A couple of weeks ago, I met with a groups of fifth grade teachers at a fancy-pants school for gifted children. Now, this little anecdote is in no way intended to knock teachers or students or gifted students or gifted education at all. I myself, after exhausting my poor little soul in search for a school for my own darling child who was not being challenged (neither appropriately, nor, alas, at all) in her current school, I think very highly in giving gifted children peers and substance in which their minds might expand, exercise and delight in the pursuits of Knowledge and Beauty and Truth.
There is, unfortunately, a tendency among educators for the gifted, to see their academic potential in limiting terms. Deceptively simple ideas are dismissed as being “too easy”, and enjoyable tasks are shunted aside in favor of Projects Worthy of Princeton (or, if we are aiming for a security school, Harvard). And, after creating an entire school designed to challenge these children, thus allowing their “gifts” to shine, the message that gifted children receive is that there is something inherently “lacking” or “low” in the natural inclinations or interests or passions. Gifted children too often are told that there is a “correct” answer always, and the fear of being “incorrect” - and therefore no longer “gifted” - is a terrifying thought indeed.
Now, with that sort of set up in mind, let me tell you what happened to me:
In anticipation of a creative writing residency that I was to do at this Certain Gifted School, I scheduled a meeting with the teachers to talk a little bit about what they were expecting from me, what I'd need from them, etc. etc. I was sitting there at a table with three teachers and the coordinator who brought me in, as I chatted about the nuances of characterization, my methods for getting kids invigorated and invested in the creation of narrative arcs, and etc. Now, these women were teachers in the archetypical sense – nubbly blazers with matching skirts and a silk blouse with a built-in scarf tied smartly at the throat. If Joseph Campbell was ever to describe his Hero With A Thousand Faces sallying into an adventure at an elementary school, he would run smack into these women.
And they would not be amused.
After fielding what seemed like a million questions regarding my stance on paragraphing and what my intentions were when it came to rampant grammar mistakes that may or may not show up in the text, one teacher asked me this:
“What do you intend to do about the over-proliferation of fantasy stories?”
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.
The over-proliferation of fantasy stories. There's nothing like the prefix “over” to really lay on a nice thick layer implied judgment. I stammered for a moment or two before finally managing to say, “I'm not sure I know what you mean.”
“It's all because of Harry Potter,” one teacher said while the others pursed their lips and nodded sagely.
“It's a trend.”
“You'll have to nip it in the bud.”
“It's the only kind of story they'll want to write. They'll need to be taken in hand if you want them to write real fiction.”
I closed my eyes for a moment and pressed my fingers to my lips. “Usually,” I said, “I have the children write the stories that they like to read.”
That, of course, was not the thing that I wanted to say. What I wanted to say was “don't you people know that I freaking write fantasy stories?” But I digress.
But what interests me most, particular in the context of today's discussion, was a comment made by the eldest of the schoolteachers – and the one least impressed, I might add, by me. She regarded me for a moment, and then said, “Reality is hard enough for these kids to deal with. Why would they bother with fantasy?”
And ever since then, I haven't been able to get that conversation out of my head. Why fantasy? Why magic? I tried to conjure up an image of myself at ten years old, reading the Narnia books for the seventeenth time, or the multicolored fairy books of Andrew Lang, or Anne McCaffery or Robin McKinnely, or Tolkein or any number of books that fed my childhood brain. What was I looking for? What did the book about magic have for me that the twenty seven novels about the girl with the sister dying of leukemia did not.
But it's an interesting question: What does magic or fantasy do for me as a reader? What does it do for you? When we choose fantasy, what are we looking for?