What We Put Away

The Janitor’s Boy
Natalie Merchant/Nathalia Crane

What We Put Away

A Children’s Puppet Show
Liu Songnian

St. Paul in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians says, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” What are those things we put away when we pass from childhood to adulthood? In the painting above some children are putting on a puppet show. These might be considered childish things, though there are those that manipulate puppets to entertain adults. The Japanese playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon wrote some of his most famous plays to be performed by puppets. Granted Chikamatsu’s plays probably dealt with more serious subjects than those found in the children’s puppet plays, still the play of children often imitates the behavior of the adults that surround them and the same may be true of the plays their puppets perform.

The song is from a collection of songs by Natalie Merchant that puts mostly children’s poetry to music. The song The Janitor’s Boy revolves around children seeking to find a place for themselves in an adult world, even if it is an uninhabited corner of the adult world. Perhaps the putting away of childish things revolves around working at being an adult as opposed to playing at being an adult, though I am not entirely sure if it is the child or the adult that is doing the playing much of the time. But for children it is a game of “let’s pretend” while for adults it is making ends meet and fulfilling very real obligations and responsibilities.

There was an article recently in the Guardian about the 70th anniversary of the children’s book label, Puffin Books; “Puffin marks 70 years by celebrating best ever books.” The article identifies what Puffin Books regards as their seventy best titles in a number of different categories. Many of these books are also adult books, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, and Dracula. I remember reading when I just got out of high school that in England Moby Dick was regarded as a book for children, yet it is studied very seriously by adults who seem to be of the opinion the book was written with an adult audience in mind. Of course this line of thought might seem to suggest that the things we do and read as children are all childish, which is probably not the case. We do not put away everything we had as children, nor change all the behaviors we had as children, only the “childish” things and the “childish” behaviors. Perhaps an essential ingredient of maturity is the ability to recognize those qualities of our youth that should be preserved and brought with us into adulthood.

Three Laughing Men by the Tiger Stream
Song painting in the Litang style

The three men in the painting are a Taoist, a Confucian, and a Buddhist. They were so engrossed in a conversation that they did not realize they were passing through a bit of land infested by tigers and as a result were unafraid. After crossing the bridge and realizing what has happened they laugh together. The painting is meant to suggest that the three religions practiced by the three men were truly one religion, I guess because the intensity of their beliefs as they discussed them actually protected them from harm. It might also be because that each in his own worldview saw the same event as funny and they all laughed in unison, and this laughter is what unifies them. The Bible mentions on one occasion that Jesus wept, but it does not explicitly say that he laughed. I like to believe this is because laughter was such a regular part of his life that it did not need mentioning. Perhaps the reason why Aristotle’s treatise on comedy was lost while his treatise on tragedy survives is because we need less help understanding the comic side of life and enter into it with greater relish, though there are those that see laughter as a superficial thing that lacks seriousness, who regard it as one of the childish things, though I would like to believe this view is less prevalent today than it was once upon a time.

Baby at Play
Thomas Eakins

Perhaps one of the childish things we leave behind is the seriousness of play. In the paintings above and below we see children playing. The adults watch the children play at the beach but seem a bit restrained in their play, they certainly are not dressed to enjoy the water as zealously as the children. There are those in modern education that tell us we must prepare children for the world of work and behind that exhortation there seems to be a suggestion that the world of play must give way to the world of work, that work is real and play is frivolous. As a teacher I am one of the ones this exhortation is aimed at and I feel a bit conflicted about how to embrace this exhortation. For me, my work is a kind of play, not all the time, but much of the time and I would feel a bit of a fraud if I were to suggest the world of work and play cannot intersect. I think the most successful adults are those that have managed to convince others to pay them for what they would do for free.

At the Beach
Edward Henry Potthast

It is difficult to know at what point we go from being children to being adults. In many religions there is a ritual that is supposed to inaugurate our passage from one state to the other, but it is doubtful that maturity is a byproduct of ritual; it is more likely that the ritual serves to remind us that society’s attitude towards us and expectations of us have changed. But the passage of time by itself does not make us more mature, more “adult.” It is one of the goals of a teacher to help students not only gain a set of skills and abilities but to put them on a path towards wisdom and responsible adulthood. But what are the childish things that get put away? What is it that I, as a teacher, am trying to help my students leave behind?

