How We Flunked Story Time

may_28_6968_frog_tadpole “Story time saved my sanity.” Thus proclaimed a friend with children much younger than mine. She gushed to me how much her family loves the library, and especially the children’s programs.

This sent my mind into a reminiscence of my own family history. I didn’t reveal to her my shameful secret. But I will confess it here. When my daughter was three and my son a newborn, our family flunked out of story time. At the very library where I now work.

It had to do with the green paper circles. Lily pads you might call them if you were a story time lady presenting a tale about frogs. Or, if you were my then 3-year-old daughter, you might call them wall dots, green steering wheels, round green hats, or frisbees. In her eyes, the possibilities were endless.

“Let’s sit on our lily pads little frogs, while we hear a story!” prompted the cheerful story time lady. 10 or 11 out of the group of 11 or 12 little frogs obediently criss-cross apple sauced on their lily pads.

“Frogs sit *on* their lily pads, not *under* them,” said the story time lady, still cheerfully.

“Mine’s a hat!” said my three-year-old, also cheerfully.

“Okay, well, let’s get the story started,” said the story time lady, gamely.

As the other children were doing the finger plays, my daughter was driving us to the store with the steering wheel that had been so thoughtfully provided. “I’ll drive since you’re holding the baby,” she whispered to me.

“Remember to sit on your lily pads,” prompted the story time lady, a little sternly, as the story ended and she prepared to begin a song. This time she was looking at me, a look that told me I was allowing my kid to Set a Bad Example, and I should begin enforcing the story time rules like a Good Mother.

But she’s not being disruptive, I thought back at her. She only whispered once, right in my ear. If I argue with her, that will be disruptive.

I don’t remember the song, probably something to do with amphibians. I remember I sang along, while wearing a green paper hat, held on my head by my kid. It was only fair that I have a turn, after all. See, I had taught my child about taking turns and sharing. Not a total loser mom, huh?

As a finale, there was a second song. And the kids were allowed more action this time, hopping, a little, in place, on cue. Or in one case, doing a small interpretive dance – The Dance of the Green Circle. My inner being was divided between mortification and fierce pride. I know which side the story time lady came down on, as she threw in an extra demonstration of the proper form of hopping.

As the program ended and parents left hand-in-hand with their children, I saw some other families grouping together, comparing this experience with story times of other weeks. Apparently they had a story time clique. Their offspring had been in training since birth. And here I thought I could bring in my wild child starting at the advanced age of three and have her fit in.

Said child, meanwhile, now that she was allowed to move around and talk freely, was pointing out to me all of the things you could do with a circle of green paper. You could decorate a wall with it. You could tuck in the top of your shirt in back and have a round superhero cape. You could hide your face behind it to play peek-a-boo with a baby. You could use it as a baby blanket. After a minute, my mixed feelings coalesced into amazement at my kid’s mind and attitude – that she could be so excited and could see so many possibilities in circle of paper.

I glanced around at the other families, with their conforming kids, who would have fit right in on that planet in “A Wrinkle in Time” – the one where the children bounced their balls at the exact same time on the exact same schedule every day. Suddenly, they seemed a little, hmmm, soulless might be the word? Those poor moms and dads, seeing the limitations of their merely adequate children exposed in the bright illumination cast by the creative genius shining from my daughter. Yeah, I couldn’t put them through that again.

We’d stick to our informal weekly playgroup and leave the organized story times for those others. I imagined the librarian in charge of the program that day thinking of us as “not story time material.” I suppose some people might look at it as having failed, and at times I have looked at it that way, too, wondering why my kid has such a hard time getting with the program. But I prefer think of it more as not a good fit. See how non-judgmental I’m being about the others’ rigidity and lack of imagination?lilypad

The same dynamic would continue to play out in public school as the years went on. My older kid often had “better” ideas than the teacher about how an assignment should be done. Some teachers loved this and used it to advantage. In those classes, my child learned a lot and accomplished some remarkable creative achievements. Others instructors – I call them lily pad teachers – lived by the philosophy “Rubrick uber alles!” My offspring showed a marked failure to thrive in those classrooms.

I never have completely sorted out my feelings. No, I don’t think the school should have to convert any of their computers from qwerty to Dvorak because one kid think it works better. (Pick your battles, child.) But yes, I do think my then-10th-grader should have been given extra credit instead of a zero on that world history report for having gone so far above and beyond in research and effort, in having a desire to do something that wasn’t a rehash of every other paper that had been written in the same classroom for the past decade.

Eventually the little frog grew strong enough to hop its way out of the public school pond and forge its own path to college, via self-study and a GED. Have I mentioned the college major? – Fisheries and Wildlife. Lack of preschool success at frogdom notwithstanding. I guess it didn’t go on the permanent record.


A Tale of Two Classrooms.

