Sunday, January 29, 2012

We Let Dragons Flow Through Us

The children and I have been teaching each other about dragons for several years now, connected to our celebration of Chinese New Year (which we are celebrating tomorrow and Tuesday due to a snow delay). I don't have any more information about dragons than do the kids: we all pretty much only know what our books tell us, although Violet did come to class this year with the knowledge that this is The Year of the Water Dragon.

But that's okay because I've come to understand that learning about dragons is a creative, philosophical, and artistic process, one that like all life's great mysteries, will never yield conclusive answers, just ideas that make us ponder.

This year as we explored the dragon archetypes presented to us in Demi's illustrated books Dragon's and Fantastic Creatures and The Boy Who Painted Dragons I was struck by how often the words "flow" and "flowing" are used to describe how dragons interact with the terrestrial world on a day-to-day basis, and how incredible it is to have a 3-year-old announce, "The Creative Dragon is flowing through my mind right now!" or a 4-year-old say, "The Mountain Dragon was flowing through me when I went skiing."

This demonstrates to me a remarkable faculty for understanding and playing with metaphor, the foundation of all thinking. And this is ultimately why we study mythological dragons in school, to expand our inventory of metaphor. The larger our collection the more clearly we think, the more intellectual complexity we can handle, and the better we can communicate the nuances and textures of our thoughts. 

I frequently pause in our discussions to remind the group that dragons are pretend, that it's fun to pretend, that we will never come face-to-face with the fierce and fiery dragon the way Ping the dragon painting boy does when the Heavenly Dragon comes to visit him. But these dragons, as ancient symbols for the great forces of nature are only superficially pretend. As they live within our collective minds as a flow of big ideas, comparisons, and contrasts, they are as real and true as any quadratic equation.

This year the children began to ask about the gender of the various dragons we examined. "Is that one a girl?" "I think that one's a boy because it has whiskers." "That one's a girl because it has rainbow colors." Although the text in some places uses male pronouns, I assumed that dragons would have to come in both of the sexes, like with the Greek gods, or else, you know, what's the point of gender? 

As the title of Demi's book suggests, however, there are mythological creatures other than dragons depicted in our books and this year we took a look at some of them. There was a unicorn (quite unlike the western variation), an elephant (not too different from what we know), a butterfly lion dog that made us laugh and say, "What the . . .!?", and a phoenix. Demi provides short, descriptive poems about each of the creatures, some of which I read, some of which I didn't. I'm sure I've read the phoenix text before, but because of our ongoing dragon-gender discussion it struck me this time: the phoenix is "the dragon's wife."

I looked around at the other adults in the room for a little help. Surely, one of them would be able to refute that. It challenged me on so many levels: 1) here we are admiring dragons as these ultra-powerful, cool, kind, wise beings and they're all male, 2) how can two entirely different species mate?, and 3) I'd been misinforming the kids all along in our dragon-gender discussions. All of these thoughts are battling it out as I sat there before the assembled kids showing them the picture of the phoenix. 

That's when Luella said, "No, Teacher Tom, that's not true!" followed by a chorus of agreement from her classmates. We then went back to discussing whether or not The Thunder Dragon was a boy or a girl. These kids apparently already have a well-developed sense of balance and equality, one that cannot be shaken by ancient prejudices and stereotypes.

It was still pretty cool when on the following day, as she played in our rice-filled sensory table, Sasha noticed the picture on one of the Chinese food carry out boxes. "Look, Teacher Tom, it's a dragon and a phoenix. That's the dragon's wife." We've been playing with those boxes for years and no one has ever noticed that before, let alone understood the symbolism. Now we know. I will be seeking out stories of the phoenix for next year.

We have another, lesser known book in our collection of Chinese mythology entitled Eyes of the Dragon by Margaret Leaf. It is apparently the only children's book she ever wrote. Like Demi's story of Ping, it's another tale centered on the process of painting dragons. It's a dramatic, frightening story, one that I don't usually read to the kids, about a great dragon painter who is commissioned to paint a giant dragon on the protective wall encircling the village. He leaves off the eyes, but the magistrate refuses to pay him until he paints them in. He reluctantly does so, grabs his money, and leaves in a hurry knowing what is to come. The dragon, now with eyes, come terrifyingly to life and flies off, leaving the villages walls in ruins.

The note at the end of the book says that Leaf based her story on an ancient legend and a Ming-era essay on the philosophy of dragon painting, which says, in part: "You must paint with a sweeping brush . . . so as to bring out the life of the muscles and the bones, but in order to express the essence of the spirit of the dragon perfectly, you must give him awe-inspiring bloody eyes . . . then, when the eyes are put in, he will fly away."

It's not my pedagogical high point, but each year I use a Sharpie to draw cartoonish dragons for the children to paint with water colors. The "creative" part is that we encourage them to name their dragons, to tell us of their powers. I wouldn't want this kind of "art project" to become a staple of our school, but it has become a tradition (at least for me). If I'd read the endnote in Leaf's book before this year, I'd forgotten it. I was proud to think as I drew all those dragons in preparation for the kids that I was using sweeping strokes, keeping them fluid and loose.

Every year, I'd noticed that most of the children start by painting the eyes, and often they only paint the eyes, sometimes applying so much paint they virtually black them out. This year as I watched them do it, it was through the prism of these new dragon metaphors, especially the lesson of Ping who learns that as frightening as dragons are, it is only when facing ones fears that we grow wise.

As Leaf points out, it is the eyes of the dragon that give them life, and these children, who have been looking for eyes since the day they were born, apparently don't need to be told this as their brushes are drawn inevitably to the center of their dragons' life and power.

What a lot of interesting thoughts we have when we let dragons flow through us.

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Storytime Fun said...

Did you know that it is a Chinese tradition to save the painting of the eyes of the Dragon (at the end of the New Year's parade) until right before he enters the parade?

Your post was very interesting to read. I enjoyed your descriptions of your students' thoughts and actions. Thank you for sharing!

Juliet Robertson said...

Dragons also symbolise inner strength.