Thursday, July 16, 2009

Thinking Inside the Box

In limitations he first shows himself the master.

“Thinking outside the box” has become an overused catch phrase intended to imply creativity. Today it seems like we want everything to be out of the box, but I was working in the business world in the early 1980’s when that phrase came into common use. For us it had a very precise and, frankly, desperate meaning: Our idea box is empty! Thinking outside the box was what you did as a last resort, when nothing else worked. Outside the box solutions were by definition of the makeshift and temporary variety. And while necessity may be the mother of invention, I strongly believe that true genius almost always comes from within the framework of rules.

Page was a smart 4-year-old boy who grew dissatisfied with the classroom rule: No name-calling.

We had arrived at this rule via our usual process of consensus and he’d voiced no objection at the time, but found himself bumping up against the confines of its “box” within days.

At first he tried getting around the rule by only whispering his insults. When charged with breaking the rule, he insisted that it didn’t count because the object of his name-calling “didn’t hear it.”

Then he tried finding loopholes. When caught calling a classmate, “dodo head”, for instance, he made the argument that “dodo head” actually meant, “good good head.” (His case fell apart when I asked if we could refer to him by this appellation.)

He once even tried the political talk show host technique of saying, “If it wasn’t against the rules, I’d call you a poop!”

Finally he initiated a one-man campaign to change the rule. For several weeks running, he raised his hand at Circle Time and spoke against it. He managed to sway a couple of his friends, but ultimately failed to rally sufficient numbers to carry the day.

After that, the matter seemed to disappear until one day Page approached me with a piece of construction paper upon which he’d made some marks with a pen that looked like letters. Most of the kids were capable of writing their own names and maybe a few other words, but there was an inordinate amount of writing on this paper, far beyond what we usually see in preschool.

“Read it,” he said with a sly grin.

The letters weren’t necessarily in a straight line, nor were they perfectly formed, but it looked something like this:


I had to sound it out: “Erin . . . picks . . . her . . . boogers . . .”

Page roared. It was too much. I shouldn’t have, but I laughed with him.

Later, when I told his mother about it, she shrugged, “He’s my little freak. He’s been teaching himself to read and write for months -- all on his own. I guess now I know why.”

In the interest of encouraging this amazing foray into accelerated literacy, Page and I made a private deal. We agreed that name-writing wasn’t technically the same as name-calling. He could therefore write whatever he wanted, but he couldn’t read it aloud and he could only show it to me. It wasn’t long before he moved on to more appropriate subject matter, but we had several private chuckles before he did.

That’s how genius works inside the box.


Cheryl said...

Love this post Tom. At first I thought maybe "Page" was an alias for Elliott! Elliott loves potty talk & humor. While it does drive us crazy, this love (fueled by Captain Underpants no doubt) has inspired him to want to read and write. Mind you we can do without "Poo-poo" written in sharpie marker on the back of his sister's bike...

Maya said...

Awesome post Tom. You know, Page is really onto something here. While I would never encourage my children to name call, I wouldn't mind encouraging them to write down their frustrations no matter how unkind it might be. I think it will teach them the art of cooling down, taking time out to breath and focus their attention on something else. Plus the added benefit of practicing their writing/spelling skills. Perhaps this may also cut down on some of the yelling and name calling that goes on in my home. I too may try this exercise. Instead of engaging in this behavior -- as I often do, "STOP YELLING!" As I too yell back at them, should instead write it down. I'll still get the words off my chest but quietly. Love this post Tom. Thanks again for teaching me something. The Red Caped Crusader has done it again.

Teacher Tom said...

Maybe I'm not cut out for this teacher business after all. I laughed out loud when I read about poor Violet and her "Poo-poo" bike . . . Bad teacher Tom!

Teacher Tom said...

I don't think Page was writing down frustrations. I think he was being a stinker! But your point's well taken, Maya. I think that's what diaries are all about . . . And it's why diaries should stay private.

Anonymous said...

This could not remind me of my son (who is now 8) more.

I'm a professor, and as a result my son has spent a great deal of time around the college students in my field. All brilliant, wonderful, respectful people, many of whom swear like sailors. I remember when he was just over 2, and with me in Europe where I was teaching for the quarter, and he learned *the* classic profanity (the "f" one) from a student who had just discovered that he had lost his train ticket.

My son doesn't use profanity *at* people; rather, he uses it gracefully and appropriately, as a rhetorical device.

Nevertheless, it can be shocking to hear such words come out of a child's mouth. Once, when he was about 3 or so, he dropped a plate or something, and said "Oh, sh*it, I dropped the plate." I immediately said to him, "X, you aren't to say that word, and you know it."

"What word?" he said, innocently.

"The word you just said."

"I'm sorry, which word? 'Plate?'"

"No, you know that's not it."

"Dropped?" Now he's smiling.

"No. You know which one."

"Just tell me, mom. I'm confused." Angelic eyes.

"You know which word: sh*it."

"But then why do *you* say it?!?" And he dissolves into laughter.

Now, at 8, he still swears. But never at people.