Friday, April 14, 2017

Inside The Box

 It's within limitations that he first shows himself the master.  ~Goethe

“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 four-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 tried the political talk show host technique of saying, “If it wasn’t against the rules, I’d call you a poopy-head!” which was his insult of choice.

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, a month or so later, 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. I said, "Page, you wrote letters!"

“Read it,” he replied 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 before pulling it together to scold, "You broke the rule."

But he was ready for me, "No I didn't. I wrote it. You said it!"

Later, when I told his mother about it, she sighed, “That damn kid. 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.”

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.

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