Wednesday, December 04, 2013

I Do Not Feel Like I'm Lying

I've written before about the Shapey project. I've introduced it now to our Pre-K class for 12 years running, one of the few things like it, a tradition one might say. The set up is a letter from outer space from an alien named Shapey who has gotten to know about us through out class mascot "Love Cat." Shapey lives on a far away planet called Polygon where it is nearly his mother's birthday. He wants to give her a portrait of himself as a present, but lacks the ability. He has heard of our class' legendary talents and kindness and is counting on us to help him by creating one from his written description, a pencil, a ruler, glue stick and some pre-cut construction paper pieces. We then separate into two groups, each working with the same materials, using the same instructions.

As a project it's definitely out of character for our play-based school, but there's not once been a child who objected to participating. Sure, there are some who grow impatient with how long these group decision-making projects take, but no one has ever walked away, except perhaps to check in on what the other group is doing. Yesterday's skeleton crew of 7 kids spent a good half an hour working on their portraits, finishing at more or less the same time.

When we reconvened on our checker-board rug, I mentioned how excited I thought Shapey would be to receive not one, but two, identical portraits. And they would be identical, wouldn't they? We used the same materials and same instructions, so logically they would be the same portraits. Of course, they never are, which leads to a discussion about how this could have happened. Then we wonder which one is the real Shapey. Then we decide that only Shapey can tell us, deciding to send both of them to Polygon. Next Tuesday we will learn that they are both perfect portraits: one is how he looks when he's awake, the other when he sleeps.

Much of the Facebook discussion under yesterday's post revolved around what we tell children about things like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, many saying they felt betrayed when their parents finally told them the truth. Many have apparently opted out of the game altogether, not wanting to perpetuate these "lies."

Santa and the Tooth Fairy came to our house, although without the whole "naughty and nice" conditions. Other than that, we really didn't give it much thought. To my wife and me, they were just fun stories we told, traditional stories like the one about Shapey. When our daughter asked her questions, I started (as I do with any "serious" question a child asks) by asking for what she thought. Like with her questions about death or sex or violence, she would then share her thoughts and theories, I would do what I could if she was upset, but generally just listen and nod. Her theory of Santa evolved over the years, sometimes imagining him as a kind of ghost, sometimes rejecting particulars of the story, like his flying reindeer. Finally, however, she asked me the direct question and insisted on my answer. She was probably eight or nine, old enough to have sussed out the impossibility of the story all on her own. I replied, "Do you really want to know?" 

We were walking together toward the grocery store. We continued in silence as my question hung there. We both knew we both knew. Finally, she answered, "No, I don't want to know," keeping the myth alive awhile longer. She's now 17 and Santa still comes every Christmas morning, even though she has, of her own accord, chosen to embrace her Jewish heritage.

I've never considered Santa or any of his cohort to be "lies," but rather myths. We often use the words as synonyms, but they are not. Myths are in fact true; maybe not literally, but they are always unflinchingly honest in the same way our dreams are always honest:

It has been said that the myth is a public dream, dreams are private myths. Unfortunately, we give our mythic side scant attention these days. As a result, a great deal escapes us and we no longer understand our own actions. So it remains important and salutary to speak not only of the rational and easily understood, but also of enigmatic things: the irrational and ambiguous. To speak both privately and publicly.  ~Mary Zimmerman

You see, the thing about fiction in general, but specifically things like mythology and fairy tales, is that the good ones contain so much truth that it's impossible to deny them, even when the metaphors used to convey those truths are not technically true. Children are capable of understanding this. It's why it's such a problem when we sanitize them, always giving them happy endings the way Disney does. Santa is the incredible idea of generosity, not of money, but of time, a jolly man who spends his entire year making toys for others, a figure of service and kindness to be emulated. But it has been corrupted and cheapened by commercialism. He is no longer a figure of wonder and philosophical investigation, but rather an icon that for many has come to represent the happy-faced mask of greed. Instead of us telling the story, we've left it to Hollywood and Wall Street, who have turned the myth into a lie.

I do not feel that I'm lying to the children when I tell them the story of Shapey, a character who is only known through a few lines of description in a letter I've fabricated. We talked yesterday about his space ship, what his planet might look like. I heard Rhys suddenly pipe up as he worked with his group, "I know why he's named Shapey, because he's made out of shapes!" Others talked about his mother, his planet, what he and Love Cat (a stuffed animal) did together. We wondered how Shapey would get his finished portraits back home, which would be the one he would accept, if we would ever get to see him. As we created our public dream together, weaving it from sentences that began, "What if Shapey . . ." we discussed and debated everything we know and do not know about the universe.

This, I think, is the distinction: when adults tell the story of, say, Santa, and insist upon its truth in all its particulars, we are lying, especially when we attempt to use it to command obedience. But when we are creating these stories together, as part of our lives, as a path toward both inner and outer understanding, we are creating myths, without which we can never hope to approach truth.

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