How to write about meaning without sounding cliche`? I’m more than tempted to explain how the world is a “topsy-turvy” place sometimes and fit in the idea that meaning is assigned, imprinted onto it by people, as well as derived from it by people in a “two-way street”. But all the tired metaphors and descriptions ring a bit stale and dull, no matter how true.
I’d like to focus on how we can derive meaning for children without preaching or boring them, knowing that their first impressions of the world they’ve inherited, if nothing else, are extremely important. As they navigate the world and learn its ways, the big lessons need to be written in shorthand, in a way easily understood for future reference. Novel ideas and perspectives can be complex, but utterly necessary.
When I think about creating a new story or poem for children, I imagine how they might reflect on it. I want them to think about it and be impacted in some way by it. I want questions to boil in their minds as they consider the little nuggets of thought-provocation planted in the story.
As an example I’d like to use the first story I blogged- Bugsy the Horsefly. It’s not going to win a Nobel Literature prize, nor will everyone like the story. But if everyone had the exact same taste in everything, chicken would probably have been extinct long ago.
It’s about a horsefly whose 9-5 “job” it is to “bug” the horses in the stable of a farm. Bugsy doesn’t like being annoying, but that’s his nature, it’s what he’s best at. He dreams of more, of being helpful. He doesn’t want to bug anybody. The horse he happens to be bugging is also a good friend of his- Sam. The horse suggests that Bugsy and all the other horseflies stop bugging the horses, and start bugging the honey badgers that keep stealing the beekeepers’ honey. It’d be a win-win-win situation: the horses stop getting bugged, the honey is safe, and they get to do something positive.
I meant for the story to have several elements to it that a child can ask about, and a parent or teacher could answer, guided by the story. One was the idea of sublimation, turning a negative into a positive. Although he didn’t like being annoying, Bugsy, a horsefly, was by nature annoying and therefore good at it. But instead of feeling sorry for himself and adding to the negativity, he made use out of it and helped out others in the process.
There’s also the concept of pooling resources. All the flies working together drove off the badgers that were stealing the honey. They’d all needed to work together for that one purpose in order to be able to succeed.
There are plenty of other ways of looking at what happened in the story. And you’d probably be amazed by the kinds of questions a child might ask. “How could a fly and a horse be friends?” “Why did the horses allow the flies to bug them?” “Why did the flies care about protecting the honey?” They might not articulate the questions exactly like that, but whatever they’re asking is proof that they’re listening, and wondering. Remember that the answers to the questions are neither right nor wrong, but it’s the questions that matter.
So in short- how do we find meaning in the world, and how do we teach children about it? Well, I’m sure a long, complex answer may be most comprehensive, but the simple one suffices: ensure there are always questions to be asked. Some day without realizing it, maybe even in adulthood, they’ll still be thinking about it. As mentioned in cliche` earlier, meaning is half-created, and half-given. You can only create with tools. And you can only receive with the ability to do so.