Saturday, 22 December 2018

Learning from the Best - Countdown to Christmas

If ever there is a time I love my job, it's Christmas. I am a bit of an elf anyway, in size and spirit, but my Christmas spirit triples the second I prance into a room full of 27 buzzing children, all practically widdling themselves over Santa's imminent arrival. 

Working with young kids is the perfect excuse to do so many things otherwise unacceptable for an adult: I can watch the Tweenies Christmas special, convince myself that the school granddad is, in that costume, actually Santa and if I want to be a fairy, I most certainly shall! All of this and more is justified with a gentle shrug and an "It's for the kids", a feeble excuse that we all know nobody is believing. 

At Christmas, the inner child in everyone seems to kick its way out of the elderly body, finding delight in things that, at any other time of year, would be, frankly, crap. Candy canes: does anyone actually like those? And literally every Christmas movie has the same plot. It seems that Dickens paved the way for thousands of lazy script-writers, each plagiarizing the same old story and, no matter how much their para-versions suck, we love watching every second. 

Of course, we are rarely in the target age-group for the films that we most enjoy. Though many would deny it, there are very few people who do not have a guilty - or, even, guiltless - pleasure associated with watching at least one film from their childhood. Where some are particularly fond of the traditional films, Miracle on 34th Street or the original The Grinch, others dig the modern movies. I had not quite understand the full extent of my own childishness until I sat next to a colleague watching Elf with the kids and practically choking on my own giggles as they looked on, unimpressed. A film that was allegedly marketed at them was instead appealing directly to us, seemingly perfectly suited to our sense of humor. 

Of course, when we refer to such films as "Children's films", we grant a sense of ownership that is, perhaps, misplaced. Children do not write the films; in many cases, they do not play the lead characters and, although children may well enjoy them, adults are often better at perceiving the subtle comedy or implied meaning within the tales. 

So, what do the adult writers and audiences have in common? Behind the juvenile sense of humor and twee representations of Christmas is a deeper feeling that something once lost can, temporarily, be found. It is not that things stop being funny so much as, the older we get, the less able we are to allow ourselves to laugh. Whilst, beyond a certain age, nothing could convince us of Santa's existence, it is nice, just occasionally, to allow ourselves to emotionally invest in his story. And, no matter how much it makes us cringe, there is something very endearing about a happy ending.  

Christmas, more than any other time of year, solicits silliness, a trait that adults enjoy and benefit from as much as any child. The more we invest in our inner child, the more we feel a desire to return to that state: to regain our innocence, ignorance and the general pleasure gained from just existing. 

No matter how much children long to grow up, the fact is, childhood is pretty darn amazing. Children love being alive. Everything in the world is new and exciting. The most magical things are made even more magical by the fact that they are absolutely true: fairies do exist, anyone can be a king or queen and yes, reindeer really can fly. More than anything, a child's uncomplicated perspective makes decisions about life unequivocally easy. When asked what they hoped the world would be like 50 years from now, my pupils, without prompts, answered "for everyone to be happy." What adult could say that and genuinely mean it?

I find it a great shame that, for all the learning we claim to facilitate, schooling does, essentially, remove children of all common sense, empathy and drive. We begin life as little beacons of joy, desperate to explore everything and fully committed to the notion that the world is a good place. The more we learn however, the less excited we become and, in turn, the less caring. And yet, the older we get, the more we mourn for what we have lost, as though it is not within our power to regain those traits and perspectives we once held so firm. 

Which is where Christmas comes in. With the exception of a couple of Scrooges in the corner, everyone resists the need to act their age and has an at least brief splurge of festive childishness. And this is healthy: really, seriously healthy. Those short bursts of giggles and belief are what, paradoxically, keep us firmly grounded, reminding where we come from and who we still are. 

This is the last true post before the big day and it comes with a request: let your inner child in this Christmas, moreso than ever. It might not change the world, but embracing our inner child really does mean that we really are learning from the best. 

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Between the Lines - Countdown to Christmas

This year, I ventured back into the world of books, studying a Children's Literature module to complete my degree. It has been the perfect excuse to take time out to just sit and read, reminding me of just how much I used to love books and mourn for the time where I could read what I liked, when I liked without feeling guilty. 

Contrary to my expectations, many of the books included on the course are aimed at older children and teens, rather than young children. Indeed, some were written for pre-Victorian boys and girls who, I think, must have possessed a significantly better grasp of the English language than I do now. As such, the texts have not been the easy road I expected and, in a few cases, have presented me with something of a challenge.

The biggest challenge being that I have no desire to read them. For so many reasons, at least half of these texts just have no appeal. Take Little Women, for instance: the scale of its fame left me expecting grand things but disappointed is, sadly, an understatement. On the face of it, nothing actually happens. Four girls live in a house and eventually grow up. It's hardly gripping stuff.

Then there's Treasure Island, a supposed adventure story that takes several reads to understand, let alone enjoy. Once you can actually see past the obscene grammar and painful pirate talk, it turns out that the basic plot is death, death, death. No substance, just a whole lot of blood. 

Beginning my study with these texts left me feeling a little dejected. I was desperately searching for something even vaguely interesting between the lines but to no great success. I found myself skipping pages just to hurry on to the end, safe in the knowledge that I'd have to read them at least twice more in order to complete the relevant essays anyway.

And there's the magic word: essay. For something considered to be such a twee, none-subject, literature essays don't half get complicated. A combination of obscenely detailed lexical deconstruction and careful consideration of context, literary analysis takes a sentence and reads a thousand others within it. It highlights every subtlety in the author's stroke and identifies the many implicit messages hidden between the lines. It allows the critic to play dot-to-dot with different points in the story, watching how the writer's thoughts grow and develop. It waves a spotlight on the many points at which the text reflects the context in which it was written or, even, the present-day, directing us to think about our own lives in very different ways. 

Sometimes, it is the process of writing an essay that leads me to fall in love with a novel for which I previously felt nothing but contempt. Through study, Little Women stopped being a ream of meaningless drivel and instead became a detailed, brave exploration of contemporary gender expectations, in which Alcott made some pretty bold claims. The depth of character in each of her little ladies, the subtlety of her narrative and the clear conflict between Alcott's values and those imposed on her by society make Little Women a complex, enticing read. It was only through reading around the book, looking at its context and applying this to my own analysis, that I was able to understand just how good the work really is.

Whilst Treasure Island still sits pretty low down my list of recommended reads, a similar process of change occurred as I wrote the essay to which it relates. Again, the implicit conflict between the story Stevenson had in his head and the tale he was expected to write creates a tension at the book's start and end that, somehow, makes it interesting. Whilst I could not claim to enjoy the story, I can appreciate the level of skill involved in writing it and, indeed, its literary significance. 

There was always something very tedious about analysing books in school. Picking out the most obvious adjective and claiming that it created 'tension' was a signature GCSE move that clearly warmed the cockles of examiners' hearts but, as far as analyses go, it was really rather lame. This must, at least in part, be to blame for so many people's disdain for reading. If books really are that obvious, there is no thrill to be gained from picking one up. 

What GCSEs failed to teach us was just how complicated a bit of fiction can be. Every word on every page is its own little piece of history, revealing more about the author and their lives than we could ever hope to understand. Even the most obvious of texts can be complex, if you look close enough.

And that, I guess, is what reading really comes down to. Those unwilling to read beyond the words are unlikely to gain any real kick from sitting down to a good book. The more you look between the lines, the more you come to understand about the real world and everything in it. Now that, that is is a reason to read, read, read.