Many of the behaviors we label as childish are behaviors we do not want to loose entirely. I want to approach the world as an adult with a sense of wonder, but “too much wonder” might border on naiveté and foolishness. I do not want to loose my playfulness but being “too playful” might be another sign of immaturity. I think that coming of age does not necessarily mean leaving certain behaviors behind so much as establishing boundaries and limits for those behaviors. It is, perhaps, recognizing the difference between a leader and a bully, between good cheer and flippancy, perhaps between a Mr. Micawber or Mr. Skimpole and a Joe Gargery. I often tell people that the passage of time makes me grow older but no power on earth can make me grow up and I think there is some truth to this. We have no say in the passage of time, but we do play a part in the shaping of our own characters.

Walt Disney Pictures

The film is about a puppet that wants to be a boy and it chronicles his passage from being an animated toy to becoming a mature young child. The film is basically about the quality of the choices he makes and how he learns from experience. Pinocchio as he grows wiser does not give up play, he does not stop doing things that give him pleasure and enjoyment, he succeeds where many “real boys” fail because he learns from his mistakes, he becomes less foolish as the story progresses and wiser in the ways he plays. Perhaps this is what we all aspire to, to hold on to our capacity to have fun and to enjoy life; that though we may never become wise we, like Pinocchio, may succeed at becoming less foolish.

Playing Children
Su Han Ch’en


Leaving Home

Child’s Song
Tom Rush

Leaving Home

“Brunnhilde lies asleep, surrounded by magical fire”
Arthur Rackham

The song is about leaving home and the emotions it evokes as well as the concerns. The painting is in a sense about a father throwing his daughter out of the house. Brunnhilde has disobeyed her father and her father, Odin, the chief of the Norse pantheon of gods, punishes her by putting her to sleep and surrounding her resting place with a ring of fire. The story is a “sleeping beauty” story in that she is ultimately awakened by a kiss from Siegfried who braves the fire to rescue her.

For some leaving home involves leaving the house and for others it involves being thrown out of the house. Either way it is difficult. But starting out on one’s own is always about facing the future. There was an article in the Guardian, “Arthur C Clarke and the end of upbeat futurology,” about the futurists of the mid to late 20th century, especially the futurist Arthur C. Clarke. The gist of the article is that for Clarke and others like him and all that followed him the future was full of promise and optimism. There were amazing things that were going to be accomplished by the century’s end, most of which did not come to pass. What is especially disturbing about this is that I grew up in a world where anything was possible and the world that is being given to the next generation seems to be one in which little of consequence is possible. I wonder if children growing up today are as excited about the world they are moving into as I was about the world I was moving into when I was a child.

The Flying Carpet (Ivan Tsarevich with the Firebird on a magic carpet)
Viktor Vasnetsov

Part of the optimism and excitement I felt about the world came from the stories I read. I read a lot of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne and other writers of science fiction. Of course Wells’ view of the world was not always a positive view, his most famous novels were about things going wrong, an island with a mad scientist playing games with genetics, alien invasions, and an invisible man who was not motivated by kindness. One story I remember especially well was called “The Magic Shop” about a child with magical powers controlling mom and dad. The child was a malevolent child who was not making the world into a happy place, For children who often feel powerless there may be a delicious irony in the way tables are turned in the story, but the story was not really a happy one and its ending, even to a child enjoying the tables being turned, is disturbing.

But other writers presented a magical world like that of the paintings of the flying carpet. As the article points out, Arthur Clarke believed that “advanced technology (would be) indistinguishable from magic.” Our stories today still have magic but it is unrelated to technology, magic has been put back into the realm of fantasy and taken out of the real world. I enjoyed the stories of flying carpets and exotic places that could only be visited in the imagination, but I was also excited about a world in which some of that magic would be realized. Perhaps it is important to not only teach our children to dream but to give them a realistic hope that dreams can be realized, not just the dreams of a happy and successful life and the ability to set and realize goals, but the ability to believe in dreams of a wiser world with a more active imagination.

