Tuesday, November 28, 2023

"I'm The Hulk!"

"I'm The Hulk!" 

His parents hadn't taken their three-year-old to see the movie, but the marketing had nevertheless penetrated into his awareness, capturing his imagination, which clearly interpreted The Hulk as an image of power worthy of emulation. Or rather, in this boy's case, embodiment.

"I'm The Hulk!" he would declare as he swaggered through the classroom door each morning, flexing, his legs spread wide, taking up as much room as his tiny body could fill. He insisted on being called, "The Hulk," not Hulk, not The Incredible Hulk or the Green Goliath, and  definitely not the name his parents had given him. Most of the time, The Hulk did the same kinds of things the other kids were doing, albeit punctuated by bodybuilder stances and the regular declaration, "I'm The Hulk!"

This was very early in my teaching career and this boy happened to be the brother of my own daughter's best friend, so I knew this boy quite well, having spent countless hours at his house, dining with him, vacationing with him, and even trick-or-treating with him. Interestingly, he hadn't dressed as The Hulk for Halloween. Similarly, he didn't insist on being called The Hulk in any circumstance other than while at school. His bedroom was full of green merchandise, including a giant pillow fist that made the sound of breaking glass when you punched something with it, but pretending to be The Hulk was apparently reserved for school.

It's estimated that the average adult spends almost half of their waking thoughts reliving memories or planning for the future, with the rest, presumedly, dedicated to the present. I'm unaware of any such estimates regarding three-year-olds, but from what I've observed, and based on the simple fact that they have fewer memories to reflect upon, and less experience upon which to base their anticipation for tomorrow, much more of their conscious thinking time would, by the process of elimination, have to be spent on the present. And for a child like this one, a large chunk of his time in the present, especially in school, was spent pretending. 

As researchers and professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkley, Alison Gopnik writes in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, "By far the most important and interesting problem for young children is figuring out what's going on in other people's minds. Theory of mind, as it's called, is the ability to figure out the desires, perceptions, emotions, and beliefs of other people. It's quite possibly the most important kind of learning people ever do . . . (T)he period from eighteen moths to five years is the great watershed for developing theory of mind . . . Children who pretend more have a distinct advantage in understanding other people."

I often think of this boy who embodied The Hulk. Certainly, he was exploring how it might feel to be a large, physically powerful entity, something that he objectively was not. Sometimes the other children would be frightened of The Hulk, cowering or even crying. When that happened he usually dropped the act for a time, seemingly confused, often insisting softly, "I'm not really The Hulk." Sometimes he would say the tagline, "Hulk smash!" but he was rarely actually violent. Indeed, when the other children would wrestle, he'd stand nearby, flexing, but would decline to actually engage. He loved few things more, however, than another child who would go face-to-face with him, being, counter-factually fierce and powerful and strong. 

"Thinking counterfactually in this way is a tremendously useful skill for adult human beings," writes Gopnik. "It's what we mean when we talk about the power of imagination and creativity. Counterfactual thinking is crucial for learning about the world. In order to learn we need to believe that what we think now could be wrong, and to imagine how the world might be different . . . In order to change the world, we need to imagine that the world could be different, and then actually set about making it that way. In fact, just about everything in the room I'm sitting in -- the woven fabrics, the carpentered chairs, not to mention the electric lights and computers -- is wildly fictional from the perspective of a Pleistocene forager. Our world started out as a counterfactual imaginary vision in an ancestor's mind. One way of thinking about pretend play is that it gives children a safe space to practice higher-order mental skills, just as rough-and-tumble gives baby rats a safe space to practice fighting and hunting, and exploratory play gives baby crows a safe space to practice using sticks."

The Hulk is a young man now. Despite his experience pretending to be The Hulk, he didn't grow into a large, green, be-muscled adult. I know that he tried out football in high school, but found it too much for him. He does, however, write and perform music, fierce powerful music that gets people up on their feet. The kind of music one might imagine The Hulk would make.


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"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices
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