Cindy at Ordo Amoris is hosting a book club for Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen. If this interests you, please head over to Cindy’s to read what she and the other participants are writing. The following contains my thoughts on chapter one with a long, winding, personal rabbit trail.
I believe I am, or was, the child of whom Esolen has written. My understanding of history, of events in time, is spotty and I struggle to see the overarching themes in the books that I read. I miss truly understanding his references to Beowulf, Dickens’ Hard Times and Plato, though I have learned enough isolated facts about them to do pretty well at Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy.
According to Esolen, a lively imagination requires that facts be taught in context; facts need structures, forms and timelines to hang on or they are only bits of flotsom on the water that don’t cohere. He also recommends that certain kinds of knowledge need to be memorized and mastered in order to facilitate further learning. I received none of this in school.
When I was in grammar school – I forget what grade, third maybe? Fifth? Doesn’t matter – When I was in grammar school, any child who finished his class assignment early, was allowed to walk over to a box under the windows and take out a square card with a story on it. The stories were always too short, always incomplete, always frustrating, but it was good training for reading the Internet. And there were no answers anywhere. I didn’t recognize anyone to whom I could say, “That story about the beavers was great! Where can I learn more?” Maybe those people were there, but I didn’t see them.
So, how is it that, though my education has been deficient, my imagination is not completely dead? How do I have an idea of what I’m missing why do I care? Accident. Or Providential accident. I was born into a family that gave me certain gifts. Because of these gifts I have managed to cobble together a pretty high-functioning “does it sound right” method of speaking and writing without knowing many actual rules of grammar and I still want to learn.
Firstly, my mother. She is a reader. I have followed her example. My mother also speaks English well – Bonus! – She speaks it with a New York accent! Also, whether through wisdom or laziness, when I was a young child, she pretty much let me do my own thing. I had my box full of craft supplies, called my creativity box, which she let me keep under my bed and she never told me what to do with it; I had my dolls and my imaginary friends, also often under the bed; I had her to help me sound out words when I asked and not if I didn’t. She taught me to sing while doing housework and the right way to clean the bathroom floor. She taught me that there’s nothing so delicious as quiet wool-gathering over a cup of tea, not always with a book. She took me camping and to Cooperstown. She likes the sun through cobalt glass and lace curtains. She likes things to be pretty and she makes them so.
I also had my father who let me sit in a box in the bread truck while he made deliveries, who brought me roses with glitter on them, who (reluctantly) taught me to whistle. He makes things with his hands, he gardens, he figures things out just by looking at them and thinking about them. He can make a tomato grow out of can. Another important thing about my daddy is that he’s from another country; if I wanted to communicate with my grandparents I had to understand Sicilian. I believe this early exposure to a foreign language helped me to study languages in school later which, in turn, helped me to decipher some English grammar. Funny how I probably never would have learned what an English infinitive is if I hadn’t first learned it in Spanish and Italian.
I am also blessed to be married to a man who names and knows the habits of all the stray cats on our block, who feeds birds, who builds snow forts and sand castles and wooden toy cranes, and who sees interesting things out of the corner of his eye. He delights in every day magic. Just a few days ago he told me of his observation that squirrels can turn their feet all the way around. I had been wondering how they seemed to defy gravity hanging from the trunk of a tree!
I am also not completely in the dark because, as Esolen suggests, some of those random facts have sparked my curiosity and now, as a nearly-middleaged adult, I am learning to seek out the answers to the questions I have. Maybe it’s a little sad that it took me so long, but I have kids to teach and my own intellect to nourish and I don’t have time to dwell on what a contender I could have been .
The biggest obstacle I face is that I never developed, never tried to develop, a will to struggle through the “drudgery” in the hope of receiving a future reward. I mean that I have been guilty of thinking that if understanding or ablity didn’t come “naturally” then it likely wouldn’t come. To me it has been an act of faith to open a hard book, focus my attention for a length of time, and try to decipher. It is here where self-esteem is not total b.s. Little successes are necessary to me to spur me on to try more and harder things.