Flying Carpet
Viktor Vasnetsov

Of course these new worlds that we dreamed of when I was child were often a bit “Utopic” in that they imagined a world in which science made life more just, less painful, and more pleasant for all. Of course these are not things science can deliver and one person’s Utopia is another person’s prison. Much of life is about giving up things we would like so that others can have things they need, whether that is in a marriage where one does what the other desires from time to time, or in a nation where each part gives up something to the greater good of the whole. Part of learning to live well is learning to live with a certain amount of sacrifice and suffering. Stories, even those with magic carpets, often teach us that. Often the most important lesson the stories we read as children teach us is that life can be difficult and that suffering is often followed by rewards of one kind or another.

There was an article in the New York Times, “New Envoy’s Old Advice for Children: Read More,” about Katherine Paterson being made the new “national ambassador for young people’s literature.” She talks about writing the stories she does not for her children but for her own “inner child,” suggesting that the stories we tell should be stories that we would first want told to us. In the article she talks about growing up in China at the start of the Second World War and witnessing some of the things done by the Japanese in China during that war. As a result she came to hate the Japanese. Upon graduating college she was given the opportunity to go to Japan as a missionary. Her hatred was such she did not want to go. She did go. She said, “It was one of the greatest gifts of my life to be able to be in a situation and find yourself loved by people that you thought you had hated.” Her first book also came out of this experience and there is probably a lesson in that as well, it is a lesson stories often tell us, it is a lesson found, for example, in the Harry Potter stories, that those we thought were our enemies are often our friends.

Sleeping Beauty
Walt Disney Studios

Another theme often found in children’s stories is that though we are surrounded by forces that mean us harm there are other forces present that watch out for us and protect us. In the film clip Maleficent intends great harm, but there are three other spirits, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, that guard the sleeping princess. As I have grown older the stories I now read have fewer of these protective spirits and the message is that if we are to be saved we must save ourselves. It is perhaps unrealistic to expect others to come to our aid or to expect divine forces to watch over us, but often it seems that aid and comfort is to be found outside of our own resources. In the classical literature it is not unusual to find characters protected by divine forces, Odysseus is protected by Athena and Aeneas receives help from different gods and goddesses at different points in his journey. But ours is a skeptical age and we tend to believe only in those forces we can see and touch. In this sense, perhaps, the stories we tell our children instill a false sense of security.

Leaving home often begins with solitude, with finding ourselves alone and perhaps friendless. Our beliefs teach us to what extent we can depend on forces outside ourselves. For many God and the teachings of their religion are real. For others religious beliefs and practices are an intrusion that takes our focus off of the problems at hand that we alone must solve. I have my beliefs about this but that is not really the point.

I think we depend on stories to show us something of the way and to help us figure out how to live well. We all need comfort and we all need to feel cared for. That we have these needs does not mean that there are forces out there that will see to it these needs are met, but it does suggest that others have these same needs and that we have an obligation to care for our neighbor. It suggests in part that our need is met by giving what we need to others, that there is a beauty sleeping in all of us that needs to be awakened.

Sleeping Beauty
Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Rarely Pure and Never Simple

You Don’t Know Me
Ray Charles
Don Quixote, Op. 35/ Die Liebe der Danae, Op. 83
“Variation I – DQ & Sancho set out”
Richard Strauss

Rarely Pure and Never Simple

Edgar Degas

There was an article in this Sunday’s Boston Globe, “What you don’t know about your friends”, by Drake Bennett. The article reports that current research suggests that the better we know someone the less we may know about them, not that we do not know, probably, more than a complete stranger knows, but that what we think we know is often incorrect and that we attribute views to our friends that they in fact do not hold. The article also suggests that it is probably a good thing that we do not know what we think we know and that friendship, even if based on false premises, in fact even if it is only a friendship in our imagination and not in fact, still does us more good than harm. It is important that we think we are liked even if, in fact, we are not. The picture by Degas shows a couple having a drink together and probably little else. There does not seem to be reflected in either their expressions or their body language any hint of warmth one towards the other.

