12 till I die

Who’s to say that certain types of irrational thinking aren’t exactly what the world needs? Maybe you’ve had grand plans before, but stopped yourself, thinking: That’s impossible or that costs too much or that won’t benefit me. For better or worse, we kids aren’t hampered as much when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things. Kids can be full of inspiring aspirations and hopeful thinking, like my wish that no one went hungry or that everything were free kind of utopia. How many of you still dream like that and believe in the possibilities? Sometimes a knowledge of history and the past failures of utopian ideals can be a burden because you know that if everything were free, that the food stocks would become depleted, and scarce and lead to chaos. On the other hand, we kids still dream about perfection. And that’s a good thing because in order to make anything a reality, you have to dream about it first. An Excerpt from Adora Sitvak’s Speech at TED2010.

Listening to Adora’s speech was like listening to my mum all over again. And I loved it!

I woke up one day, maybe 2 or 3 years old with the ability to read and the demand for a name change. No, it was not a miracle. I was not a child prodigy, nor a genius, no matter how hard I wish for that to have been true so I could brag a little. I’d spent so much time listening to my mum reading to me, and watching her teach older kids with learning disabilities how to read that I actually picked up the skill.

As explained in a previous article, my mother encouraged my reading. She read to me, read with me, let me chose books for myself whenever she could afford it, and generally allowed me to experience the joy of books as much as was possible.

I don’t think it was very much of a surprise when 5, 6 years later I decided that I wanted to be a writer. Again, my mum indulged my need for notebooks and pencils and pens. She never reprimanded me for my wild daydreams, and furious scribbling. It’s from my mum that I first heard the words, ‘learn as much from writing as you do from reading’ and ‘see the world, so you can tell it’.

When I was 12, the topic of my desire with regards to writing came up at one of those extended family dos that happen around Christmas. I remember my aunt jumping in to say, ‘You need a career before you can become a writer.’

I hadn’t quite connected writing to a career yet. But I think there was a pause in my bubble dreams for a while. My high school teachers will attest to various phases in my high school career. I pretty much went through all the career that I felt my relatives would find glamorous and ‘becoming’.

One day, mum came home with the response to a letter she had sent to a college that offered English, Literature and Creative Writing on distance learning options. I was 16. My mum said anything is possible no matter how old or young you are, all you have to do is be willing to learn how to do it right. That was my reaffirmation.

But oh, you should have been there when my decision to become a Kindergarten teacher became known to the same extended family. Except for my mum, no one really wanted to know why I wanted to become a teacher. A kindergarten teacher.

So I didn’t tell them about wanting to impart and share the wonder of words, and the world, and discovery with children who were still able to dream and imagine a wide, wonderful world where everything was right.

Learning between grown ups and kids should be reciprocal. The reality, unfortunately, is a little different, and it has a lot to do with trust, or a lack of it. Adora Sitvak

Years later, I got to do both, to teach and to write. Kids are accepting. Trust me there were times when I was absolutely clueless, and so completely frustrated I could cry. But the nature of kids is such that when you accept that learning goes both ways, they will create many more joys, and teach you to appreciate life’s beauty so much more.

I wish that could be said of the adult world.

When I first presented some of my work to a Kenyan publisher, the response I got was that I was too young for their market. I was 21. I am not very certain that they actually read my work.

Over the next four years, I committed myself to learning the art of writing. I read expansively, attended workshops, found ‘older’ writers whom I hoped would mentor me. In the end, it seemed prudent to conclude that only I could decide upon my style of writing and form of expression.

I did present another piece of work to yet another publisher. The response? My work though well-written was fantastical, hardly anything for the Kenyan market.

Probably true. But…

A few years back, a friend and I were talking about mind-sets. He asked how old I was in this context. I told him that I decided to be 12 when I was 6, and had still not undecided. This spawned a discussion about ‘child-ishness’ and ‘child-likeness’.

Like Adora, I noted that undesirable and irresponsible behaviour is described as childish, when in reality adults display just as much of this undesirable and irresponsible behaviour. And so when I speak of child-like mind sets, you will probably assume that I am referring to said undesirable/irresponsible behaviour.

