Tuesday, August 14, 2012

See Spot. See Jane. See - ARGH! Clang! Clang! Clang!

I was considered a not-normal kid. My head was shaped like a light-bulb, for one thing. A Filipina I know once gasped when she saw a picture of me at nine weeks old. "American babies have big heads!" she told me, the implication being she hoped to never squeeze out such a deformed thing.

I think she half-believed me when I told her my parents bought me a little toy wagon so I could roll my head around in it, and that there was a well-known American fairy-tale about a village idiot who had a huge potato for a head, which caused him to keep falling out of his father's cart.

Then there were the problems with the robot and submarine and rocket launcher. Parents used to ban me from their yards. The rocket launcher was what did it. If I had just launched rockets from a pad on the ground, straight up into the air, perhaps that would have been acceptable, even if it was in my backyard. Launching them from a cardboard bazooka on my shoulder was not, especially since I figured out the fins on the rocket were supposed to be angled, which caused the projectile to spin, thereby increasing the distance and sending it across several yards. They're lucky I never figured out how to put an M-80 fire-cracker grenade in the nose.

These days, the cops probably would Taser me, followed by the courts sending me to some sort of Brave New World "therapy" that would involve the modern-day Soma that goes by the name "Ritalin."

It's pretty obvious I wasn't a good fit in school. This occurred to me in the first grade, when I was introduced to Dick and Jane and Spot and Pony. "See Dick. See Jane. See Spot. Run Spot run!" I daydreamed about sticking firecrackers up Spot and Pony's noses, which I thought would make huge gouts of smoke blow out of their nostrils, like dragons. That would have made them run, by golly.

In some ways I was an awful kid, even if I didn't look like one. I spent most of my time in school daydreaming, and as a result, my report cards were full of comments from the teachers. I still have those reports, even today. One consistent comment was, "Bobby is not paying attention in class. . .and he has such potential!"

Naw, I wasn't paying attention. Instead, at six years old, I was dreaming I was Commando Cody, who was a pre-Rocketeer with a helmet, a way-cool black leather jacket with controls on his chest, and a jetpack on his back. If I remember correctly, he even flew to the Moon once in that getup. And he had a pistol, a .45, I believe.

To this day, I believe those Dick and Jane readers are mostly what did me in. I did not like to read back then, and I think it was because of them. They were not only boring, they were excruciatingly boring, and so was nearly everything else throughout my years in school. Not liking to read is a little odd, because I started to teach myself to read when I was four.

Fortunately, when I was 11 years old, I found a tattered, falling-apart ACE 1963 copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Fighting Man of Mars ("Hidden Menace on the Red Planet"), and boom!, just like that, I was changed forever. I immediately understood the importance of imagination, and how the purpose of school is to, however unwittingly, destroy it

I remember thinking, whoa, what is this book? Gigantic Martian-eating apes, with six arms?! Cackling Mad Scientists? Huge spiders, with fangs? Heroes, villains, damsels in distress? Sword fights, disintegrator rays, invisibility cloaks? Battles galore, in warships floating in the sky? Wow! I was in a tizzy. I had never experienced anything like this. I was in awe, a condition I describe as a combination of love and wonder and fear. And I liked it.

Why, I wondered, wasn't I given stuff like this to read when I was six, instead of Dick and Jane? I don't care if they went on adventures with Spot and found a toad in the bushes, that was nothing compared to Tan Hadron of Hastor using his sword to defend the woman he loved from the insane cannibals of U-Gor!

Years later, when I started reading fairy tales, I was surprised to find the ones that aren't bowdlerized (which are the ones most people are familiar with) are blood-thirsty horror stories. In the unexpurgated "Cinderella," for example, her sisters cut off parts of their feet to try to make them fit into the slipper (which points out what greedy people will do for money and power and fame). You'll never see that in a Walt Disney film -- and Walt admitted he knew he was altering the original tales.

