Culture, art, work of art, message to mankind, new world, dialogue, creativity, humanity, freedom… I delved pretty deeply into my deliberations. It is important and interesting though, to see how all these high-end ideas translate into everyday life. Luckily for me, there were five smart people to discuss all this stuff with. I wasn’t as much worried about a right question to start with, as I was worried about keeping the conversation going. I was wrong though, and neither took much effort on my part.
Well, first things first. Next time I entered the classroom, I announced my question, “Why do we read books?” Silence, staring eyes… but not for long.
Why Do We Read Books?
Alpha: Isn’t it obvious? Books teach us to behave.
Beta: Yeah, like Tom Sawyer in Sunday school.
Kappa: Tom Sawyer is a good boy.
Delta: Who said he isn’t?
Gamma: I didn’t.
Beta: Me neither.
Kappa: I am not even sure I don’t like what he did in Sunday school.
Alpha: Well, you may like him personally, but he didn’t show a very good example.
Kappa: So? You don’t always show good examples, do you?
Beta: Hey, Kappa, do you like Alpha for that?
Kappa: Come on, I’m serious here.
Delta: You’re always serious.
Teacher: So, what about books? Why do we read them?
Are Arts to Teach Us?
Beta: Can we think about looking at paintings as well?
Delta: About theater?
Alpha: Fashion shows, heh heh.
Delta: I don’t think it matters!
Alpha: How is that? A book clearly teaches you. You understand it. However, when you listen to music, you can imagine whatever you want!
Beta: Alpha, what have you learned from Tom Sawyer?
Kappa: How to tease and beat boys in clean clothes, ha ha.
Delta: How to court girls.
Gamma: To paint fences.
Beta: To take a friend’s punishment.
Alpha: See? You guys only look at the dark side of what Tom was doing!
Kappa: Come on, Alpha, we do not.
Alpha: Why do you stress the bad things then?
Delta: To make you think, Alpha.
Alpha: Make yourself!
Beta: We are trying. Seriously though, I feel like we’re not quite on track yet.
Kappa: Interesting. I have always liked Tom Sawyer, from the very moment I got to know him. And I knew, of course, about all these bad things he did, and I’ve never even thought of criticizing him!
Alpha: You fell in love with him, didn’t you?
Kappa: Something like that.
Delta: Yeah, girls love him.
Alpha: I was teasin’, Kappa.
Kappa: But I’m serious.
Delta: You’re always serious.
Kappa: Stop it, Delta. This is different.
Beta: You know what? I’m kinda surprised. I feel like Tom Sawyer is becoming alive in my mind right now.
Alpha: What is he doing? Knocking at your skull?
Delta: Yeah, Alpha, so that you can learn that from him and repeat after him.
Kappa: Guys, what’s come over you today?
Getting on Track: Arts Do Influence Us
Gamma: We went to a concert yesterday, me and my folks. And I just listened to the music and liked most of it, but didn’t like some of it. And then we got out, and I forgot it and was thinking how I would play Freeciv at home. Dad was discussing the concert with Mom, and my aunt started to argue, and all that was pretty annoying, but I jumped in at some point, I don’t know why. We were arguing all the way down to our house, and I almost got in a fight with Becky (Gamma’s kid sister), and we all couldn’t stop. Mom wanted to cool us down, but Dad couldn’t stop either. In the end, all of a sudden, I felt an urge to go back and listen to it again! It’s like Beta said, I felt like it had become alive in my mind! I mean, all those things I was imagining while I was arguing―people, feelings, actions, you know. They kind of crowded my mind, while I was trying to make my point,… maybe because of that…
Alpha: I don’t follow you. What does it have to do with our today’s question?
Kappa: I know how that feels! That’s exactly what happens every time we go to a movie! We always argue afterwards, and Jimmy (Kappa’s kid brother) always speaks against me because he likes to tease me, and Mom tries to cool us down, and Dad jumps in. Dad tries not to take sides but can’t help it. And then we go to watch it again sometimes, not the entire family, but who can or wants to, you know, and we often buy the video as soon as it comes out. And I am starting to understand now, all of this argument is the best part of it. I think, I wouldn’t pay much attention to many of those movies, if not for this argument! But I can write books about them now!
Alpha: Wow, what a story! A family fight! How is this relevant?
