Last week, I visited my daughter’s first grade classroom to help her present her diorama project. The idea of the project was to depict a favorite scene from a favorite book. My daughter chose the “wild rumpus” scene from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. After an entire weekend devoted to the project, we created our own forest, complete with tall trees, lush leaves and even Christmas lights to represent the stars in the night sky. We hung the “wild things” off the branches; Max, the protagonist, was front and center. During her presentation, the teacher asked the students if Max really had a forest grow in his room. It was clear that the class had already discussed the book before because the entire class responded with a resounding, “No! It was just a dream,” which the teacher confirmed. I’m somewhat thankful that the class responded so quickly and assuredly, because it helped to distract from my daughter’s look of confusion and disappointment. I could read her thoughts, “What? This didn’t really happen? The forest didn’t really grow in the bedroom, and Max really didn’t travel to ‘where the wild things are?’” My heart broke right along with hers. After my daughter’s presentation, later that evening, I asked her, “Mija, did you think it was just a dream? Or did you think Max really went to ‘where the wild things are?’” She responded, in a somewhat defeated tone, “I thought he really went, but everyone else said it was just a dream.” I tell her that she is right, Max really did go.
The point of this “dream versus reality” concept, from the teacher’s point of view, was to teach the first-graders the difference between fiction and nonfiction. I understand. But now, I teach literature at my local community college, and when my class reaches the end of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”, I allow them to decide if the protagonist really walks a path of evil and disillusionment in one night, or if he only dreams it. I want my students to be left in wonderment… I want them to be left in contemplation… to find meaning, their meaning. This is what I also wish for my daughter. The beauty of literature is that it makes fiction real. It blurs what is real and what isn’t so that we can feel, learn, think, be transported and be inspired. This is literature’s gift at age 6 and age 60.
This is what I believe: That we should encourage our children to imagine and to recognize the power in their imaginations, that we encourage them to feel what is real about stories, and to teach them that it is all of our stories that help us to begin to understand one another. As the world’s problems grow in complexity, we will need the imagination of our children to thrive. It is precisely through their imagination that they will envision and create a more just and peaceful world. So I tell my daughter and all children: Believe. Hold on to your imagination. Dream big. “Now let the wild rumpus start!”
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