I was puzzled about these old children's stories. These are what adults in the past read to kids? And I got Dick and Jane and their boring white-bread lives in the suburbs, with their parents dressed like Ward and June Cleaver in a suit and tie, and pearls?

But weren't kids supposed to be kept innocent as long as possible? Weren't they supposed to not know about awful things like violence and battles and swords and guns and death and destruction and romance and even--yuck--kissing? Wouldn't these terrible stories give them nightmares and permanently damage their tender six-year-old psyches?

Well, it seems to me that Dick and Jane and all the rest of those innocent boring stories are what damaged me. Those blood-thirsty stories with the sword fights and all the killings not only didn't damage me, they introduced me to a world of wonder I didn't know existed, one so amazing I actually felt grateful about my luck. And if there is one (actually three) thing(s) I am absolutely convinced is an inherent component of happiness, it's gratitude and appreciation, and the humility that comes from those two qualities.

What's worse -- being bored all the time as a kid in school, or having an occasional nightmare, if that nightmare is the price of being introduced to wonder and amazement and awe? Personally, I'll take the nightmare. I'm an adult, and I still have nightmares. Only now, the only regular one I have is about being stuck in high school on the last day and not being allowed to graduate. They're so bad they wake me up.

I've never woken up from the Mad Scientist Phor Tak chasing me with a disintegrator pistol, or a huge spider gnashing its fangs and running after me down a valley. Not yet, at least.

If stories for kids are boring, kids certainly aren't going to want to read. And if they don't read, then they can't take much advantage of all the knowledge available in literature. That's saying bye-bye to all the accumulated wisdom of the human race. So, in order for children's stories to be interesting and exciting, they have to contain all that "awful" stuff. On top of that, kids like the stuff.

As an experiment, read some dumbed-down stories to young children, and then read some of the real fairy tales, and watch how they react. I've done this many times. They quickly get bored with the first, but always remain fascinated by the second. And they want more, even if they don't fully understand everything.

I remember the first time I read "The Little Match Girl" to some kids who were less than five. I've never seen such looks on their faces before. They learned about pity and mercy and horror from that story, about how lucky they were to have parents and a home and warmth and enough to eat, unlike the Little Match Girl. And such things are why those stories are so important, because kids learn to deal with all sides of life in the safety of their imaginations.

Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of  Enchantment, claimed fairy tales and similar  stories were necessary for children because they  allowed them to work through various feelings they  all had. I won't go so far as to agree with his  Freudian interpretation, but I understand his point. I am reminded of that modern-day mythic movie, A Christmas Story, in which Raphie has to deal with bullies, boring school, a nutcase for a little brother, a harried mother, a goodhearted but somewhat dense father, and the various problems all kids have to deal with.

Eric Rabkin agrees with Bettelheim, commenting upon the importance of the storytelling function in his book, The Fantastic in Literature. He explains that the cruelty in fairy tales indeed can be beneficial to children because "they can see danger handled safely and symbolically and thus, their own fears can be mastered."

We are never going to see truly interesting and educating stories for kids in the schools. If kids came home and told their parents about about those great stories they were being told -- the old fairy tales -- some of them would throw fits and call the schools right then. To which I say: bah. You have no idea what you're doing.

I see no solution to any of these problems except to get rid of the government schools. Unfortunately, private schools aren't going to be any better if they imitate the government schools. But at least they'll stand a chance, something that's never going to happen in do-gooder-feel-good bureacracy-crushed schools run by the gooberment.

It has now become a truism that every time the government gets involved in something, it doesn't make it better; it makes things worse. These days, nearly everyone complains about the schools, and what all these schools have in common is that they are "public" -- read "government run" -- schools.

Most of these schools seem to have become masters at making kids hate them. Most kids see their time in them as a prison sentence to be served. I sure did, which is why about the only thing I learned in high school was how to make a bong out of a coffee pot.

What kids learn is to dislike school, and, quite often, reading and learning. As for me, if I could go back and do it over again, I'd take the wonder and awe and fear and cruelty instead of Dick and Jane and Spot chasing that stupid toad. I think most kids would, too.

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