This painting suggests to me the relationship between Meursault and Marie in Camus’ novel The Stranger, or at least it suggests to me Meursault’s feelings toward Marie, which are for the most part dispassionate. I think Marie thinks she understands Meursault and their relationship, but the reader knows that Meursault does not really have any feelings for her. I am not sure, as the article might suggest, this is healthy for either of these characters, though the relationship is probably unhealthy for each of them for different reasons.

The song by Ray Charles also suggests that there might be something to this article. He sings that “You don’t know me” though in the opening chorus “love” is substituted for “know” the first time the line is sung. Relationships are difficult and how is one to really know what goes on inside the mind of another. In some novels that come out of the “stream of consciousness” tradition (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce comes to mind) there are passages where one character may ask a question or make a remark followed by paragraphs of internal dialog where this question or remark is analyzed before a response is made. Though it may take many minutes to read it all, in real time only a second or two has transpired. In these internal dialogues we see characters who are trying to understand each other and not really succeeding, though they seem to think they are understanding the other and being understood by the other. The reader, though, is not so sure.

The second part of the music clip is from a series of variations on a theme by Richard Strauss. This part of the music is meant to evoke Don Quixote and Sancho Panza first starting out on their quests together. The novel, Don Quixote, suggests there is great loyalty one for the other in this friendship. But it also suggests that neither really understands the other. To what extent is Sancho only humoring Don Quixote and to what extent does Don Quixote see Sancho as friend, as opposed to a servant, say? After all, Sancho is Quixote’s squire and that suggests a subservient role. Quixote thinks he is in control, but it is in fact Sancho who often acts to control the situations in which the Don’s madness lands them. I think this novel is a great testament to idealism and friendship, but it is also a satire and that idealism and friendship is often mocked, though, it is usually the wild world that leaves no room for idealism that gets the largest slice of this mockery.

Lost Boys, Wendy, Peter Pan
Alice B Woodward

When I look at this picture from the story of Peter Pan I wonder what is going through the minds of the various children. Wendy is in the position of having to play the role, more than anyone else anyway, of the grown up, which means she has less of the fun. But what about the others? Can they believe that they can remain children for always? Perhaps they do not know enough about the way the world works to know that growing up is part of the bargain. The younger we are the more magical the world is. Maria Tatar in her book The Enchanted Hunters suggests that older children when they read a story about a door opening, need a magical world on the other side of that door to hold their interest. But for very young children all the world, even its simplest and most commonplace elements, is mysterious and it is enough that there is a door and that the door opens to make magic in the child’s mind. For the infant everything is a mystery. What is a chair for, why does it look that way? Spoons, bottles, and tables are all magical objects that are fascinating and inexplicable.

I think this is true. I remember my first calculator. I was amazed at all that it could do. I could sit and add and divide, subtract and multiply and than get out a piece and be amazed when I discovered it did the calculations correctly. Not that I was that surprised, but the magic of a machine that could do these things was enchanting to me. I had once a little pocket calculator that played Fur Elise whenever I opened it up. It was machine music and there was no artistry to the sound, but it too was magical and I would open my calculator even when I had nothing to calculate, just to hear the music. Now of course, I have become jaded and see nothing all that magical about a machine that lets me visit neighborhoods on the far side of the globe and explore their streets. It’s just what machines do, what is the big deal. Still if we take the time, I think we can find in our first exposure to something new a sense of the infant’s world of wonder.

There was a review by Salley Vickers in this weekend’s Guardian, of “The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik.” The article suggests that, though they will probably not be teaching philosophy at the local university, that babies and young children are at heart philosophical and inquisitive. It is perhaps not a new notion that some of the finer qualities of the human character are intuitive in children and become trained out of them by experience, but it is pleasant to think this may be true. Gopnik does point out that children will do nasty things from time to time, but she also suggests these children realize they are being nasty and that often, given their druthers they would rather behave less badly. Whether children are or are not natural philosophers is probably not that important, but I think if the child’s sense of wonder for the world could be preserved, the grown ups might take better care of it.