In reality, what I mean when I say child-like, well allow a child to say it for you:

In many ways, our audacity to imagine helps push the boundaries of possibility. For instance, the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, my home state — yoohoo Washington — (Applause)has a program called Kids Design Glass, and kids draw their own ideas for glass art. Now, the resident artist said they got some of their best ideas through the program because kids don’t think about the limitations of how hard it can be to blow glass into certain shapes. They just think of good ideas. Now, when you think of glass, you might think of colorful Chihuly designs or maybe Italian vases, but kids challenge glass artists to go beyond that into the realm of broken-hearted snakes and bacon boys, who you can see has meat vision. An Excerpt from Adora Sitvak’s Speech at TED2010.

Think about all those ideas that buzz in your head when you give them a chance. Imagine that they did not have the limitations of time and resources. Can you see how far you could possibly go? I’ll give you an example of my world without limitations.

In my perfect world, I could write stories that people who love mysteries and fantasies would love and enjoy. In my perfect world, I would be free to reflect culture and history as it really is without worrying about being politically correct. In my perfect world, you would buy my book, read it, and be inspired to tell a story for tomorrow’s kid. In my perfect world, a publisher is not an obstacle to overcome with Herculean effort, but a tool for the proliferation(!) of the love of words, and books. In my perfect world, no one would use the phrase ‘Herculean effort’ or ‘Kid gloves’ unless they knew the etymology of the phrase. In my perfect world, we are all writers, and master storytellers. It certainly would make Discrete Modelling Unit a lot more palatable if the lecturer knew how to translate Math into Story.

Speaking of which, how is that for an endless wonder pursuit? A story that teaches Math, without the jargon that loses the magic in Numb3rs.

Even worse than restriction is that adults often underestimate kids abilities. We love challenges, but when expectations are low, trust me, we will sink to them. My own parents had anything but low expectations for me and my sister. Okay, so they didn’t tell us to become doctors or lawyers or anything like that, but my dad did read to us about Aristotle and pioneer germ fighters when lots of other kids were hearing “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round.” Well, we heard that one too, but “Pioneer Germ Fighters” totally rules. An Excerpt from Adora Sitvak’s Speech at TED2010.

If you don’t believe Adora, just take a look at the Kenyan Education system. The expectation of mediocrity is so deeply ingrained in tradition that it is no longer seen as mediocrity but as culture.

How many times have you heard someone excuse something that is so shamefully bad in quality with, ‘This is Africa.’ As an accusation it should drive us to defiance. But more often than not, it comes as an excuse.

But take a young mind, show him the challenge, and allow him to think and create, without boundaries real or imposed. You will be so completely blown out of your socks and still have your shoes on. Trust me, I know. So many are the times minds as young as 3 years old have left me gasping in surprise at the intelligent logic in the wide-eyed wonder.

I read comments and articles written about child prodigies, a few in very positive light, many of them in negative light, some bordering on jealousy. But everyone seems to agree on the axis that parents and caregivers have a lot to do with how much and how far a child can learn, develop and accomplish. The thing is; as much as a child is, so is their adulthood.

Child Prodigy or not, the end product is directly proportional to the formative years. Encouraging creativity in children determines how much these same children will be open to challenging barriers in finding solutions and creating new frontiers in the world’s economic, socio-cultural and scientific arenas.

When I was little, my brothers who were much older than me hated babysitting me. I am not sure my mother knows this, but sometimes they would pile up books on the floor, and then lock me in, hoping that I would be so lost I wouldn’t notice they were off to play soccer without me.

The thing is, I loved my books almost as much as I loved climbing up the old tree in our backyard to watch them play. The first few times they locked me in, I tried to climb up onto the window ledge and watch from there. I soon became bolder, and without the concept of dimensions and heights, I found a way to squeeze both myself and my book of choice out of the window, crawl along the edges and latch onto tree branch, then crawl to the safety of the wide bough from where I could both read and watch my brothers play.

When my brothers saw me there, well, let’s just say window escape onto tree manoeuvres stopped. My brother used to describe me as ‘little menace’.

Now, after a few falls of course, and an ugly jagged scar on my forearm, I have issues with heights. I also don’t think my hips would fit through the window grills. So if I faced the same problem as I did when I was 4, I’d probably stay indoors.

Or maybe not. I’d like to think I would pick the lock and walk out. What would you do?

“There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colors are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again.”

© Juliet Maruru 2010 www.jmaruru.wordpress.com


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