Gamma: Don’t you see? It’s all the same.
Alpha: No, I do not! It’s all different! In a movie, you see what you see. In a book, you can’t see it but have to imagine all of its heroes, and landscapes, and action… Everyone imagines it their own way! It’s like everyone reads a different book while we all read the same The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. And when you listen to music, you don’t even know whether you think of it in the way the composer does. How can you say it is all the same?
Teacher: If I ask now, why do we read books, watch movies, listen to music… Will the answers be different?
Alpha: …Well, that’s not what I meant. I don’t know why we do all those things. My point was that they are very different, that’s all.
Beta: Thus, you don’t know any more?
Alpha: What do you mean?
Delta: Beta is reminding you that you had the answer about books, remember?
Alpha: Actually, I think that books, and movies, and music…
Kappa: And fashions?
Gamma: Hold it!
Alpha: …do the same thing to us. They teach us, but in different ways. And everyone learns what they see or can see or…
Delta: Or want?
Beta: Well, if you learn from Tom Sawyer how to defend your girl, and the other guy learns to smoke, and someone concludes that Indians are bad guys because there was a bad Indian Joe there… then how can we tell that books teach us at all?
Alpha: I told you, everyone learns what they see.
Delta: Listen, Alpha, if books are to learn from, then writers are to teach us, right?
Delta: Is that a yes, or a no?
Alpha: Come on, we’re not in a courtroom.
Delta: Why don’t you answer?
Kappa: OK, OK. Suppose they are to teach us, what is your point?
Gamma: Delta is just picking up on what Beta is getting at. If books are to learn from, their authors are to teach, but if everyone learns different things, then what are the authors teaching? Did I get it right, guys?
Beta: Well yes, you’re even getting ahead of me now.
Kappa: Well, I don’t know what Mark Twain was trying to teach us, but I was never the same after I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Beta: I have a feeling that I’ll never be the same after this discussion.
Teacher: Me too, I think.
Alpha: What are you guys talking about? Are you going to paint fences from now on?
Gamma: Oh, very funny, Alpha. Everyone is laughing.
Alpha: Gamma, you may cry, if you want to.
Gamma: Well, thank you! Now I feel like I live in a free country.
Kappa: Oh there it goes again.
Delta: But, we were being all deep about these ideas, and I don’t get why Alpha has to play it down like that.
Alpha: Oh, so Delta can be serious too!
Teacher: Can we do a little summary now? It won’t look like final answers, and I cannot even say we have some answers, but certain things were definitely said.
The First Summary
Teacher: Firstly, books, movies, music, etc., do something similar to us ( Gamma and Alpha were close on that. We just are not sure what it is). Secondly, they do it in different ways (Alpha stressed this). Thirdly, arts change us (this was Kappa’s point). Fourthly, argument magnifies the influence of art (this point was a joint venture of Beta, Gamma, and Kappa)…
Arts and Reality
Kappa: You know what? Now that I think of it, I argued a lot with many different people while I was reading Tom Sawyer!
Beta: Do you mean Aunt Polly or Sid?
Kappa: No… well, yes… Well, I don’t know. It was like, say, I didn’t like what Sid did, but, at the same time, I felt like it was my brother Jimmy, you know…
Gamma: Actually, when you are deep in a book or music, it does not matter what art we are talking about, you forget yourself in a way. I realize very clearly that I felt like I was with Tom Sawyer… and all of his adventures… I was there. And maybe, if it was me, my folks were with me somewhere around, you know? It sometimes felt like I was talking to my dad or mom or Becky, I mean my sister. And when it was about Tom Sawyer, then it was for me like talking to… some other boy.
Delta: I agree. I never thought about it, but I agree. Other people, those you know, they are like shadows that are always there, wherever you are, either in a real place or in a book.
Kappa: Yeah! And they can be heroes from other books too!
Alpha: Yeah, Pinocchio fighting with Tom Sawyer! Guys, get real. We do not live in books.
Kappa: But it’s true! If you love Tom Sawyer as much as a real boy, you talk to him a thousand times a day, then he is around wherever you go! Delta is 100 percent right!… And Gamma… It’s totally like that!
Alpha: Hey! Someone’s a little too excited here, don’t you think?
