The Pen and the Playground

My favorite teaching duty is course design. Though I hardly control every aspect of the courses I teach – the text choice, the policies, the measurable learning outcomes – I can arrange the order of readings and daily activities. I particularly enjoy asking my students to draw connections between seemingly unrelated texts. I’ll take a 2008 TED Talk and a political essay from 1849 and ask my pupils, “What can a student gain from studying these texts in tandem?” I urge them to synthesize something new by closely examining each text’s objectives.

For today’s class, they read Northrop Frye’s “The Vocation of Eloquence,” the final chapter of his book, The Educated Imagination. In this essay, Frye insists that the study of literature nourishes the imagination, and the imagination helps us adapt and survive – transforming the world we experience into the world we desire. Imagination, says Frye, lets us test-drive our futures; if we want to be doctors, we must be able to imagine ourselves as doctors. Thus, literature – playful, expressive, and versatile – allows us to train our creative minds.

During class, my students viewed Dr. Stuart Brown’s TED Talk, “Play Is More Than Fun.” With the help of countless adorable animal pictures, Brown argues for the importance of play. Debunking the idea that play only serves as a rehearsal for adult life, Brown suggests that play promotes adaptability, learning, and trustworthiness. He urges his audience to contemplate their own “play histories,” thinking back to their happiest, most playful memories in order to connect with their real passions.

So here is my play history – or a brief excerpt from it. I know my current passions: poetry and music. But I want to see what a playful exploration of my past delights will uncover.

Inside my childhood bedroom, there is a mirrored closet with glass shelves. For several years, the shelves hosted a sprawling miniature village. Houses constructed from popsicle sticks sheltered action figures of miscellaneous origin, each villager no more than a few inches tall. Star Wars characters resided alongside Disney princesses in perfect harmony, their world accessorized with everything from tiny teapots and potted plants to a music box shaped like an upright piano. One lucky family even owned a petite bookshelf, stocked with colorful and anonymous volumes.

My friend Caitlyn and I spent hundreds of hours, kneeling or sitting in delighted absorption before this layered village, moving its people in and out of elaborate plots. We created character voices and dialogues – conflicts, love stories, comedies, and seemingly incongruous tragedies – sacrificing previous plot lines for the whimsy of the moment. Caitlyn’s bedroom contained an analogous structure – the same playground with different architecture. She was particularly proud of a complex popsicle-stick bridge that joined the two halves of her city, and a glittering waterfall she skillfully constructed from layers of aluminum foil and blue plastic wrap.

The chief companion of my elementary school years, Caitlyn joined me in a thousand variations on imaginative play. We spun scenarios from the extraordinary material in books and the ordinary stuff of classrooms. A lesson on Jupiter’s volcanic moons transformed us into intergalactic lunar mountain climbers. A chapter from an American Girl book hurled us back in time; we became sister settlers on the prairie, or a merchant’s daughter and her governess in colonial Williamsburg. One particularly demanding English teacher swapped the traditional book reports with a radio play option, daring our creativity to new extremes. With a keyboard and unsophisticated tape recorder, we documented fictional talk shows and radio plays — long after we completed the initial school project.

Though we grew older, we refused to surrender our love of make-believe. As our schedules filled with homework and after-school club meetings, we took our play onto paper. No longer able to spend hours crouched before our miniature villages or dressed in costumes of our own creation, we traded the physically active play of our childhood for its mental representation. Caitlyn picked up a drawing pencil, I selected a ballpoint pen, and we filled notebooks with cartoons and stories. Like the improvisational radio dramas of our middle school years, this play began to keep its own record.

Our playground moved onto paper, its character uncompromised. Between classes, we exchanged a decorated spiral notebook, leaving each other notes. This play honed the art of stealth: while we scribbled the latest installment in a parody or comic strip, we appeared to be taking diligent notes in class.

As a self-proclaimed nerd and enthusiastic student, I am almost ashamed to admit that I took this deceptive “note-taking” beyond the notebook Caitlyn and I shared. I often traveled with two non-academic notebooks in my backpack – the one I exchanged with Caitlyn, and another in which I began a trilogy of fantasy novels. I carried the habit beyond high school into my undergraduate and graduate classes. My low vision always helps me in this private wordplay; I bend so low over my writing in any situation that people can’t tell whether I’m creating poetry or prose.

I look to Northrop Frye and Stuart Brown to justify this play on paper. Frye asks us to engage with the imagination – does he really want me to ignore the wisps of inspiration that always seem to arrive during faculty meetings or uninteresting speeches? Brown says that play will keep me young and help me learn – wouldn’t he encourage me to keep a notebook, a private playground, with me always?

That’s the way I choose to join Frye and Brown’s texts. But, like a good teacher, I’ll leave you to make your own connections.

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