Three-year-old Alex wore his red cape to class almost every day, and on the few days he didn’t, he made a point of explaining why. He avoided both the art and sensory tables if there was any prospect of getting his hands or cape messy. Most mornings he was Captain Underpants.
Alex came to school each morning bursting with stories. I’d never read the Captain Underpants books, and thanks to Alex I'll never need to. He just couldn’t wait to share what he’d read at home. We typically don’t start “formal” storytelling until a couple months into the school year, so I wasn’t writing these early stories down, but it sounded like a fairly faithful retelling of pivotal scenes from the actual books. He was often one of the first kids in class, so we had a lot of quiet time together. He would tell essentially the same story every morning for a week or more. It was evidently important to him to share it with me and part of sharing was getting it just right. Sometimes he would start by correcting something he’d been “wrong” about the day before, but it became clear after awhile that every retelling of the story was an effort to correct some subtle imperfection that had crept into a prior effort.
By the time we got around to writing the stories, Alex had moved on to a new source for his storytelling passion:
A Transformer one. There was Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Bulgar, and then they killed Megatron. And then Optimus Prime knocked Bonecrusher off a bridge and he died.
This was the opening salvo in what became a steady flow of Transformer stories. Having been introduced to the glories of the movie, according to his father, by the TV commercials and by his older brother Colin's interpretations of the "every-present merchandise," Alex was creatively and intellectually stimulated, while his commitment to accuracy remained.
For instance, he told several stories that included a character named Bulgar, until one day he introduced a new character named Bulkhead saying, “Bulkhead is Bulgar.” He had either paid closer attention to the commercial or been corrected by a greater Transformer authority (probably Colin). He then asked me to go back and make the change in all of his previous stories.
There were also times when he knew he was being inaccurate, but let it go in the interest of his narrative. In that same story, after making the Bulgar-Bulkhead correction, he started as usual, then got to the line:
They get Megatron. Actually, Megatron . . .
He paused for a moment, struggling with his internal editor. There was something more to the story, a complexity he might need to introduce. But after a moment, he gave it up:
. . . Well, they got Megatron. And put him in jail. Then they got Bonecrusher and put him in jail. And they got Shotblast and put him in jail. And then they went back to their place.
Sometimes accuracy takes a back seat to fine storytelling.
I’m sure a large part of the Transformers’ appeal for Alex was the action, but he also had a strong drive to wrestle with the ethical and moral aspects of the story.
From the beginning Alex was very clear about who was good and who was bad. Each retelling of the story started with a list of the good guys, followed by what they did to the bad guys. The bad guys never actually did anything bad in the stories, and the only good thing the heroes ever did was mete out consequences. It was a black and white morality destined to muddle into gray.
This is a story from his early period:
About Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and Bulger. A transformer one. They killed Megatron. And then they killed Bonecrusher. And then they killed Shot Blast.
And this is a story from mid-way through the year:
Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and Bulkhead. They put Megatron in jail. And then they put Bonecrusher in jail. And then they put Shotblast in jail. And then they went back to their planet.
It’s the same story, but this time with jail, rather than death, as the consequence of being bad. The concept of “justice” had clearly become a topic of deep thought (and probably serious discussion at home).
But this isn’t where his moral inquiry ended. Alex later told this story:
Transformer. It’s a good thing if they die because they’re robots. Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and Bulkhead killed Megatron. Then they killed Bonecrusher. Then they killed Shotblast.
I knew what he meant: it’s okay if they die because they’re not human. It’s an important rationalization if the moral center of his ongoing Transformer story was going to hold. He had determined that killing wasn’t acceptable, even for good guys, but there apparently was killing (or at least mayhem that looked like killing) in his story. The realization that the death of a robot was not comparable to the death of a living creature was essential to keeping moral order in this universe.
This seemed to settle something for Alex, opening a door to a new and fuller understanding of the Transformer story. These weren’t people after all; they were robots in a pretend movie, which is a place where anything could happen. As the school year ended, Alex was still exploring this increasingly muddy puddle of morality.
Bumblebee, Optimus Prime, and Bulkhead found Megatron right away. To put him in jail. And then Optimus Prime sliced his head off with his axe. And then Bumblebee shot his leg off, and then Bulkhead knocked his body off. And then they walked away and put Shotblast in jail. And then Bumblebee stuck his tongue out at him.
In real life, Alex was non-violent to his core. I never even saw him stick his tongue out at someone. But he was doing hero’s work nevertheless. He may have preferred to keep his cape clean, but that doesn’t mean he was afraid of getting messy.
If you're interested in other posts about the children's storytelling, here they are in the order in which they were transcribed.