Sunday, May 11, 2014

Birthday logic

Another birthday has gone by, mercifully unnoticed. However, as I get older (and I am certainly doing that), I find that I appreciate the example and spirit of children more and more. I am fortunate in that I have an eleven year old, a fact which keeps me in touch with young children. I started, and mentor, a literary magazine at his school, and I work closely with the children in its preparation and publishing. We meet at lunchtime once a week, and, while in production, I spend hours with them at weekends. Doing so is more than enjoyable and rewarding; it is inspiring. This year, from a student body of some 330 children, we had over 1000 submissions, and reading them and discussing them with our staff of middle-schoolers was a real joy.

The imagination and native creativity of children far surpass those of most adults, whose consciousness has been narrowed and cowed by the exigencies of daily life and work. Somerset Maugham said that the writer is the only truly free person. Children are the free-est of the writers. Their imaginations can fly to any height or mold themselves to any conceivable (or inconceivable) shape or logic. They are as unrestrained as seagulls, or as the butterflies which seem to fascinate them so, and about which they often write.

This year, for example, we had a first grader who was asked to write about his fears. He stated that he feared only two things: swimming, "because it takes so much power," and... super-massive black holes. How he put those two things together defeats me, though I suppose both are powerful threats, one from the Rose Bowl aquatics center, and the other from interstellar space.

Another first grader wrote about the first Thanksgiving. The winter was so bad, she declared, that "only fifty-two and a half Pilgrims survived." Now, I suspect that I have met the descendants of that half-Pilgrim: they are liberals. And a pre-K child, perhaps four years old, wrote, as so many do, about butterflies; yet in her single paragraph essay, she managed to take the subject from monarchs to megalodons, a kind of pre-historic great white shark, apparently without any mental strain. I submit that no adult writer could have achieved this feat; certainly not with the ease and grace of logic that she exhibited.

Tolstoy famously asked: Shall we teach the children to write, or will they teach us? To me, the answer is obvious: we must go to school to them. However, I fear, we grown-up writers are far too wise, and life and our craft have made our imaginations far too ossified, to allow us to slip back gracefully into the fluid logic of the child. And literature is the worse for that.