Portrait of William Shakespeare
Unknown Forger

The images above and below suggest the flip side to being childlike, that is, often, gullibility and naivete. These artworks are forgeries; well the first is a forgery while the second may just be a misunderstanding. One of my favorite books is a book by Robertson Davies called What’s Bred in the Bone. It is about a man who is a gifted art forger and his story is really quite wonderful. The central character is a likeable gentleman who makes his living deceiving others. That is often how it is with con men. We see the same thing in the Robert Redford and Paul Newman characters in The Sting. We also see it in the Duke and the King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though in their case they turn into very troubling characters fairly quickly. Some think that Huckleberry Finn is a book about race relations, and that is a part of the book. But what it is really about is human cruelty. The first victim of this cruelty that we encounter is Huck himself. He has had to survive by his wits for many years and he is barely a teenager. The next is Jim, a slave. But there are other forms cruelty besides child abuse and racism. Many of the white characters are the nicest people you could want to meet if you are white, but quite dangerous and cruel if you are not.

Are we being deceived, is this a con job on the part of Twain? There are parts of the book that are very troubling. Some think that are places where Jim acts as a minstrel show character that are sloppy writing and indicative of his rush to finish the thing off. There is probably some truth to this, but also many of those minstrel moments showcase human cruelty at its worst. Tom is putting Jim’s life in peril in the game he plays. As a child he probably doesn’t understand this, but the reader does, or should. Tom’s merriment has a certain innocence about it because he does not know better, he has been brought up badly when it comes to folks like Jim, but the reader knows better and if the reader feels at all tempted to laugh or to be amused, they ought to confront the source of that amusement in themselves.

The Flammarion woodcut is an enigmatic wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888). The image depicts a man peering through the Earth’s atmosphere as if it were a curtain to look at the inner workings of the universe. The caption translates to “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…” Perhaps engrave by Camille Flammarion but not a German Renaissance woodcut

Orson Welles’ last film was F Is for Fake. It begins with Welles on the platform at a train station doing magic tricks (and as all viewers of the I Love Lucy show know, Welles began as a magician). He tells the audience that for the next hour everything they see and hear will be the absolute truth. The film, though, is about an hour and twenty minutes long and at precisely one hour into the film he stops being truthful. The film itself was inspired by a book by Clifford Irving, Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. After publishing the biography of an actual art forger he went on to publish a fake autobiography of the actual billionaire Howard Hughes. Fakery can only work if we are willing to believe the unbelievable, or at least the barely plausible. It is Satan playing three card monte with Eve in the garden, it is the king making us laugh when, impersonating a pirate, he fleeces the congregation at a revival, but it is also the king making us cry as he fleeces three helpless sisters. We like con men who con others, but do not like being conned ourselves.

Woody Allen
Jack Rollins & Charles H. Joffe Productions and United Artists

The film clip is something of a tribute to how we con ourselves and are often easily conned by others, and also about how we do not know our friends. It begins with Woody Allen confronting a friend who has betrayed him. We also find, in another part of the film, that he has been “betrayed” by an ex-wife who publishes “lies” about him, that may not be lies. I especially enjoy the confrontation between Allen and his friend with the bones of a gorilla looking on, at least I think it is a gorilla. Everything he says about how we should act toward one another is true, but at the same time Allen’s character does not seem to see that in many of his dealings with other characters he has behaved with a similar dishonesty. In his relationship with a young girl not even half his age we see at the very least a bit of self deception. This is, perhaps, not unlike Robert Redford at the beginning of The Sting pulling off an excellent “con” only to fall victim to a con himself. Even he knows he should have known better, but I am not sure that the Woody Allen character has this same insight into himself.

