Why You Should Keep Your Really Old Schoolwork

face

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.

Minds Revealed

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:

child-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.

scan-crocodile

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.

scan-coal-is1

scan-coal-is2

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.”

scan-parrot-joke

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.

scan-heart-garett

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.

scan-heart-matthew

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.

scan-heart-miker

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.

 

Photos by David Cain,  MiikaS and Human Rights Watch

 

Learn to live in the present

Everyday mindfulness has transformed my life, and has for countless others. You can use it to reduce stress, deal calmly with trouble, and experience joy and peace throughout each day. Making it a habit is easier than you probably think. Learn how.


{ 45 Comments }

Shamelle- EnhanceLife August 10, 2009 at 5:19 am

Hi David,
It was nice seeing these old school work items. I used to have some up until about 3 yrs ago, when I moved houses.

I had several boxes of such collections, and I could only keep a couple. But the ones I have now, I believe are the most valuable to me. They bring back good memories.

Shamelle
.-= Shamelle- EnhanceLife´s last blog ..Harry Potter Author J.K Rowling: On Turning A Great Story Into A Billion-Dollar Franchise =-.

David August 10, 2009 at 6:41 am

I certainly don’t have all of my old stuff, but I have some great pieces. I think it’s good not to look through it too often, otherwise it might become a little too familiar.

Positively Present August 10, 2009 at 5:58 am

OMG, I love this post. Over the past few months I’ve been reading through my old journals and it’s amazing (and sometimes sad) the things I used to think/write. I need to look at stuff from when I was even younger and have a good laugh. Great post!
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..a vacation state of mind =-.

David August 10, 2009 at 6:43 am

Thanks Dani. Sometimes they are sad. I wrote a book about my dog in first grade, and halfway through the story she died, so half the book is about her dying. At the time i was just writing what I was experiencing, but looking at it now it’s quite sad.

Cath Duncan August 10, 2009 at 6:56 am

Great post, David! I went to art lessons twice a week between the ages of 5 and 19 and I have all the stuff I created still. It’s an amazing documentation of my life/ emotional well-being, etc. And you’re right that the best part is the uncensored honesty. When I get confused about what I want/ what’s important to me, looking through my old art works is a great way to find my way back to my Essential Self!

Thanks for sharing
.-= Cath Duncan´s last blog ..Beliefs for Thriving in Uncertain Times =-.

David August 10, 2009 at 9:49 am

For sure. I love how I just drew or wrote whatever I wanted. There was no deciding, just pure creativity. I’m afraid I don’t think I could ever do it like that again.

Nancy August 10, 2009 at 7:11 am

Great post! Makes me want to explore my old grades school work next time I’m visiting my parents.
.-= Nancy´s last blog ..The voting is OPEN! =-.

David August 10, 2009 at 9:50 am

Do it! It will be a real trip.

Rosa August 10, 2009 at 8:30 am

I loved, loved, loved reading this David! I always say I don`t want to forget what it was to be a kid, remembering what we did and wrote and thought back then reminds us who we truly are. Those days we didn´t care what others thought, life was so simple :)
Those masterpieces are indeed a beautiful treasure, I think I have some of those too, from when I was starting to write, ha! Great stuff!

I really liked this:

Notice none of my S’s are backwards, like a lame and pretentious adult might make them if they were trying to be “childish.”

Your writing looks pretty good :)
.-= Rosa´s last blog ..Charlie Manuel =-.

David August 10, 2009 at 9:52 am

Yeah the fake backwards S is pretty pathetic. It’s such a lie.

John August 10, 2009 at 8:33 am

This is really nostalgic. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve referred back to my children. I used to be somewhat of an artist back then. I think I was the best drawer in class. My friends told me so ;).

David, your post really captures the essence of what a child’s mind is really capable of. Creativity, innocence, and bliss all rolled up into one small package: a kid.

I should’ve kept my schoolwork. Thanks for this.
.-= John´s last blog ..How to Stop Temptations from Becoming Destructive =-.

David August 10, 2009 at 9:53 am

Drawing was one of my things too. After I got tired of drawing rocket ships, I started drawing pirate ships. I must have drawn hundreds in all. I should post some of them sometime.

Craig | BloomVerse August 10, 2009 at 9:27 am

LOVE this post. I have had similar fun looking at things I wrote as a young kid. My mother could probably fill a bank vault with the things she’s saved from my youth.

But even better, I enjoy exploring the mind of my 6 year old through his writings, drawings, and conversations. It’s a wonderful kind of freedom that kids experience. Creative, random, and more often than not: brilliant. I don’t think children are here to learn so much as they are here to teach.

