Playtime

When I was a boy, going to school seemed divided cleanly in two. While I waited for the first bell to ring, I lived on the playground. On the playground the only question was how to have fun. Did I want to play kickball or swing on the swings? Did I want to shoot hoops alone or join a game? Did I want to wander the perimeter alone drifting in fantasy, or did I want play tag with the other boys? These were the only questions I had to answer on the playground.

Then the bell would ring, which meant that playtime was over and work-time had begun. During work-time you tried to answer questions that other people asked you. Adults asked the questions because it was understood that this schoolwork was preparation for life as it would be lived once playtime was over once-and-for-all. Work-time was not nearly as much fun as playtime, but it wasn’t supposed to be. It was work.

The work wasn’t really lacking all fun. Sometimes the work meant writing stories or drawing pictures, and this didn’t feel like work at all, this was just playing, but with paper and crayons or a pencil. I will write stories for a living, I thought to myself. I must choose work that doesn’t feel like work. I do not want to live my life waiting for the last bell of school to ring so that my time can truly be my own.

Except even as I thought this I could smell the spring air through the open window mixing with the smell of chalk dust and school lunches, and in that very moment what was outside was inside, and I found myself where the playground questions were answered. You either choose to leave those questions on the playground or you don’t. No bell can take those questions from you, just as no person can answer them for you.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Lessons In Disappointment

Mrs. Katzman was renowned throughout Summit Elementary School for her strict rules and her impatient old-lady temper. I had come to believe that the student’s first job was to please the teacher, but I did not always understand the rules of Mrs. Katzman’s temper, and so pleasing her seemed like a game of chance.

For instance, my classmates and I were each assigned a different country for which we were to write a report. As a part of this report, we were to draw a picture of its flag on a large piece of construction paper. I drew a black bar down one side of the page (the pole) from which extended a perfect rectangle in which I drew Canada’s (my country) maple leaf and colors. I showed my masterpiece to Mrs. Katzman.

She took one short, shocked look and declared, “This isn’t a flag. A flag has waves. Where are the waves?” She turned and held the drawing up to the class. “Class look at this. Where are the waves? Why didn’t he draw any waves?”

I returned to my desk and drew a flag with waves.

So it went with Mrs. Katzman. I wanted to be liked, but I gave up trying to solve the riddle of being liked by this woman. And though it was agreed on the playground she was nothing but a mean old teacher, a part of me felt responsible for her meanness, as if my un-waving flag was the final piece of evidence needed to condemn her world to a place guaranteed to disappoint. After my parents divorced and my father moved to Florida, I did not wish to contribute to anyone’s disappointment.

Then the evening came that I accompanied my mother to Parent Teacher Night. I had decided it would be acceptable to endure Mrs. Katzman’s capricious temper from behind the shelter of my mother’s unconditional acceptance. But when we marched into the room together – my mother having been fully prepared for what was to come – Mrs. Katzman turned from her desk, saw me, and her face broke into a grandmother’s joyous smile.

“He’s so wonderful!” she cooed. “He’s just a delight to have in class.” She was beaming down at me as if I were the hero of her favorite story. All my offenses flashed through my mind, and yet I could not find them in her eyes. How mysterious. You might even say disappointing. I returned home that night with the strangest feeling that she’d been smiling at me thus the entire year, and now I would never be able to tell tale of the cruel schoolmarm unless I was willing to lie about the end.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Good Puzzle

My older sister Felicie has a particularly strong puzzle-mind. Though I am the writer in the family and thus the supposed word guru, she would routinely whip me at Boggle. She loves anagrams and crosswords and logic games of any kind, and she was a sturdy and confident mathematician. When handed a problem for which there is a clear and definitive solution, her mind becomes a ferociously happy dog digging for a bone.

This made school very appealing. In school, teachers generally make it clear to their students what must be done to be graded successful. My sister has never misunderstood an instruction in her life, which, coupled with her puzzle-mind, resulted in a string of very good report cards. I recall, however, one report card in particular. She was in sixth grade and had decided she wanted to get straights A’s—well, O’s, actually (for Outstanding!), because this was the 70s. I believe sixth grade was the first year students were actually graded, and so the first time my sister would be so publicly rewarded for solving the problems her teachers asked her to solve.

As my mother tells it, the day the grades were given, the doors to the school opened and my sister came running down the steps of Nathan Bishop Middle School waving her report card over her head. At the time, I thought to myself, “Oh, who cares, Felicie? What’s an extra O or two really going to do for you?” You see, my view on grades was this: I will do just well enough so as not to be judged a failure or average—but you’ll get nothing more out of me.

