There are five of us around the table. The four children are seated; I am standing, walking from end to end, looking over their shoulders at their work. Strung along the center of the table are bottles of glue, pairs of scissors and stacks of magazines. In front of each child is a single piece of white paper. The exercise I’ve given them in this class for young writers is to make a collage representing an object each of them has drawn from a bag. One of the girls has drawn a broken seashell, the other girl a ceramic miniature of an English country church. The two boys have drawn strangely contrasting items: an iron railroad spike and a makeup brush.
I am teaching this class for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I love children, enjoy watching their faces as they struggle to grasp new concepts or think of the right word. They don’t know yet how to mask their emotions or feel the need to equivocate. It is good to hear the truth from the mouth of someone who doesn’t yet know that there is another option. One of them — when I asked what words they would use to describe me — said, "old." There was a quizzical look on her face when I gasped in mock horror.
I am also teaching this class because I enjoy being a student and I know that whatever I may teach these children about words and writing, they are sure to teach me at least as much about life.
There is a time limit and, with five minutes to go, I remind them that they need to start gluing their images to the paper. One of the girls — the youngest in the class — has discovered that each of the bottles has a stopper inside that must be removed before the creamy white glue can be squirted out of the bright orange twist-tops. I didn’t know this. I’ve never seen such a thing. We pause a moment and discuss why the glue makers might have done this. Someone mentions something about getting glue on clothes. There is, obviously, a story behind the comment. Maybe that story will get written down.
Each of the bottles has now been liberated, but one of them — the one being used by the boy with the makeup brush — is still not flowing. It takes me a moment to realize what he is doing to address the dilemma: He has taken the big orange-handled scissors, gripped them in his fist by the shaft of the blades and is trying to jam the closed blades into the tiny hole in the glue top.
I burst out laughing. I can’t help myself. They look at me as though I’ve lost my mind. I try to explain: “Look at you! You’re a man! This is exactly what a man does! Something doesn’t work and you grab the biggest tool you can find and start hitting on it!” I was about to lose my breath.
This child is 10 years old. Cute as a button. Smart as a whip. (Did I mention we were working on similes?) He’s got this impish smile that alerts you to the fact that he’s up to something, even if it’s only in his imagination, and makes you want to squeeze his cheeks — which you don’t, of course. He is 10 years old and still a little boy and, yet, he’s already approaching problems in a gender-specific (and, maybe, stereotypical) way.
I don’t stop him. I stand close by and make sure that he doesn’t hurt himself, but I allow him to do it his way. He manages to unclog the glue bottle and finish his collage. And I finally stop laughing.
The irony of his choice of objects from the bag is not lost on me. This boy’s boy pulled out a makeup brush — even had to ask me what it was — but he didn’t complain, didn’t ask if he could choose again; he simply set about the task at hand. And when a problem arose, he tackled it head-on.
He wants to be a writer, but after today it occurs to me that if writing doesn’t work out, this boy would make a mighty fine Marine: “Improvise, adapt, and overcome.”