Best!
-Craig
.-= Craig | BloomVerse´s last blog ..Transforming your health with the Sedona Method: Part 3 =-.

David August 10, 2009 at 9:55 am

Kids certainly have something adults don’t. It’s almost a kind of wisdom that we somehow lose. You’re right, children are great teachers.

Rev. T. Monkey August 10, 2009 at 11:27 am

Right in front of me at work, I’ve got some of my daughter’s latest artwork posted on the cubicle wall. I thrill in her creativity and do my best to nourish it. It sometimes even inspires me to get creative again!
.-= Rev. T. Monkey´s last blog ..Someone has to do this: A fool and clown for God and humanity’s sake =-.

David August 10, 2009 at 12:25 pm

I should pin up some of my stuff in my office. It might breathe new life into my workday.

Lori August 10, 2009 at 11:41 am

Dear David,
You are nice.
I like how you draw stuff.
Can you let me go with your crocodile into space? It looks fun.
Your Friend,
Lori
P.S. I liked this story. It was very neat.
.-= Lori´s last blog ..Your Body is a Fortress, Part 2 =-.

David August 10, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Hahahaha!

You too Lori. You are nice. Your very smart.

Dave October 19, 2012 at 4:06 pm

You’re** … ;)

Kaushik August 10, 2009 at 2:34 pm

What a wonderful, fun post! What children have, which we forget quickly, is the innate joy of being, the playful curiosity about experience. Perhaps this is why so many of us like being around children and miss our youth. But it’s always there, the joy of being, it never goes away, we just manage to cover it up with rubbish. Thanks for a delightful article.
.-= Kaushik´s last blog ..Do you feel lighter, more compassionate, more joyful, more natural, more playful? =-.

David August 10, 2009 at 6:13 pm

Yes, that’s it exactly. The joy of being. As an adult I strive so hard to get back into the moment, where children already reside almost all the time.

Jenny Blake August 10, 2009 at 2:58 pm

Those pictures are SO precious – thank you so much for sharing! They completely brightened my day…makes me want to look back through my mom’s house for old writing/schoolwork. We should bring back the appreciation valentine’s – those were great. And I concur, you are very nice :D
.-= Jenny Blake´s last blog ..Do More =-.

David August 10, 2009 at 6:22 pm

Hey Jenny Blake, good to see you. If you do find some old Jenny schoolwork, you should post some on Life After College. I’d love to see it.

Hilda August 10, 2009 at 3:14 pm

David I was just fascinated right through this post. I don’t have any of my old school work, and now I really wish I could look back on it and get an insight into my eight-year old mind. That Valentine’s booklet was a wonderful idea, and it must be fabulous to still have something like that to look back on.

Really enjoyed this, thanks :-)
.-= Hilda´s last blog ..The best things in life aren’t things =-.

David August 10, 2009 at 6:23 pm

I have at least one other valentines day booklet like that, from grade one. It’s even funnier because the drawings are so simple and scribbly. There was so much material I could have included here, maybe I’ll do a sequel one day.

rgdaniel August 10, 2009 at 8:56 pm

Jeez, when I was eight, it was 1962. The Beatles weren’t quite here yet, Kennedy was not quite dead yet. What the hell was I playing at recess? Leave it to Beaver? I remember there were swings.
.-= rgdaniel´s last blog ..Cherry Box with Cocobolo Lid =-.

David August 11, 2009 at 6:30 am

Cuban missile crisis maybe?

BTW I haven’t seen the word ‘Cocobolo’ for a long time. My dad was a real craftsman and hardwood connoisseur. There was purpleheart and wenge all over the house. Wenge was always my favorite.

Srinivas Rao August 11, 2009 at 10:09 am

David,

This post made me laugh, but I also absolutely love the fact that you have all these things saved. It’s amazing how much imagination we have as kids, and then as we get older we start to to be told things like “be realistic, be practical, don’t be ridiculous.” You are quite an artist :).
.-= Srinivas Rao´s last blog ..How to break out of your comfort zone =-.

David August 11, 2009 at 11:59 am

That “Be practical, be realistic” message hit me a little too hard in high school. I stopped drawing, writing, and gave up on the idea of any career I might actually enjoy. Sad, really.

HP August 11, 2009 at 10:55 am

Great post. Loved the old artwork!
.-= HP´s last blog ..5 Steps To Jumpstart Your Business Adventure =-.