Kappa: Wait, Alpha, don’t you understand? This is just great! You always have your folks with you! Real ones and art heroes! You always have them!
Teacher: Actually, when you say… “real ones,” you don’t mean… “physical ones,” correct?
Gamma: I got it.
Alpha: People, it is all your fantasy and has nothing to do with real reality. I’m telling you, get real. After all, we got the question to answer―why do we read books? I don’t feel like we are one step closer to an answer.
Beta: Wow and wow.
Alpha: What? Cat got your tongue?
Gamma: I am saying wow too.
Teacher: Thank you, students.
Kappa: What is this? Some sort of a plot! Say something already!
Gamma: Wait, I am thinking.
Beta: Oh, it is cool.
Kappa: Come on, both of you! Let us in on it!
Gamma: All right. You know, who is your President?
Kappa: Our President today?
Alpha: It is Clinton. So?
Gamma: Is he a good guy or a bad guy?
Alpha: How should I know?
Beta: But you have to have some attitude, some understanding, some feelings about him, don’t you?
Kappa: I do. I don’t want him for the second term.
Gamma: Good! Tell us what made you think that?
Alpha: I see where you are heading. It’s all the newspapers, TV, radio, Internet… So?
Kappa: Ah! It is all artificial! President Trumpet is as much real to me as Tom Sawyer is! And all my likes and dislikes relate to stories I read, movies I watched, music I listened to, etc.
Teacher: Well, there is something there that was done by real people, like me, or your loving parents, or your smart classmates, or even your President…
Kappa: But now I don’t even know who did what and who did more?
Beta: All our lives… This happens all our lives. We don’t know what we are made of? Is it our parents who read us tales, or is this the tales that were read to us by our parents?
Delta: Is it President Clinton, cooked up by a journalist, or is it the journalist who shows his attitude writing about President Clinton?
Gamma: Is it music, written by a composer, or the composer who writes the music?
Alpha: OK, I can play this game too. Tom Sawyer or Mark Twain, right?
Beta: Or yourself, when you read it.
Teacher: Or your classmates you are arguing with.
Beta: Or ideas, we are arguing about?
Gamma: Told you! Wow!
Kappa: You sure did! Wow!
Alpha: Everyone―one, two three: Wow!
Delta: So you do join in, Alpha?
Alpha: Join what?
The Second Summary
Beta: Hold it, hold it! I have a question. Our mind is like a play where images of real people and heroes of artistic works all act out their roles. Can we sum up it this way?
Teacher: It is an intriguing summary!
Beta: OK. Now, I read a book and feel compassion for a hero. Let’s say Tom Sawyer again… or wait… a thought is sneaking around. OK, give me a second…
Alpha: And what are we going to do while Beta is chasing his sneaky thought?
Kappa: I feel exhausted.
Beta: Actually, I’m ready. Remember that last thing I said? That we don’t know what really affects our mind―a person that argues pro some idea, or the idea that is argued for by that person?
Delta: Well, it was not exactly that, but yes, in a sense, yes, you said that.
Alpha: Huh? Now, it is not enough for you all to treat literary personages like real people? You want an idea to be like a person too?
Teacher: Let’s call it a quasi-personality.
Alpha: Are you serious?
Gamma: Listen, Alpha, hold on. Let Beta tell us his new story.
Beta: Thanks. Quite frankly, it is not that clear to me yet.
Teacher: That’s all right. Go on.
Beta: OK. As I said, I don’t have a theory, just some kind of feeling to describe.
Kappa: Go ahead.
Beta: Say, I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I feel like Tom Sawyer. I relate to other characters. I feel compassion to some of them, anger at others. I get scared, make up my mind about something…
Alpha: Those are not new discoveries.
Beta: No, they are not. I am trying to grasp a theme here. And I understand that Mark Twain loves this boy and makes us love him as well.
Kappa: Yes, exactly! He does not teach us a thing! He just makes us love him! This is it. This is just it. This is the word!
Delta: Does Mark Twain like Sid?
Gamma: I don’t have theory either, but it seems to me, an author cannot dislike his characters.
Kappa: Thus, Mark Twain likes Sid and Indian Joe?
Gamma: I believe so.
Kappa: Do they like him?
Alpha: What? People, you got derailed completely.