It was the best of educational experiences. It was the worst of educational experiences. It was a time in which a student could get an A on her English assignment for writing her “how-to” paper on the subject of How to Begin Your Secret Mission. It was a time in which a student could get no credit at all for writing a paper in World History with the assigned topic of “Ancient Greek Mythology” because she went beyond the rubric when she explored the sociological aspects and explained why the myths made sense in the context of the culture, when they can seem so nonsensical today. It was a time in which English teachers were lauded and World History teachers reviled within certain households. Creativity was nurtured and creativity was punished; individuality was encouraged and rigid conformity was enforced. Students were going directly on to brilliant college success because of their abilities to stretch their minds; students were headed to a life selling cigarettes at QuikMart because of their inabilities to follow directions to the letter. It was an American girl’s sophomore year in high school. The two classrooms were in the same building, but may as well have been on different planets.

Does any of this sound familiar? If you have a child in public school, I’ll bet it does. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from seeing my kids go through the school system, it’s that the administration can be good, bad or indifferent, and so can the curriculum. But it’s the classroom teacher who makes the most difference between a good educational experience and a bad one. If you’ve had a good teacher, remember to thank him or her.

Those are my thoughts for today.


We Need Our Imaginary Friends

I’ll get around to the imaginary friends in a few lines, but let me explain what put me on the subject by providing a glimpse from a day in my life:

I’m home from work with the worst cold I can ever remember having (or maybe it’s the flu), wondering what it would be like to be able just to take care of myself when I’m sick. Because, of course, my son is also sick, so I’ve been getting food and drink and tissues and otc meds for him. You know, after helping my daughter through the daily crisis that is finding everything she needs to wear or carry to school with her. Also, I have a shoulder injury I’m treating, so I have to make time to ice my shoulder. And I’m trying to overcome my winter blues with one of those special lights, so I have to work in time for sitting by it. Deploying my brilliant multi-tasker abilities, I decide I can do ice pack and SAD light at the same time.

I’m coping. I get my daughter off to school, my son supplied with what he needs, and by 9:00 a.m.,I’m sitting by the SAD light with an ice pack on my shoulder, tissues and cough drops near at hand, when the phone rings. I consider not answering it, but pick up the receiver anyway. I soon realize the Beat poets were right – “First though best thought.” I should have let it ring. It’s the outreach counselor from my daughter’s high school, calling to check in, see how things are going for us, investigate whether we have a family history of schizophrenia…

My daughter is a high school freshman and, like her mom, a writer. She’s working on her second novel. How cool is that? She’s been meeting with a group of other young authors and acting very writerly. She has a muse, whom she has named. He doubles as a protagonist in some of her stories.

I get it. Her writers’ group gets it. He’s her muse. But she made the mistake of being both honest and creative at school. She let them find out about her muse, even calling him by name. The counselor wanted to know if I was aware that my teen has an imaginary friend and how abnormal that is for someone her age. Obviously he didn’t get the difference.

When my daughter was about seven, she asked me if I’d had imaginary friends when I was little. I told her “I still do. Only now I call it writing fiction.” I’ve written one novel (I need to catch up with the whippersnapper) and many short fiction pieces. What am I doing other than committing to paper the lives of the imaginary people in my head?

AL Kennedy has a great article in the Guardian addressing this topic. She says:
“And then there are the people we make up. Yes, should you watch me writing (for what I could only say would be singularly twisted reasons) I may look as if I’m a bit glum: hunting and pecking away and then staring. And I will have no visible accompaniment. Oh, but inside, dear reader – the writer is in minds, under skins, on roads untravelled, anywhere and everywhere and more. The intensity with which a writer can inhabit a character can make good old reality seem a little bit flat without the use of mental discipline and a will to observe. We have more company than some people will ever know.” Read the whole thing; it’s well worth the time.

Writer Ann Marie Gamble has written recently about her muses, including their names and personalities:

The more I think about it, the more I believe most people, of whatever age, have at least one “imaginary friend.”   Dear Diary, Today I made the decision about my college major. To whom are you speaking if you write something like that? Does the piece of paper care? Imaginary friend alert! Ever stand in front of the mirror singing into a hairbrush microphone while the imaginary crowd cheers? Yeah, I thought so. Ever practice a speech beforehand for the imaginary audience that precedes a real one? Mmm hmm. How many people do you know who regularly carry on conversations with loved ones who have died? I know a lot.

I’ve heard some atheists claim that God is an imaginary friend for adults. I’ve heard the same about guardian angels. Some cultures have a widespread belief in animal spirit guides; other people think they don’t exist. For the religious who believe in God or the spirit world, you could turn that on its head and say that the reaching out to a diary, a muse, whatever, is really reaching out for God or the spirits or whatever. From any angle, it seems to me that most of us have a longing, even a need, for the other who isn’t.

Noam Chomsky once said “It is quite possible–overwhelmingly probable, one might guess–that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology.”  I agree with him. Humans use stories to make sense of our lives, always have. Those imaginary people teach us so much.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert gave an excellent talk at TED about creativity. Check out the part where she discusses the ancient Greek and Roman ideas of a genius as a separate entity from the artist. It starts at about the 6:00 mark.

Scientific psychologists who ignore or discount the creative process and the imaginary friends who assist with it, do so at the peril of their own understanding of human nature. As I roll it around in my mind, I find myself more concerned about people who’ve never had imaginary friends. It doesn’t seem normal somehow.