There are formative moments in all of our lives that we tend to remember for a long time and with great clarity. You got to be the way you are because of these moments. Two of the big events in my life happened at infants and primary school. Both events involved loving, well-meaning teachers, who nevertheless did the wrong thing, from my point of view. Ironically, in doing the wrong thing, they fuelled the sense of indignity and injustice that has driven me forward as a creative individual.
As a small child, I was right into playing. I loved to play. I felt that nobody knew how to play better than I did. My every waking hour was absorbed with working out new, imaginative games to play and playing them. Eating cut into my play time. It had to be done quickly so that I could get back to playing. My dad had built the house we lived in and every stick of furniture in it, so much of my play involved building, shaping, creating and making. I wanted to be like my dad.
My father had given me a small claw hammer, which cabinet makers use for driving panel pins into furniture. It looked just like dad’s big claw hammer, but was small and light enough for me to use. I felt I had been admitted to the club. I spent endless hours driving three quarter inch panel pins into scrap off-cuts of softwood. Bliss!
I was an inquisitive child who liked to pose and answer his own questions. “Probably because…” was a phrase I used as a child too much; a trait which my family still reminds and teases me about. I wanted to know things. When I was told that I was going to be starting school, I was very excited about the prospect. At last I could get good answers to my questions, instead of my own suppositions and postulates. I was taken to meet the class teacher before term started and thought she was lovely. She told me that on the first day, the children always got to play with plasticine.
Plasticine! What a wonderful substance. Even at that young age, I knew you could make anything with plasticine. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plasticine The night before my first day of school, I couldn’t sleep a wink. I was working on a plan for my plasticine. I wanted to see if I could make a cat. In my mind’s eye, I worked out how to make the body and head and how to form the ears. I even had a plan for how to make the whiskers. The tail was going to be a curved “S” shape and the legs would be added on to show that the cat was sitting. I was ready.
Then came the first day of school and true to her word, the plasticine was given out to each of us. It was cut from brand new blocks of the stuff and there were all the colours of the rainbow. I got a dull green piece, but never mind. A cat can be green too, I thought. I set to work enthusiastically, making the pieces for my cat. All the other children sat and waited. They had not been given instruction, but I already had my plan!
I had gotten as far as attaching the head to the body and was busy making the tail, when to my horror and dismay, the teacher announced that we were all going to make snails. “Take your clay and roll it into a big sausage,” she said. A snail?! I ask you! With mounting frustration, upset and indignation, I did what I was told. I smooshed up my work in progress and proceeded to make a snail, rolling the long sausage into a simple coil. It didn’t even look like a snail! No shell. No nothing. What a disappointment!
As traumatic as that sounds, it actually had the effect of teaching me a very early lesson. Sometimes even a child can have the best idea in the room. My idea was clearly way ahead of the snail idea. Better than that – I knew how to execute my plan. I didn’t have to wait to be instructed. That taught me that my ideas could be good ideas, even if bringing them to fruition was utterly thwarted (a pattern that has recurred in my life, regrettably).
Years later, in primary school, we were being taught the same way that millions of children are taught. A problem was posed by the teacher at the blackboard and the class was invited to “brainstorm” to find the answer. All of this was, of course, pure theatre to get to the real purpose of the exercise – to teach you the right way to get the right answer. During the brainstorming session, we all put our hands up and ideas were written on the blackboard as they were given by the pupil selected by the teacher to answer. I noticed that some ideas went to the left hand side of the board, where as it transpired, the teacher showed us the right approach to getting the right answer, based on our class input. The other less convenient suggestions made by class members went to the right hand side of the board, where they were relegated to the “interesting” pool of ideas (which we all knew was code for “wrong”). My ideas were invariably on the right hand side of the board. What I noticed about the ideas clustered on the right hand side of the board is that, while they may not have been what the teacher was hoping we would offer, they were the intriguing ideas. I wanted to pursue those, to see where they lead. The opportunity never arose. Oh, the frustration of that!
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had finished that damned cat or if all my answers had been on the left hand side of the board. Maybe I would be a different person today. But it is true. Sometimes you can have the best idea in the room. The key is to plan well and to be prepared to defend it. I also think that we should not discard or prejudge (meaning “reject”) the ideas on the right hand side of the board. Who knows what riches lie in wait there?
I wonder if your stories are similar to mine.