Beta: Why? Remember, I said I felt like Tom Sawyer was coming alive in my mind. He still is. The more we talk, the more alive he becomes.
Alpha: Ah, I remember. He was knocking at your skull. He did succeed, I admit.
Delta: Well, Alpha, if he did succeed then he is alive after all?
Kappa: All right, is everyone done joking? I am not sure Beta finished his idea.
Beta: I didn’t… Where did I stop?
Teacher: You said Mark Twain made us love Tom Sawyer.
Beta: Yes, and this is it about Tom Sawyer. Now, when I said that ideas affect us like people do, I did not actually know what I meant. It just jumped off of my tongue. But now, I’m starting to see it better. I want to move on to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Alpha: Just another of the same kind.
Beta: Yes, but I want to single out one moment. That is when two crooks sold Jim back into slavery for forty bucks. I felt like I was going to cry along with Huck!
Alpha: OK, slavery is bad. What’s your point?
Beta: My point now is closer to yours, in a way. It is not that Mark Twain taught me that slavery is bad, but he made me feel really, really, really bad about slavery at that moment. I was desperate. So now, I do not just love Huckleberry, but I got into thinking about slavery, and believe me, it still bothers me.
Gamma: I think, I owe all of you another summary now.
The Last Summary
Teacher: Go ahead, Gamma.
Gamma: Look, uh… remember we were talking about President Clinton? That his journalist-made image is real to us, while we know nothing about the man? I now think that all we love or hate in this life is clarified and taught by arts.
Alpha: Told you.
Gamma: No, not like you said it. It is not exactly about teaching. Huckleberry Finn made us feel bad about the enslaved Jim. Do you see the difference?
Alpha: Between what and what?
Kappa: Between knowledge and feelings! Understood?
Teacher: So, Gamma, are you ready for your statement?
Gamma: Almost. It feels kind of scary. Let us talk a little bit more.
Alpha: Are you scared of your own fantasy?
Gamma: You bet. OK, we’re sure now that arts do influence us greatly. They form the way we think and the way we feel.
Beta: They actually form the way itself.
Delta: What is the way?
Beta: It is “talking” itself… That process―it is the process of talking to each other and inside our own minds.
Kappa: The arts bring in actors to act in all our conversations.
Beta: And ideas.
Gamma: And scenarios.
Teacher: You think you proved it?
Beta: No, we did not, but these ideas just emerged! And I can’t put forth anything else.
Gamma: OK, I pick it up. The whole of our mind is directly or indirectly made by the arts.
To My Reader
This time, I was going to squeeze and summarize the ideas my first graders would come up with. I wanted to stress the “right” points, underline unanswered questions, provide some extra logic. In the end I saw no reason to do that. The whole time that I listened to the dialogue, I kept wanting to jump into the discussion. The subject began to become slightly clearer to me, and at the same time, my head was boiling with ideas. I was enervated and wanted to keep on discussing, thinking, writing, reading… This boiling matter in my mind was the best thing ever happened to me. I went on with writing, .. but had not gotten very far until our next conversation―just a few notes.
Addendum: From Child Psychology
These themes are slightly aside from the main one discussed by kids. Still, they are obviously in close relationship.
There is a certain phenomenon in child behavior, commonly regarded as greediness. Children dislike to share things they are attached to. The attachment can emerge at once, like love at first sight. As far as parents regard this kind of behavior as greediness, they try hard to disapprove and “fix” it. In reality, this means that parents and other adults simply hurt the normal psychological development of a child. The phenomenon we are discussing is of absolutely different nature. It is not an ethical issue but one of pure “construction” of the child psyche. In the early years, consciousness is not the same as that of an adult. It is constructed primarily from “one’s things”: habitual clothes, toys, furniture, all the familiar and otherwise accepted by the child things. When adults try to remove something accepted by the child, they plainly damage his consciousness in its current stage. If the child gets used to letting go of things easily, he or she will never be a normal person capable of attachment to other people, ideas, values. This will be a case of a person having, in a sense, a reduced soul.
There is another phenomenon in child behavior, regarded by some as “aping” (mimicking, repeating, mocking). Children tend to repeat one after another. It is generally regarded as something not-quite-positive, while in reality is another extremely important aspect of child development. It is a way to acquire ideas, expressions, some activities, etc. There is no way for psyche to develop normally without aping.