phrases so it becomes a story, and you search finally for the emotion the composer was aiming for for that particular measure or section. I can also relate to the statement, “But it concerns me when the adults in a child’s life get too heavy handed about directing the child’s future” my parents got too interested with the career path I plan on pursuing, which is to become a musician, and for awhile, I really considered giving it up, because it was supposed to be “my thing.” The constant interest in the amount of time I practice and what my summer plans were supposed to consist of (going to a music program that I didn’t want to go to) was not my cup of tea. That also plays into how when someone is sort of forced into something, its not always in their best interest, like the assigned reading in school, sometimes you just have to make your own decisions when it comes to things like that.

  10. “But he also believes that stories we study in school need to be challenging and difficult.” I agree with this passage. If a story was easy and enjoyable students would not learn. If they are a tad bit difficult students will learn.
    “For me stories are how I guard against growing up, stories preserve the magic and mystery beneath the surface of life and the mundane activities that fill up much of what we call living.” I also agree with this quote. Stories are like another world that one can just image. You can create the characters and settings all in your mind.

  11. It is true that whenever given another book to read in english class my heart fills with dread and anger. The thoughts going through my mind are often that its just another book we have to read and it will not be interesting. However, when you actually open the book and take the time to read through the pages i realize how wrong i was. Each book has a story, a deeper meaning. Many of the books handed to us in school are there to teach us life lessons and to challenge our minds to look beyond the fine print. Many of the books happen to relate to situations occuring in our very lives.
    I feel that stories and art are not only here to help us express ourselves but to allow us to hold on to our youth. As teenages we are so anxious to grow up and live on our own. However, once this day comes when we are adults and have responsibilities, we will once again wish for something else; to be young again. Stories allows us to travel back to the days of our childhood. We are able to open our minds and restore our childhood.

  12. I completely agree that students automatically feel that books assigned in school are bound to be boring. Too quickly they judge the text before they actually try reading it. Most students just briefly skim the book, just enough to pass an exam, never really getting the gist of the story. I feel that if they would just give the book a chance they may surprisingly find it to be enjoyable. Most of the books read in school are easy to relate to which causes some comfort for the readers. They also teach important lessons and values which will be useful for both the present and future.
    I also feel that books are a way for people to restore their youth. I feel as though they exercise the readers mind forcing them to think of new situations and possibilities that were never thought of before. Books also force their readers to use their imagination which many seem to lose as they get older. This little bit of creativity in ones mind can be quite rejuvenating.

  13. I am deeply bothered by the segment of the introduction in which a certain type of people is discussed. These particular people are those that have a “whatever will be, will be” attitude. With utmost passion, I firmly believe that one must set goals for themselves, and aspire to achieve those goals. I feel that those goals should be the number one priority in a person’s life simply because the goals belong to them. A person’s goals make them who they are. Acting passively, and simply allowing life to take its course is the lazy way out.
    Quite honestly, I also feel as though students judge any printed material handed to them. Students carry a certain perception in which they believe anything assigned to be completely out of their interest. Little does the majority of students know, a required reading just may spark their interest in the end. I never thought I would enjoy a single book assigned in my entire high school career until I was handed a novel by Sarah Dessen. Her book, Dreamland, allowed me to realize my true interests. I gained an insight to what types of books appeal to me, as well as learned that books assigned in school have the potential to fulfill these interests if only I give them a chance.

  14. I think that there is a delicate line between analyzing a book to find the lessons and ideas hidden in the story, and analyzing a book to the point where you forget about the story all together because you are reading too far into it. I think that sometimes teachers are so concerned with stressing the lessons and ideas that they do not realize how much they are analyzing a book and how they are taking away from the story. Books read in school do need to be challenging so that lessons can be learned, but they also need to be enjoyable to some degree. Many students do not read any books for fun because of the number of books that are assigned in school and how the books read in school have given them the impression that all books are focused on lessons and style or rhetorical analysis. I think that students should be given the choice of one book they want to read for credit. This means that they get school credit but they get to pick the book. This encourages students to find books that appeal to them and realize all the options out there. Books can teach a lot of lessons but not when students refuse to read them because they think that the book is long or boring.

  15. I agree that it is important for students to find books for themselves, things that resonate with them. I think in school students are exposed to books they would not expose themselves to but that have value and need to be known, it is part of knowing our culture. It is difficult finding the balance, though.

    J. D. Wilson, Jr.

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