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And as the evolution of knowledge proceeds by truer and more necessary knowledge dislodging and replacing what is mistaken and unnecessary, so the evolution of feeling proceeds through art, feelings less kind and less needful for the well-being of mankind are replaced by others kinder and more needful for that end. That is the purpose of art.


--
Tolstoy, "What is Art?" (p.136)

 
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Primary Colours  

I'm sure Robert Fulghum is a fine fellow, but I need to take issue with his most famous book, the one that quaintly states "Everything I needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." Maybe I'm being a bit cynical, but I think the book needs a sequel, because, at least in my experience, I learned a whole lot of things about life in the First Grade, too. Things I'm still figuring out.

Compared with First Grade, Kindergarten was like the garden of Eden. We sang songs. We colored things with giant crayons and it didn't matter if you went out of the lines. We played a lot of fun games. Sure, the milk was kind of warm and disgusting, and those crackers had to be left over from the Hoover administration, and I didn't always feel like taking a nap when we were supposed to be tired. But, child psychologists know best. And Miss Moore liked me. I thought so, anyway. She was nice.

But in First Grade I got one of those teachers who was determined to show me that I was in the Real World now, and the Real World didn't care how I felt about it, the Real World demanded results. I spent a lot of time getting glue on my fingers because I was/am a real clutz. We spent most of our time, day after day, doing work that required us to figure out which pictures started with the letter "H" and cut them out and paste them in the assigned area. It took about 5 seconds to figure out what the "H" things were, and about two hours to get the glue off my fingers. I learned that young children are not supposed to want to use their brains much, but are considered universally thrilled to be able to use scissors and glue. This did not work for me. I spent most of my time listening to the stories the other reading groups were reading out loud, starved for something to think about besides the mess I was making on my desk.  I spent a lot of time being miserable. But that didn't keep me from feeling equally gloomy about my classmates. I know this is hard to believe, but there is a lot of immaturity in first grade! I was hopeful, however, that our society--I mean, my classmates, would grow out of it.

I don't think we have, really.

One of the things I pondered while I was cutting and pasting away was how you can be judged by what seemed like a totally arbitrary set of standards. I knew what started with the letter P and it was not that ugly picture of an umbrella. But the British company that made the worksheets thought it was a picture of a parasol, and my teacher did too. These sorts of things were explained after the fact. It is hard to embrace other cultures when you are losing points. People who are always talking about peace, diversity, and brotherhood never point this out. It is what makes racism more complicated than people think it is. Fear of failure because you don't understand how you are being judged is powerful and scary. Some people spend their entire school-age career with their hands in the air asking "is this going to be on the test?" I wished those people would pay more attention to the big picture and not be such worry-warts, but I think its a lot easier to not be one when your own butt is not on the line.

I learned that if some of the kids are bad, everybody gets punished. The teacher's aides didn't discriminate. If some kids were talking, those of us who were quiet didn't get our recess either. We had to sit with our heads down on our desks for a few minutes, which is a long time to a hyperactive six-year old. When we are older we have to pay money to clean up the messes made by people who made bad choices, so the thing with the heads down never goes away.

I also learned that the bad kids get more of the attention. They cause a disruption, which is just what they want, and then the system has to figure out what to do with them. In the adult world, the bad kids are the ones on the evening news going into court with handcuffs--the lead story, most nights. The good kids who did nice things for people that day don't get on the evening news, except occasionally as a nice feature story at the end of the broadcast. As a society, we also spend most of our time talking about the disruptive kids, like that one who misbehaved herself at the Superbowl, and whether we should give the bad ones another chance or just throw away the key. We don't know. Our teachers didn't know either but they sure seemed sure of themselves. Come to think of it, there is no shortage of grown up people who seem sure of themselves.

I learned that kids--I mean people--worry a lot about being universally popular. This is a losing proposition. There is no way not to have enemies. The smart kids get picked on by the "dumb" kids, the kids who are good in dodge-ball get made fun of by the girls who think dodge-ball is stupid. The pretty kids pick on the ugly kids but the ugly kids know they are superior because the pretty kids are just dumb. Basically, whatever your assets, somebody finds a way to make it seem like a weakness.

I learned that if you don't finish your work on time you don't get to play in the tepee, and that sometimes, instead of motivating you to try harder next time, you just feel sad because you don't think you can ever do it. If somebody nice like your mom encourages you and teaches you how to set small goals instead of just yelling at you it helps a lot.

I learned that people stop growing mentally at all different stages just like they do physically. Some people are 6 feet tall. Some barely make 4. There are some people who just don't understand a lot of things. The problem is that the dumbest people in society don't seem to know this about themselves. They think their logic is impeccable. Even though they can't spell impeccable.

I learned that the real world may not care but there are people in it who do, despite what the preachers of the "Real World" gospel may tell you. Sometimes life is cruel and sometimes it is not cruel and some people would rather decide that it is cruel all the time rather than being uncertain about it but that is their choice.  Life goes on, regardless.

 

michael@pianonoise.com