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On the Importance Of Never Making It to Mars

Posted: 2011-02-23

This is from Phi Delta Kappan, April 2002. The author relates what she learned about imagination from a childhood incident with her barefoot cousins who were planning a trip to Mars. Thinking about the story in the context of what's happening to children in schools today, she admits she's "consumed with worry" about how we are scripting and standardizing children.


WHEN I was a child, my brother and I spent several weeks each summer visiting our cousin Mickey in Eastern Kentucky. He lived in Baptist Bottom, one of the narrow ribbons of flat land that separate the tightly clustered mountains in that area.

One of our favorite adventures was blazing mountain trails. On our trailblazing days, we rolled out of bed early to pack our provisions of bologna, bread, and Kool-Aid. With the brown paper bags in tow, we began our climb. Winding around the steep mountainside, carefully avoiding sticker bushes and copperheads, we made our arduous way to the Elephant Rocks. Once there, we crawled inside an opening in the rocks to the spot where we started a small fire, placed our cast-iron skillet on the flames, and fried our bologna.

On these expeditions, we often made plans to defend Baptist Bottom should the Nazis spring a surprise attack across the narrow wooden bridge that connected the Bottom to the rest of the world. Now you should understand that the war had been over for many years, and, had it still been raging, it is hard to imagine what military advantage the Nazis might have sought in taking Baptist Bottom. Still, we were prepared.

Houses in the Bottom were built on stilts to protect them from the annual floods. On hot summer days, the coolness created by the buffer of the house above us made "under the floor," as we called it, the perfect place to while away the hours. On one sweltering July day, it was under the floor that Aunt Leona taught me an important lesson.

On this particular day, the boys were planning a trip to Mars. A year earlier, I might have been the main architect of such a plan. Being three years older, though, I had outgrown such foolishness. I had found a new role, one that built on certain of my natural talents. It was somewhat akin to playing Lucy to their Charlie Brown and Linus. Their Mars plans were quite clearly ridiculous, and I saw it as my responsibility to inform them of this fact.

"You guys are crazy. You can't go to Mars in that thing. It's a bunch of crates. Crates can't hold up for a trip to Mars." I thought the science in that statement would help them see just how silly their plan was.

They ignored me and continued planning. I returned to my diary, writing great thoughts about boys and Elvis and the injustice of my genetic link to two such simpletons.

As they plotted, a big washtub became a central feature in their rocket design. The washtub, they decided, would hold the canisters of booster fuel (empty milk cartons and lard cans, as I recall) that would propel them through the galaxy. The only problem was that Aunt Leona kept the washtub filled with potted plants. Since they planned to blast off on that very day, the plants would have to go.

"Okay," I thought. "This ought to be good." I knew Aunt Leona was not going to move all those geraniums on that hot day because these two fools wanted to explore space in a bunch of crates and a washtub. I watched with smug amusement as they tugged her into their workshop and enthusiastically explained their plan and her role in it. Aunt Leona and I had always been especially close. I knew I could count on her to straighten them out.

"Well, boys," she said in her lyrical mountain dialect, "you let me know when you're ready, and I'll get those plants out of there right away."

"What?" a voice inside my head screamed. Was I the only person not suffering from some kind of dementia?

Assured the washtub would be ready when they needed it, the boys went back to work. A few hours later, Mickey and Tom decided to delay their Mars trip. They thought their time would be better spent planning to take over the world using two helicopters.

Although I had been discouraged by Aunt Leona's defection, I couldn't let it pass. "Two helicopters!" I exclaimed. "How can even you two think you could take over the world with only two helicopters?"

They paused a moment, looked at me as though it were I who was crazy, and answered matter-of-factly, "We're counting heavily on the element of surprise."

This was really too much for me. Sure, I continued to berate them, but not in a fashion worthy of my skills. Finally, I just shook my head and walked away. They were hopeless.

After plotting world domination for a while, they noted that some aspects of their plan needed a bit of sharpening. So they decided to research the matter further in some comic books they had bought the day before.

Mickey and Tom never made it to Mars, never took over the world, never achieved any of their outrageous schemes. But Aunt Leona always allowed them to continue to ask questions about how they might. And because she did, their far-out ideas continued to shape their thinking and their lives. Their imaginations flourished; they grew in intellectual and creative ways that revealed my reality-bound understandings to be sadly lacking.

I've come to see that the problems they solved not getting to Mars and not taking over the world prepared them for their futures. There was probably no other way to prepare them, since the work they do today had not been invented then. Mickey's imaginative solutions to unlikely situations and his ability to see beyond the taken-for-granted allowed him to practice solving the problems he deals with today as a physicist. And the same desire to reach beyond himself that caused Tom to see the washtub as a rocket ship was evident 20 years later in his poetry and in his exploration of computers back when they were little more than science fiction. He claimed computers were the future. To me that was as foolish as flying to Mars in crates and a washtub. "Stay with poetry, Tom," I advised. "Those computers are just a passing fad."

I WORRY. It's just what I do, and I do it well. So, as I tell this story in the context of education today, my mind is consumed with worry.

I worry about how little would be expected today of those barefoot hillbilly boys playing with crates and lard cans under the floor. I worry about the American Dream and whether it is still available to youngsters like them. I worry that children are being standardized and that their school days are filled with one scripted program after another -- each separate from the other, disconnected from the world in which the children live, and designed to get the narrowest of responses. I worry about how children whose school lives are so confined and whose learning experiences are so controlled will remember how to dream of what might be.

My worry is based in a stark reality. As part of a research project not too long ago, I asked a teacher to tell me about her dreams for her students. She taught in an urban Cincinnati school in which 99% of the children were of Appalachian heritage. Her response took my breath away. "You have to realize that Appalachian children are right-brained," she said. "They can work with their hands, but they just can't get the academics."

Another teacher told me, "These are the broom pushers and cash register operators of tomorrow, and we have to prepare them for that." I would like to believe that these are the only two teachers in the world who hold these ideas, but my experience tells me otherwise. And it isn't only teachers. Everyone gets into the act, from the principals to community members to curriculum developers. Everyone is worried about "those children."

And if we do prepare Appalachian and other "those children" to be broom pushers, what more can they be? Think of how we limit their options. How will they gain access to educational and professional choices that are available to other children? I worry because every day we tell children that they can't. And I fear they believe us.

But no one told Mickey and Tom they couldn't. They thought that if they could dream it, they could make it happen. And because they didn't know they couldn't, they did.

Bobby Ann Starnes is president of the National Center for Collaborative Teaching and Learning (thecenter@onewest.net). This column is adapted from an article that appeared in The Foxfire News.

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