Monday, June 3, 2019

Reflections about Death

Earlier this year I had a conversation with a classroom of fourth grade students about death. It began when we read a chapter from Natalie Babbit's Tuck Everlasting, which raises interesting questions about death, living a mortal life, and the possibility of becoming immortal. I have posted about this book in the past

The students wondered whether, if you were immortal, you wouldn't feel any pain, physical or emotional.

"Maybe you wouldn't feel pain if you were immortal. I mean, pain is something uncomfortable and no one wants to feel it, so if I knew I wouldn't feel pain, I might want to be immortal."

"I think that if you were immortal, maybe you wouldn't feel physical pain anymore, but you would still be able to feel emotional pain. I think you would still have your emotions if you're immortal. But I think emotional pain scars people more than physical pain."

"If you couldn't feel emotional pain, I wouldn't want to become immortal, because feeling emotional pain helps you to feel what others feel."

"I agree with that. If you don't have any emotions, you're essentially like a robot, and you can't feel what other people feel."

Most of the children seemed to conclude that if becoming immortal meant you would stop feeling emotions, including emotional pain, they wouldn't want to be immortal. This led us to talking about whether you would want to be immortal in any event. 

Several children immediately said they would want to live forever. Why? One student responded it was because she was scared of dying, and many students agreed. 

Other children said they were not scared to die because they wanted to see what happened after death. One student commented, "I wouldn't want to live for so many thousands of years that everyone I ever knew would be dead." 

Several students noted that if they stayed the same age always, there would be many things they would never get to do. "Part of life is change," said one child. "Never changing would be a really different kind of life from what we're used to."  Another child remarked, "If I lived forever, once the sun exploded, I would just be floating around in space for eternity. That would be terrible."

The students explored the idea of "eternity," and one child reflected, "I think immortality is more frightening than death." Another child agreed, saying, "It’s scary to think of living forever. It would completely change how it feels to be alive." 

In his story "The Immortal," Jorge Luis Borges concurs: “Death…makes men precious…every act they execute may be their last…Everything among the mortals has the value of the irretrievable and the perilous.”

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Custom of Racism

This week I had a conversation with a group of fifth grade students at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School that began with reading Jacqueline Woodson's The Other Side. This picture book tells the story of a friendship that forms between two girls in a time and place in which a fence stretches through the town separating the white and black townspeople.

The students wanted to talk about who had made the fence and why. The first student who spoke said it was obvious, that the fence was made by white people because of racism. Other students speculated that the fence might have been put up for all kinds of reasons – farming, a company owning the land, two landowners keeping their property separate – but then it became a symbol, as one student put it, of "segregation and racism." 

"Metaphorically speaking, the fence was built by history. There have been lots of times of unfairness in history. But it's not all one-sided. Sometimes white people and black people just don't like each other, and both sides want to be separate." 

"Maybe, but in the story the white people were the ones with the power, and they built the fence to keep black people out."

"The fence is a warning. It's not a physical obstacle, because you can easily climb over it. It's a warning about what will happen to you if you violate the rules of segregation." 

This led to the question about whether the enforced separation between races still happens today.  

"Yes, but it's more vague and not a threat in the same way it was then. There aren't fences separating black and white people that are as intentional and obvious." 

"I agree, it's still happening, but not as publicly. It's more secret and private, and not as accepted by the community anymore." 

"It's not the law anymore, so it's less about segregation and more about the privileges white people have: white people getting jobs when black people are more experiences, white people being paid more, or white people just getting treated better. It's not as accepted by the community, so if you do something racist, people disapprove, but it's still there, just less distinct and publicly accepted." 

"I think that things are getting better. This school used to be totally segregated and now it's not. But racism is more a custom than a law now, and that makes it harder to get rid of it. People are used to racism and when something is a custom, it's much harder to change than it is to change the law." 

I was really struck by how well these students, a very diverse group, were able to talk about this issue without it being focused on the personal, as an abstract and important question that affects everyone's lives, but that could be explored in a dispassionate, thoughtful way. And it led me to think more about the distinction the student made between laws and customs, seeing customs as the more intractable of the two, and changing the law as only the first step toward genuine change.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

I'm a Frog!

I haven't been posting this school year very much, as I have been working on my new book, which should be finished before the end of the year and published next year. But I have had several interesting conversation lately with children, and thought I would share some of them. 

In a fifth grade class last month, we read the story I'm a Frog by Mo Willems, about which I have written in the past. The story raises questions about the nature of pretending.

After reading the story, the children articulated the questions about which the story led them to wonder. They then voted to discuss the question, “Does everyone pretend?” 

"Everyone pretends, but kids pretend more. Kids have more time to play pretend. Like at recess." 

"I was wondering if dreaming counts as pretending. I kind of think it does, because when you dream you're imagining something." 

"I disagree. Dreams aren't pretending because they are based on what happens to you in real life and turns whatever happens into a kind of jumbled mess. Actually, I think it could go either way. What you dream is not real, it's made up, but you don't get to choose, you don't make it up." 

"I think that if imagining something when you're awake is a form of pretending, but you're not actually doing anything, just fantasizing about something, then dreaming could be pretending too." 

"I don't know if dreaming really counts, because you're sleeping and you might not even remember what you dream. Daydreaming, where you're making up a fantasy in your head, counts as pretending, but not dreaming while you're asleep." 

"Dreaming isn't a form of pretending because you're not intending to pretend anything." 

"I agree. You have to be able to control when you pretend. You can just do it in your head, you don't have to do physical stuff. But you do have to have control." 

I asked if this meant that pretending had to be intentional, though it did not require doing anything in particular other than thinking about it. In the story, Piggy defines pretending as acting as if you are something you're not – is that right? 

"I think you can pretend to be something you are, too. Like if you have low self-esteem, and you didn't think you could do something, you could pretend you could do it, and then maybe you actually could do it." 

"If pretending is acting like something you're not, everyone does pretend. Probably everyone dressed up for Halloween at least once. And even if you didn't, you pretend that everyone else is actually who they are dressed up to be." 

"I think that pretending is a way of helping your brain practice being creative. You get new ideas by giving yourself a break. Like if you do a lot of math, and you don't take any breaks and your mind gets cluttered and can't focus as well, pretending will open up more creativity for you." 

"There is definitely a connection between creativity and pretending. You can spread your creativity in lots of ways, like through art. Pretending is another way to do that." 

I asked, if pretending is positive and important, why do we stop? 

"Maturity. You see other people stopping and you think it's not cool to pretend anymore, that it's immature." 

"Most kids pretend. When you're older, maturity takes over your creativity. You think, 'I'm older, I'm not supposed to be doing this anymore, it's immature.' " 

"Everyone pretends, some more and some less, and about different things. An adult might not pretend to be a flower princess, but an adult might pretend that they have a lot of money, or that they are the ideal self they want to be." 

"When you're younger, you pretend, and you're more confident it can actually happen. When you're older, you can still pretend the same thing, but you think it probably won't happen." 

"But maybe instead of pretending to be something, as an adult you can actually just try to become that thing." 

As always, the children left me with a lot to consider. In particular, I've been thinking ever since our conversation about the ways in which pretending to be something you actually are, but perhaps are not confident that you are, can allow you to fully grow into that part of yourself.