Where the Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak

There are always the monsters under the bed. There is a place in the psyche of us all where the wild things live. Sometimes they entertain us, sometimes they frighten us. In the story Coraline by Neil Gaimon a young girl finds a parallel universe of sorts on the other side of a locked door. The adults in Coraline’s world are not very communicative and not very aware, but they are basically kind and mean well. The adults on the other side of the door are aware but not kind. These people on the other side of the door have buttons instead of eyes, they have make believe eyes which go along with the “make believe” nature of their relationships, those they have and those they aspire to.

What makes stories meaningful to me, is that they help me replace the “buttons” I have for eyes, the make believe eyes, with a real view of the world and what it is like. But more importantly they help me see into myself and what I am like. When I wear the buttons the world is there to serve me, to give me my heart’s desire. But this is not a world where joy can be found. Selfishness is never satisfied; it is the greatest con we can play on ourselves. It enables me to substitute a forgery of myself for the real person I might become. There is an old Twilight Zone episode about aliens visiting the planet earth. They bring with them a book called How to Serve Man. The people of earth believe these aliens have come to make life on earth more pleasant; that they have come to help the human race. The book is, in fact, not a book of altruism, but a cookbook. It is important to know something about service and what it means to serve. It is also important to know if those that claim to serve us come with charity or an appetite.

When All the World Was Young

Forever Young
Bob Dylan

When All the World Was Young

The Beguiling of Merlin
Edward Burne-Jone

In her book The Enchanted Hunters Maria Tatar tells us “Words have not just the astonishing capacity to banish boredom and create wonders. They also enable contact with the lives of others and the story worlds, arousing endless curiosity about ourselves and the places we inhabit. Such passion promises to keep us, at least intellectually, forever young.” In reading time often stops, or at least it seems to. But even if time does not actually stop, in reading well the mind retains its vigor and becomes more flexible. A story, to be enjoyed and understood requires the reader to enter its world and entertain its point of view. I must read Les Miserables with the heart of a revolutionary and The Man Who Was Thursday with a fondness for the established order (though as is true with most things Chestertonian, it must be a quirky fondness). I must be able to see and embrace the world from both sides of the fence.

This does not mean I stop being myself, or that my world view changes each time I open another book, but it does mean I have to give the point of view of the story a chance to have its say. For the sake of the story the world is seen through a revolutionaries eyes or the eyes of a gentleman with conventional views. I think it is easier for readers of stories to accept people with beliefs different from their own (not that they always will of course) because somewhere along the line there has been a story where those beliefs have been entertained and where they may not have been embraced necessarily by the reader, they have been understood and appreciated and for a fictional time the world was viewed through those lenses. Rosemary Hill in her review of a new edition of Wind and the Willows mentions another story by Kenneth Grahame, “The Roman Road.” The story, she tells us, is “a conversation between a child and an adult, its message that only the artist and the child are imaginatively free.” The reader lost in a book, I think, becomes like the child in the Kenneth Grahame story, “imaginatively free.”

The painting at the top is of Merlin, King Arthur’s magician and mentor. Like Benjamin Button in the Fitzgerald story Merlin, according to some versions of the tale, was born old and grew younger. He was a man who knew from the start what it meant to be old and came to understand what it meant to be young. He is beguiled as an old man, which would make him young and inexperienced in his reverse chronology. He knows what is coming, has foreseen it, but he has lost the wisdom of age and is experiencing the passions of his youth. Perhaps his mind has become that of an adolescent enchanted by a beautiful face. I enjoy the image of Merlin growing younger. Perhaps it is the longing of an aging man for the days of his youth or maybe it is the desire to preserve an enthusiasm for living that age and experience often quench.

“One More Step, Mr. Hands” Illustration for Treasure Island
N. C. Wyeth

C. S. Lewis once said, “In reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.” I think it is also true we become a thousand ages. The painting above is an illustration from Treasure Island. When I read this story I become Jack Hawkins, or at least like him in my imagination. When I read The Catcher in the Rye I see the world through the eyes of Holden Caulfield and become a bit like him. Though both these characters are the same age they come from different ages and therefore experience the world very differently and though as the reader I am experiencing the world of a teenager, they are very different teenagers living in very different worlds. So though the “age” I become in reading each of these stories is the same age in years it is not the same age in experience. This too, keeps the mind young and active.

