“When we were on the carpet we played hangman. When they only guessed afue letters, I guessed it and it was CONTRACTION…”
To be fair, we were learning all about contractions, and that list of ‘Common Contractions’ hanging above the blackboard didn’t really aid in the executioner’s cause. But this next word was a real doozy, and if someone didn’t guess it soon, our beloved hanging man was toast. After all, he was already grossly disfigured with four legs and six eyes; The Hawk, out of cruel sympathy for our ineptitude at guessing letters in an eleven-letter word, was perfectly content appending more body parts to the man with each ‘Z’, ‘X’, and ‘Q’ that we stupidly guessed until he more closely resembled a spider dangling from a web.
With two E’s on the board at positions two and four, I was truly overwhelmed at how many words in the English language could possibly make the match. But I gave it a go anyway.
“…and the same thing happened when we only got afue and I guessed it again and it was CELEBRATION...”
And there was indeed a celebration among the members of my class when the noose was loosened, and the four-legged man waddled away unscathed. The Hawk, though, was less than pleased. Her frown, targeted straight at me, said it all.
“...then Mrs. Hawkinson said if I keep getting it I wouldn’t play any more but she’s just joking.”
She’s just joking.
Valerie Hawkinson—lovingly dubbed “The Hawk” by her more devout first-grade disciples—was particular about many things in her classroom. But she was most particular about the manner in which her students wrote. Each entry was to be numbered at the top-center of the page, dated month-day-year in that order, indented one half of an inch, strictly illustration-less, and wholly lacking in imagination.
But if epistolary perfection was a sweet dream for The Hawk, my notebook was a nightmare. Page numbers go missing into the void and mysteriously return tens of pages later. Dates mystically warp from September 2004 to February 2016 and back again. Primitive cave drawings illustrating every facet of the six-year-old lifestyle—from the entire cast and crew of Spongebob Squarepants to a fistful of “space gook” to a detailed and clearly unrealistic schematic of an anniversary present for my parents—flank every other story.
What must have been even more unsettling for The Hawk than the format of my journal entries is the content of the writing itself. Some entries include, but are not limited to: a seven-page anthology of “Ground Hog Carrols”; a semi-accurate Hebrew-to-English transliteration of the Jewish prayer “Adon Olam”; a fully fleshed-out New Year’s Eve countdown from 100 all the way down to one; the unabridged story of Passover; and a bland recounting of a game of hangman played in class. Indeed, whenever it was time for “Centers”—a classroom activity during which the students were allowed to write in their journals—I made sure to spew recklessly each and every unchecked thought crossing my mind onto the page.
“Today is Friday. You know what that meens. Centers. And I all ready know what center I am going to go to. I’m not going to tell what. All I know is its going to be fun. Ill give you a hint? Story. That’s all the time we have today. Stay toon to find out.”
“hi. and my name is Ben. Were going to take a trip to my emagenation.”
During her surveying flight over the classroom to make sure her students were adhering to their delegated Centers tasks, it wasn’t uncommon for The Hawk to graciously provide the rest of the class with a sample of my work.
“to do that close your eyes. Now your at your birthday party. Now I want you to imagin whats at your partie. But”
During this all-too-common ritual, The Hawk would remove my journal from beneath my pencil mid-sentence, suspend it high above my head, well beyond the reach of my desperately grasping arms, and unfurl the notebook as though she were presenting a centerfold from a picture book. Then, she would bestow stylishly literal and avant-garde titles upon my masterpieces: “This is not an art class”, “Is this appropriate?”, and “This is not what you’re supposed to be writing about.” When the notebook was finally returned to my hands, the classroom silent with awe, I would often find myself inspired to take my writing in new, daring directions.
“THIS IS NOT WHAT YOUR SUPPOST TO BE LOOKING AT.”
Are there any benefits to placing limits on a first-grader’s creativity? “No,” says Shelley H. Carson, a researcher in Harvard’s psychology department and a lecturer at the Extension School. She is emphatic in her answer, as though it were a trick question. “I hope that teachers aren’t still doing that. I hope that teachers are encouraging children to use their imagination and write about what they’re imagining.”
Carson’s work focuses on the development of creativity in young children through adulthood. According to Carson, creativity often arises from breaking the rules and pairing diverse elements that wouldn’t normally be paired. It is this distinct melding of “X and Y”, Carson believes, that marks the difference between the creativity of a child and the creativity of an adult. “Teachers say they value creativity, but when it comes right down to it, they really discourage it. It takes them off their game plan,” she says. “Students are taught to conform, though thinking divergently is often their natural inclination.”
“When I get home I will make a hat out of paper. Then I will cut peses of paper and right littel meseges on teme. Then fold the littel peses of paper. I will pout teme in the hat go around the house and the pepol in my family will pick one of the papers.”
Whether The Hawk’s teaching methods were more suited for schoolboys or servicemen is an open question. I don’t blame her for trying to assert some control over what she must have seen as chaos. I will, however, credit her for instilling in me a sense of realism. My first-grade ramblings were ramblings, after all. “The one thing that I think about children,” Carson says, “is that they’re less disciplined. They can make these wild combinations of ideas that adults don’t combine because they haven’t learned the rules yet.”
When your mind is opened up like a book, hoisted well beyond your grasp and shouted to the world as an example of what not to do, you really do come to understand that the world has rules and that the world is not your art class. You come to understand that the most innovative thoughts are, in reality, the most unruly and undisciplined. And you come to understand that the very best ideas are best left forgotten.
“I’m sorry I lide. I forgot all about the hat I was going to make. But don’t wery. I wont forget all about it today. Plus you dont have to panick about the papers.”