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Myths, Big and Small

The essays come home in waves, taking the form of a packet.  There’s a lot to wade through in order to understand how the kids are doing, but it’s every parent’s job.  Since I’m more visual, and since I like to know how all the kids are doing, I find the walls of the classroom taped up with dozens of essays in one giant object d’art much more interesting.  Standing in front of it I can see the plain truth of third graders; the composition is iffy, the spelling atrocious, but overall they are more honest and know what matters better than many adults.

Kids always narrow up their painting style from broad, easy strokes when they first learn how to carefully make the characters of the Latin alphabet.  Similarly, writing can change the way that they think about the world around them and how it fills up the answer to “How was your day?”  They quickly learn subject-verb-object and are masters of minimalism right away.  No purple prose for these kids.  But what they focus on when describing a person that they are writing about is what is compelling.

eleanorMy son’s essay on Lincoln contained the usual “Lincoln freed the slaves by signing the Emancipation Proclamation”  (spelling corrected to remove embarrassment potential, ‘natch) .  But most of what he told were stories such as learning to read and write on the back of a shovel and working really hard.  My daughter, in seventh grade, wrote about Eleanor Roosevelt  To her, the key fact was how her parents died when she was very young and how activism was a way that this kid worked her way out of shyness and past her embarrassment at her wealthy upbringing.

What the kids remembered were that these were people, much like other people they might meet today.

Kids either understand historical figures as people or aren’t likely to remember much about them at all.  Freeing the slaves makes sense to the Lincoln narrative because my son understands that being poor gave Abraham a connection to those who work endlessly.  Eleanor Roosevelt’s suffering connects her easily to the details of a life built on easing suffering.  They don’t remember history as a collection of events, they remember it as a collection of people.  Anything else would be damned hard to remember at all.

This is what is meant by the idea of Mythology or, in Lakoff’s term, Frames.  Successful people develop a story that expresses what they are about easily.  We have to have this because our species of standing-up chimp is social by nature and remembers the people parts first.  We like to think we’re sophisticated enough to go forcibly remember all the details like the year 1863 or the UN Charter, but that’s rubbish.  We like other people, and that’s what we relate to best.  Remember the people and what motivated them and you have a good chance at remembering what they did.

Sometimes, bits of mythology are just plain wrong.  George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree, though the story was helpful in creating a great myth regarding the creator of this nation.  Jefferson almost certainly did not father a child with Sally Hemmings, his slave, but the story was useful to those who wanted to rip down the founding mythologies as hypocrisy.  What’s important is that even the false stories are centered around people because that’s the stuff that myths are made of.  As Saul Alinsky said of organizing, “Pick the target, freeze it, polarize it, personify it”.

This isn’t true just for those with a political agenda, of course.  Every good story has, at the core, a kind of mythology.  You start with the personality, perhaps with a dollop of backstory, and let that character march of as she or he must.  If your tale has a political agenda at the end of it, well, that’s your prerogative.  But if you do your work carefully and wend your way into someone’s imagination, I don’t see anything wrong with poking around a bit.

Young kids know that this is what’s important, since that’s how they look at the world.  They haven’t become sophisticated enough to pull in abstract concepts on their own.  What I think we should all learn is that adults aren’t much better at divorcing the world from the people and stories that make it up – we’re just much better at fooling ourselves.

18 thoughts on “Myths, Big and Small

  1. Myths or stories told as parables can be such a useful teaching tool. For children or adults, having that “frame” we can apply to many situations and challenges helps us weather the storm when necessary. One of favorites is the David & Goliath myth, used in early Wellstone campaigns and many places where people need empowerment to fight against difficult odds.

  2. Interesting post! Myths are important to give people hope; they inspire the striving towards what’s best in human nature. The danger, of course, does lie in an inability to distinguish between myth and reality (oh how easy it is to deceive ourselves for what we wish we readily believe, Demosthenes, I think??)

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