Nor is youth always measured in years. I often tell people that the passage of time makes me grow older, but no power on earth can make me grow up. It can be said that Scrooge is a younger man at the end of A Christmas Carol than he was at the beginning. He is a younger man than he was when Old Marley died seven years before the story begins, if youth is measured in the way we think and behave. Unlike Merlin, Scrooge was not born old, but he lost his youth at an early age and recovers it many years later. Sometimes we need stories to remind us that being childlike is not being childish and that some aspects of age are more a state of mind than of being.

Children Playing on the Beach
Mary Cassatt

The paintings above and below by Mary Cassatt capture certain aspects of the innocence of childhood, playing on a beach, listening to a story. It is the aspect of childhood captured in the two children on the beach that many want to recover when they get older. The children are engrossed in their “work” and nothing seems to distract their focus. Their work is their play and it is what many adults want their work to be. There is a great deal of what I do as a teacher that is like sitting on the beach filling my bucket with sand. It is pleasure and it is sunlight and it is the waves and the cry of gulls. Obviously my classroom is not a beach, there is much in my day that is like a day at the beach.

Auguste Reading To Her Daughter
Mary Cassatt

The young girl listening to the story has a different look, a more mysterious look. Does she like the story she hears, is she listening, or is she somewhere else in her imagination? Adults often think that children want to hear a story, want to be read to, and often this is true. But I think sometimes children, like us, want to explore on their own, do not want others tagging along on the journey. In the reading of a story, whether we are reading on our own or being read to, the journey is always an individual journey, both the reader and the listener are “reading” the same story but they do not take the same journey. None of us can live in the imagination of another, though it is likely that our paths cross.

When I go to Treasure Island the island I visit resembles the island others visit, but it is unlike anyone else’s island. The journey is a personal one and that is important to remember. As a teacher I try to encroach upon the world that has been built in the minds of my students. I try to manipulate the story, to get them to see the palm tree as I see it, but of course this cannot happen. Those that see my palm probably see it only because they either did not read of the palm tree on their own or if they did, they did not see the palm tree, only the words on the page and were waiting for someone else to tell them how to draw the picture.

Baby Herman and Roger Rabbit “Tummy Trouble”
Walt Disney Studios

When we get to the end of this little film we see that the baby is not a baby (or at least we hear the voice of an old man when the baby speaks). If there is a child in this film it is Roger Rabbit, the baby is only masquerading as a child. The adventures these two have are the adventures of childhood, with all the exaggerated situations and expressions and the sense of powerlessness a child might feel in a large world that is out of control. The humor lies in the near misses and the indestructible nature of youth. Everything is dangerous and exciting but nothing, in fact, can do any harm. When the bombs burst Roger and Herman are scorched but unhurt. It is the world that some children crave that has all of the excitement that comes from living dangerously without the pain. After surviving the explosions and the flying objects both Roger and Herman leave the set to return to a safer, saner, and less exciting world.

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a review in this weekend’s edition of The Guardian of a book of stories by Italo Calvino. The book is called The Complete Cosmicomics. The stories, according to the review are very fanciful and were not taken seriously when published because they too closely resembled science fiction and science fiction, especially in the 1960’s, was not taken seriously as literature, it still isn’t by some. But they are the stories of a childlike mind, with characters with names that cannot be pronounced having experiences that cannot happen. But that is how the comic world works. That is also how the imagination often works. In the imagination we often do the impossible, say the unsay-able.

I remember as a child I had a recurring dream where I was riding a bomb to earth (this was the late 1950’s and bombs and bomb shelters were often in the news). The dream always began just after the bomb was dropped. I would wake up frightened just before the bomb hit the ground. Then one night as I was having this dream I told myself in the dream “this is just a dream and no harm can come to you”. From that moment on I enjoyed the sensation of free fall and when the bomb hit, it was like Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman, no one got hurt. Perhaps this too is part of the comic world, the world of a “mind forever young,” where there is pain there is also resilience and nothing is hopeless.

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.