Except a part of me understood why my sister was really running down those steps with her straight O’s. I’m sure her little 11 year-old ego was doing back-flips, but so what? The flesh is weak. The O’s weren’t the point at all. My sister was celebrating the same discovery humans have been making and celebrating for tens of thousands of years: that anything we apply our direct attention to comes into being. Lay your attention on a novel for a year, you get a novel. Lay your attention on straight O’s, you get straight O’s. Perhaps, she must have been thinking as she sprinted toward my mother’s car, it’s not all luck after all. Perhaps the question is not how do I solve a problem, but which problem do I want to solve?

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

What I Failed To Make

My oldest son lived most of his childhood like a CEO without a corporation to run. This made him tricky to parent for the first seven or eights years of his life. That began to change in first grade. A natural Good Boy, he was finding himself at the principal’s office frequently. This puzzled his mother and I, and so we pressed him on it. He explained that he did not like the principal.

“I mean—she walks around the school like she runs the place.”

We explained that running the school was in fact the principal’s job.  Max was stunned to learn this.

“Who did you think ran the school?” we asked.

“Me!”

It turns out he also believed he ran the classroom and our home. To his credit he accepted his reduced leadership role immediately, was relieved even. And why shouldn’t he be? I now understood why he had been having such a terrible time at school. He was trying to do something of which he was wholly incapable.

My son’s relationship to his elementary school was very much like my relationships to the first books I wrote. I had quietly concluded that I was completely responsible for them. It was an obvious enough mistake to make. After all, who was there at the desk but me? And yet writing, at its best, always felt like tuning in, listening, and following, not making. And every time I’d be tuning and listening and following a story happily, and then would come to a point in the story where I could not feel what should come next, some part of me would say, “Well, come up with something, Bill!” And I would think, “I can’t.” And feel like a failure.

Except I was right.  I couldn’t.  Not like that anyway.  I couldn’t make anything up that would please me.  All I could do was listen more closely, think less, try less, and wait, and listen and trust and eventually it would come. It always did.

As soon as I try to make a story, it dies. I might as well be trying to construct a flower from dirt and grass. I don’t know how to make a story any more than my son knew how to run his school. But I do know how to listen, and I do know what I like, and I do know how to translate what I hear and see and feel into words. That I do know. And I do not fully understand the pleasure this process brings to me, but I have felt it all the same, and it is more real to me than praise or criticism, money or poverty, all of which can change while the pleasure remains precisely the same.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Useful Trick

I used to get very bored in high school. The teachers seemed to repeat themselves, and once I’d understood whatever they were trying to share I didn’t know what to do with myself while they went over it a second or third time. So I brought a book. This seemed like a very reasonable solution to the problem. I read; they lectured. No harm done.

Then I accompanied my mother to a parent/teacher conference one November. My math teacher that year was a very pleasant man who had the desirable quality of not taking anything too seriously. When my mother asked how I was doing, he replied, “Oh, fine. I see him reading someone else’s book while I’m talking, but he does well on the tests so I leave it alone.”

I was mortified. He could see me. I had the idea, you see, that once I picked my book up and disappeared into the story, I quite literally disappeared. As long as I wasn’t paying attention to him he couldn’t see me. It was like a magic power.

Perhaps the writers I was reading would have been happy to have learned that they had tricked this boy into believing he had such a power. Years later, when I became very serious about my writing, it was my regular ambition to disappear once I sat at my desk. For this reason, no one was allowed in my workspace. If they could see me, I remembered I existed, and my writing suffered.

I still get bored from time to time, though much less so. The disappearing that writing has taught is such a useful discipline. When I look about at the world and it seems a dull and repetitive place, when I feel restless and disappointed, I will occasionally remember to disappear. Except I have no book, and there is no story to write, and so I must disappear right where I stand, and now what I thought I was no longer blocks my view of what I wish to be.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Leaving Prison

For many years I worked at a job that I viewed as a kind of prison. I was imprisoned in this job by my family’s bellies and because my writing was not earning me enough money to keep those bellies full. And then I decided to leave that job, and when I did I realized no one had imprisoned me there but myself. I had chosen that job when I could have done other things. And the truth was, I stayed at that job I supposedly hated because I wanted to be there, because in working there I answered the question, “Can I support my family somehow?” I stayed and stayed and stayed until I was done answering that question, and then I left.