David August 11, 2009 at 11:59 am

Thanks, I’ve got so much more, too.

robb August 11, 2009 at 12:05 pm

now this is actually one great insight.

David August 11, 2009 at 4:27 pm

Just one? ;)

Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching August 11, 2009 at 4:19 pm

Hi David — thanks for this. I have about 100 unfinished sci-fi/fantasy stories from when I was little. I think I’ve been avoiding fiction writing for a long time because of my fear that I’d never be able to finish a story — nonfiction has always seemed easier to complete. But I’m easing myself back in again these days.

David August 11, 2009 at 4:29 pm

I used to love to write stories. As I got older I tried writing bigger and bigger stories, and finished them less and less often. Eventually I stopped altogether. Nonfiction has proved to be easier for me too, mainly because of the length, but I’m sure I’ll try fiction again one day.

William August 16, 2009 at 11:23 am

Reminds me of the scene in the movie “Uncle Buck” where Uncle Buck (played by John Candy) sees the principal of the school where his 6-year-old niece goes to school. The principal warns Buck that the niece is not serious about her career and future and is a dilly-dallyer and dreamer. Buck responds in kind by severely scolding the principal that she had better not even look at his niece in a bad way and that he wouldn’t want to know a 6-year-old kid who WAS serious about their career and who WASN’T a dilly-dallyer and dreamer.

Lisis November 24, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Hey, D!

I guess I missed this post while I was out on my August road trip! I love it!!! This is the cutest thing ever. Oh, I was so mad at your teacher for stopping you right in the middle of your story (the one that may or may not have been a joke)! Time to move on, huh? When will adults learn to just let kids be?

This post makes you WAY better than my “foreth” favorite blogger. ;)
.-= Lisis´s last blog ..Inspiration from Pema Chodron: Everyone and Everything =-.

David February 28, 2010 at 3:06 am

Wow I missed your comment somehow too. For three months!

You are very nice.

Andy Parsons February 28, 2010 at 2:53 am

Wonderful stuff. I do have a few things from my school years including some artworks and artifacts I made, and some exercise books, but they’re all from hgih school. I wish I had some from primary school too.

I will ask my mum next time I see her if she does have anything from primary school. The only thing she has given me is my school reports, and I must admit I occasionally read those to be informed, in very concise terms, of who I really am.

I don’t think Ihave changed much because a lot of the comments my teachers made still apply to me now, if I’m totally honest with myself!

David February 28, 2010 at 3:10 am

Thanks Andy.

I don’t think I have changed much because a lot of the comments my teachers made still apply to me now, if I’m totally honest with myself!

Haha me too. I still draw in the margins, on the rare occasion I write on paper.

Andy Parsons February 28, 2010 at 3:29 am

A couple of months ago I met someone who had been in my class at primary school in England (I now live in Australia and this was on my most recent visit to the UK).

I had not seen him or had any contact with him besides a couple of brief messages on facebook since we were in primary school together, which was 1985 (so nearly a quarter of a century ago!) and yet as soon as we started to share our memories of primary school, it was as if all those years and all the good and bad things they had brought had never even happened!

Immediately it was like we’d been in contact all that time, and I felt like I was 10 years old again and I think he did too.

For a couple of hours that day, all of that childhood honesty, spontaneity and simplicity came back to us. I intend to repeat the experience on my next visit this May and perhaps also meet a couple more school friends.

It seems to me that I’ve never had such close friends since primary school. Somehow (perhaps because they’re often the first real friends we make) those are a particularly special type of friendship.

Ramona July 30, 2010 at 1:23 pm

One of the best drawings I’ve ever found of my own was a girl standing next to a giant soda can, which had been knocked over. She looked very alarmed and the can, which was bigger than she was, was spilling everywhere. Scrawled under the image was the title, “JAPAN”.

I can only imagine what impressions I had about Japan when I was six years old.

Ali Burrell March 23, 2011 at 2:57 am

I NEEDED to tell you that I was in stitches laughing about this…particularly the one where the teacher cut you off in the middle of your joke and even spaced out the working for me to read it ‘just-so’
“Is this a Joke
David”

I DO have some of my old school work and I totally laugh at it when I come across it…my sister has NONE of hers…but I do. And, all she ever wrote about in her school work was food…in her childhood journal… food! I guess you know what was on her mind!
Anyway…I totally relate to this post and thoroughly enjoyed it!

kim June 20, 2014 at 7:56 am

U went to school in Winnipeg? In st vital? Mrsmoney is my mother in law!!! I have to send this to her!!

David Cain June 20, 2014 at 8:06 am

Yes! St George school 1988

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