When I was a kid, I “played school” in my basement with the kids on my street. It was the late 70s and my mom had access to one of the old copy machines which, I remember, made the whole aspect of being Pretend Teacher so much cooler because, well, I could make WORKSHEETS for everyone! Not everyone appreciated the worksheets as much as I did, especially after the chemical smell wore off these glorious, purple-texted mimeographs. And, occasionally, others wanted to run the class. Those who know me would not be surprised to hear that I rarely let anyone else be Pretend Teacher. It’s true, I can be a little bossy.
Fast forward to the early 90s and a variety of interesting Pretend Teacher assignments (AKA Student Teaching) including a high school in inner-city Cleveland where the kids were brazen enough to smoke pot right outside the entrance at the faculty parking lot and a junior high on the west side in a narrow-minded, working class neighborhood where I learned that yelling at 7th graders all day long was, at least, an effective strategy for some teachers.
Then, 2 years of difficult and uninspired Pretend Teaching (subbing) and one year Pretending that I knew what I was doing, working with at-risk teens in, essentially, a life skills kind of classroom, before I left education wondering what on earth I was thinking in the first place. I remained a “teacher” of sorts, however, working in after school and summer youth programs, as well as having a great experience as a private nanny where I was able to bring my first son to work. But, strangely now that I’d become a mom, all my ideas about both teaching and learning started to change…
Once you are a parent, you cannot Pretend anymore. Well, you can try I suppose, but it won’t work. At least not for long. And, it’s not that fun.
I had all sorts of other ideas about what to write today but, then, at an art show in Philadelphia yesterday, a young, twenty-something came into my booth and went right to the six children’s books I’ve written and illustrated. It was the end of the day and I was kinda out of steam but she looked like she wanted to tell me something so I went over to her. She explained to me that she was a teacher and that she loved books. Really? What grade? Second-grade… at a private school… a Friends school. She was looking at my first book, I Love The Night, and, after about 3 pages she slapped it shut abruptly, put it back on the shelf, looked at me, smiled and said, “if I get tired of reading it, then it’s too long for my class.”
I hardly knew what to say. So, I just raised my eyebrows and said, “well, OK,” in that way that you would say it if someone just said something completely absurd and you hardly knew what to say.
“Well,” she continued, “you know what I mean… ‘cuz, if they like it, they’re just gonna want to hear it over and over again.”
I posted this on my Facebook and have 17 replies so far (not bad for a status thread). My creative friends commiserated with me on the amazingly rude things that people will say to an artist–or to anyone, for that matter. But, a few of the posters immediately got why this teacher has it so wrong. As is generally the case, every good response formed in my mind hours later rather than on the spot. Here is what I could have, would have, and should have said to this teacher:
It would be wrong to say that you have to be a parent to be a good teacher. But, any parent will tell you that, while reading and re-reading the same book can be tedious for grownups and our oh-so-mature minds, the time frame in which you will hear a young child squeal the words read it again comes and goes like the blink of an eye. There will be a day, one day, and you won’t know when, where those words will be said for the very last time in that child’s life and, sadly, we adults won’t even be able to acknowledge it because we’ll be too focused on getting them to read a big, long chapter book about which they can sit down to a computer screen and tap out an expository report. Tragically, this is happening much too soon all across America.
The American writer, Verlyn Klinkenborg, whose NY Times columns consist of some of the most lyrical meditations on rural life, says of children and their penchant for re-reading, “The love of repetition seems to be ingrained in children. And it is certainly ingrained in the way children learn to read — witness the joyous and maddening love of hearing that same bedtime book read aloud all over again, word for word, inflection for inflection. Childhood is an oasis of repetitive acts, so much so that there is something shocking about the first time a young reader reads a book only once and moves on to the next. There’s a hunger in that act but also a kind of forsaking, a glimpse of adulthood to come.” Because, for goodness sakes, all grownups know that re-reading a book we’ve already read is just wasting time… especially when we have worksheets to do, problems to solve and tests to prepare for.
But what if re-reading something you love is like a good friendship, like your favorite kind of food that you never get tired of tasting, like a painting you want to look at again and again, or your favorite song that you could hear over and over for the rest of your life? All kinds of wonderful things are happening inside your brain when you love what you are experiencing, even if it is for the second, fifth or hundredth time, things that make learning meaningful and Real, not Pretend. Plenty of people much, much smarter than I am have studied this for some time now. Do a little googling on the power of the hippocampus and you will see what I mean.
Finally, young teacher, I want to tell you that being with kids, especially young kids (second graders are, after all, only 7 years old!), means you really can’t Pretend at this whole teaching business; I’ve tried and I’m here to tell you it won’t work and you’ll burn out. But, the trick to understanding how to be Real, perhaps, is knowing how to meet them where they are sometimes, not just where you are. It means that maybe you can’t just Pretend to enjoy what you are doing, you might actually have to get right in there and figure out that crazy connection between people who meet in the middle, 25 or so of whom are narcissistic little read-againers who live each day as the star, at the center of their own universe, with absolutely no sense of time or responsibility. Artists who are successful in their work, be it visual, written, performance or whatever, call this meeting in the middle connecting with the audience and I believe it can have some amazing results, not the least of which is a loyal following. Even Murray’s character, the horrible, self-centered weatherman, Phil Connors, chooses to explore how re-living the same day over and over again offers up a rare opportunity for the glorious rather than the tedious. And, he finds out, this is exactly what wins the girl.
Because the truth is that I’ve encountered way too many people holding swatches of their sofas up to my paintings, way too many people who don’t buy my art because they think they can make it themselves, way too many people who, for whatever reason, don’t connect with my work but still say whatever rude thing is in their mind, to feel hurt by what you’ve said. The truth is that when I hear someone tell me a Real story about how their child can’t go to sleep each night without my book being read to them, then I have been as Real as I know how to be. Because I write for kids, not for grownups, and the read it again moment is precisely the one I am looking for.
It’s autumn again, friends. And it’s beautiful. Again.
TRY THIS WEEK: The next time you have to complete the most boring, tedious task you have in your life, stop and find one positive thing within it.