Over thirteen years of grade school, the average student probably hands in a small forest’s-worth of worksheets, journals, drawings and assignments. So much of it is profoundly unmemorable: lab notes, arithmetic tests, book reports, and all other sorts of by-the-numbers tedium.
The creative work, however, is much more revealing. When a kid is asked to draw a picture or tell a story, the mind flies wide open, perhaps more so than it ever could later on in life, once the child has learned what the world considers immature, upsetting or otherwise unacceptable.
In “88 Important Truths“, number 8 was “Children are remarkably honest creatures until we teach them not to be.” As kids, we could spill our thoughts right onto the paper with only a trace of the self-censorship that is so pervasive for an adult.
Sitting down to write, as I do today, I’m all too aware of how my thoughts might be perceived and interpreted. I know (or at least I think I know) what the audience is likely to read into it, and so I edit, adjust, and omit accordingly. By the time the finished product is delivered, its character has been shaped by deliberation and second-guessing, with many of my original thoughts removed for the purposes of clarity, cleanliness, and convention.
Children, depending on their age, still exhibit the precious quality of true free association, and an honesty too radical to survive into adulthood. They let their minds take them to places that are wondrous and unbounded, but perhaps useless and irrelevant to a pragmatic adult.
The results of this mind-spilling are frequently quite interesting, often hilarious and sometimes disturbing.
Psychologists have been analyzing children’s drawings for decades, discerning clues about emotions, perceptions, possibly uncovering abuse in the home or other traumas. Here is a sobering image drawn by a child growing up in Darfur:
I was lucky enough to be spared that particular kind of imagery. Any tanks and helicopters in my head came from movies.
An Eight Year-Old’s Head: A Guided Tour
Thankfully my mother kept a good sample of the creative works of my sister and me.
As you will see from the following masterworks, I have been an accomplished writer for over twenty years. At eight I had limitless creativity, and immaculate penmanship.
Tragically, just as Holden Caulfield so sorely lamented, the rules and politics of adulthood indeed corrupt absolutely, and thus my work has become trite and derivative. I could never come up with stuff of this caliber today.
It’s not the thought of sending crocodiles into space that I find so hilarious about this one. What impresses me is the fact that I was so pent-up with creativity that I couldn’t even finish writing the full date before I burst into a revolutionary steamship design. I was already hopelessly obsessed with spectacle and detail.
The crocodile suit was quite logically crocodile-shaped, but the spaceship required much more sophistication than NASA’s boring pencil-straight Saturn V rocket. Commander Croc needed two additional rockets because, to him, the moon was too close and familiar to be interesting. Only a journey to Pluto could satisfy his wanderlust.
I think I very successfully communicated the entire contents of my mind on November 1st.
I also had a habit of drawing in the margins that infuriated my teachers. The above shows mild examples, but you can see the outline of the next days’ out-of-control artistry through the page. I think a good 75% of my drawings were of rocketships.
My dad, a science teacher, was always giving me science lessons, and I passed them on to anyone who would listen. If you didn’t know what the deal was about fossil fuels, you do now.
Notice none of my S’s are backwards, like a lame and pretentious adult might make them if they were trying to be “childish.”
Yes, Mrs. Money, it’s a joke. I just didn’t get a chance to get the punchline. The whole plot, with each of its seemingly irrelevant twists, would have come together then. But you interrupted me in the midst of my writing session, and made us do math. Right in the middle of the word “and.”
In the Eyes of My Peers
A child quickly discovers another sometimes troublesome source of information about himself: the opinions of others. Other people will tell you what you are, beyond what you can sense for yourself. If everyone says the same thing you can’t help but agree with them over time.
These are the bricks and mortar of the ego. Each of us develops a stubborn, oversimple idea of who we are, composed of our own self-assessments, almost all of which are rooted in what someone else thinks about who we are. Conceit, self-loathing and identity crises all begin here.
Not that it’s all insidious. People do often mean well. The assessments of others just have unpredictable and long-lasting side effects. I was exalted as Whiz Kid and Nice Boy for so long that I didn’t know who the hell I was when people weren’t telling me I was nice or smart. But that’s another post…
On Valentines Day, 1990, we were asked to write three things we appreciated about each other kid and write it on a paper heart. A little book was assembled for each person, full of other people’s impressions.
I’m not sure if Garett was admiring my popularity with the girls, or trying to get under my skin. It was not cool to like girls at that point in our development. Notice my genuine smile, and sequined pimp hat.
Love the shoes.
I have mentioned that I was obsessed with Indiana Jones. But I wasn’t the only one! I love this one because of what came to my best friend Matt’s head when he thought of me: the two of us, collecting rocks and rolling beneath the playground equipment. In our minds we were dodging boulders and recovering lost artifacts.
That unpretentious kind of freedom to make-believe, so easily enjoyed by kids, is now dead and gone. We lose it gradually, like our baby teeth.
Adulthood does bring certain practical freedoms with it: we can live how we want, where we want, eat ice cream for dinner if it suits us. But there is a specific kind of freedom that is simply too delicate to survive adolescence. Those were some of the best times of my life.
I playing with you too, Matthew.
Well, it’s unanimous. I’m nice.
It always warmed my heart to know that I was Mike R’s fourth best friend.
This stuff is priceless. Memories are lovely, but you can’t just conjure up a picture of the feeling and energy of childhood with thoughts or even Polaroids of you. You need hard evidence of what was in that little head. Each word, crayon-stroke and eraser mark reveals a beautiful little clue about what that tiny mind was like while it was still new.
You can spend your adult life making a fortune, traveling the globe, conquering nations even, but no matter what you do you just can’t see the world like a kid again. But you can get a vicarious taste of it when you look at your own handiwork. Hopefully you’ve got some relics like this to cherish. If you don’t, make sure your kids do.