My youngest son has never had an easy time at school. For years, he saw it as a kind of prison to which he had been condemned by his parents, his teachers, and for that matter all of Western society. In certain ways, last year was his best and worst year. While he made great progress in many areas, school still seemed to leave him so stressed that he could hardly enjoy his free time at home. By the end of last school year, my wife and I made a decision. We would only send him to school for half a day. We would teach him history and Language Arts ourselves. Neither of us was eager to be middle school teachers, but we felt the extra time at home would serve him well.

When we shared this plan with him we were surprised by his response: Under no circumstances was he going to leave school early. He wanted to go to school like everyone else. He did not want any schooling to happen at home. That was at the beginning of the summer. Surely he would change his mind as fall drew near. Not so. He was more adamant in August than June. He would not be homeschooled for even one hour.

At first it seemed our plans to help him had been scuttled. But then I saw an opportunity. “That’s fine,” I said. “But remember: this is your choice. You’ve called school a prison for years. We’re offering you the key out. So you’re going there on purpose. No one is making you go but you.”

It is too early to tell, but I believe it could not have worked out any better. I can see that he wants to complain about school like he used to, but it is not so easy now. Prisoners love to yell at wardens. They are never that eager to yell at themselves.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Tested

When I was in school I had a very mixed relationship with tests. On the one hand, I disliked them, as did most of my classmates: I saw them as joyless measures of our probable inadequacy. On the other hand, I had every intention of doing well on every test, because to not do well would mean that I was a failure, and I could not bear the idea that there was any metric, no matter how meaningless to me, by which I could be measured a failure.

Numerically speaking, this position usually netted me an 85 out of 100, which, in retrospect, is an accurate representation of my commitment to the test. Occasionally, by the pure accident of personal interest, I would score a perfect 100. When these tests were returned to me I would feel first the rush of pride followed almost immediately by a total collapse of meaning. I had managed to answer someone else’s questions accurately; the only pleasure this brought, thin as the paper my 100 was written on, was the knowledge that at no point did this other person get to think: “Wrong. You are wrong. That is the wrong answer.” This is what we were all angling for? This is why we were supposed to study and not watch Charlie’s Angels?

My academic friends, who almost always scored 100 on their tests, were quick to point out that doing well on tests was merely a part of the necessary game to get where you wanted to go. Unfortunately, though I loved games, I refused to play this one, and I remained a stubbornly B-plus student until the end.

I dropped out of school to end the tests, but I could not drop out of life. No matter how far I fell, I found someone who seemed to be holding a hoop for me to jump through. The promise always was that if I jumped through enough of these hoops, I would be allowed to leave the circus, a good lion returned to his rightful kingdom.

The circus can be a confusing place – all that cheering, all the lights and music. It is hard sometimes to know if you are in the ring or in the bleachers, if you are cheering or bowing, if you are dancing or playing drum. It is even hard sometimes to see that the one holding the hoop is you.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter

A Good Puzzle

My older sister Felicie has a particularly strong puzzle-mind. Though I am the writer in the family and thus the supposed word guru, she would routinely whip me at Boggle. She loves anagrams and crosswords and logic games of any kind, and she was a sturdy and confident mathematician. When handed a problem for which there is a clear and definitive solution, her mind becomes a ferociously happy dog digging for a bone.

This made school very appealing. In school, teachers generally make it clear to their students what must be done to be graded successful. My sister has never misunderstood an instruction in her life, which, coupled with her puzzle-mind, resulted in a string of very good report cards. I recall, however, one report card in particular. She was in sixth grade and had decided she wanted to get straights A’s—well, O’s, actually (for Outstanding!), because this was the 70s. I believe sixth grade was the first year students were actually graded, and so the first time my sister would be so publicly rewarded for solving the problems her teachers asked her to solve.

As my mother tells it, the day the grades were given, the doors to the school opened and my sister came running down the steps of Nathan Bishop Middle School waving her report card over her head. At the time, I thought to myself, “Oh, who cares, Felicie? What’s an extra O or two really going to do for you?” You see, my view on grades was this: I will do just well enough so as not to be judged a failure or average—but you’ll get nothing more out of me.

Except a part of me understood why my sister was really running down those steps with her straight O’s. I’m sure her little 11 year-old ego was doing back-flips, but so what? The flesh is weak. The O’s weren’t the point at all. My sister was celebrating the same discovery humans have been making and celebrating for tens of thousands of years: that anything we apply our direct attention to comes into being. Lay your attention on a novel for a year, you get a novel. Lay your attention on straight O’s, you get straight O’s. Perhaps, she must have been thinking as she sprinted toward my mother’s car, it’s not all luck after all. Perhaps the question is not how do I solve a problem, but which problem do I want to solve?

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

Follow wdbk on Twitter