What I Didn't Learn in School, I Made Up for Myself

As a product of the pre-computer and pre-VCR era, my early view of life was sometimes based on fragmented facts that were tossed like popcorn to my classmates and me. We were expected to consume these facts, but we weren't always given the details and context for them. So our imaginations would take over and paint a lopsided or whimsical picture of the world around us.

For example, on the day I learned in grammar school that our planet rotates at a speed of 1,000 m.p.h., my initial reaction was shock. This was followed by a determination to avoid any activity in which I would have to leave the surface of the earth. According to my logic, if I participated in jumping rope, hopping on a pogo stick, or competing in the high-jump or broad jump in gym class, I'd never see my hometown again. With the world spinning that fast below my feet, I was convinced I'd leave the ground in Illinois but end up somewhere in Iowa.

Another fact preyed heavily on my mind in those days. In school we were told we would reach our full height in our teenage years. This piece of news loomed like Frankenstein. Though math was my worst subject, I managed to arrive at a startling conclusion: By computing my current rate of growth and multiplying it by the number of years remaining for growing, I estimated I was going to be close to 10 feet tall. I was going to break the record for "Tallest Girl in the Northern Hemisphere." I was destined for a life in the circus.

My overactive imagination kicked into high gear. I pictured myself in a sideshow tent with the Bearded Lady on one side and the Tattooed Man on the other. The circus cooks would only serve us baked beans and bread, and at night I'd sleep in a cold, dilapidated trailer that would rock and creak in the wind.

DURING this same period, my classmates and I were strongly encouraged to read books in the evenings and on weekends. Without a moment's hesitation, I plunged into the collection of fairy tales in my "Shirley Temple's Storybook," a gift lovingly given to me by my grandmother.

It was a simple and harmless enough homework assignment, except for one thing: No one warned me that fairy tales were make-believe and not actual events that had occurred long ago. Had I known they were fiction interwoven with humor, I wouldn't have spent a few sleepless nights fretting about what I had read. How could I ever leave the house, walk six blocks to school, and face my friends, teachers, and strangers?

It all started with Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes," about two roguish weavers who spun and stitched invisible garments for the king to wear in the royal procession. Like a circus clown shot out of a cannon, my imagination catapulted into action. I quickly became convinced that those swindlers were ancestors of the tailors and seamstresses who made and fashioned my clothes. I remember standing in front of my closet in a state of panic, my heart racing and my hands sweating. What I saw inside was my wardrobe of neatly pressed outfits; what other people would see was a row of empty hangers. After all, my outer garments were made from looms and spools of invisible thread. What else could they see?

Too mortified to tell my parents and brother about my revelation, I kept my mouth shut and shuffled like the Mummy (portrayed by Boris Karloff in the 1932 movie) to the front door. I reluctantly opened it and joined my two friends waiting for me on the sidewalk. Wearing (what I saw as) my blue-and-green plaid dress, I wondered when they'd ask me why I wasn't wearing any clothes. Nothing was said.

Then it dawned on me: By now they were accustomed to seeing me this way. I had been wearing invisible clothing all along and hadn't realize it until I read "The Emperor's New Clothes." Finally I decided to throw them off guard by asking them a trick question:

"What does it look like I'm wearing today?" I said. With puzzled expressions, my friends paused and eyed me from head to toe.

"What are you talking about?" one of them replied. I repeated my question and they both answered, "Your favorite plaid dress!" Convinced it was nothing more than a lucky guess, I waited until I got to school to hear what my other friends said. Their answers were all the same. I was indeed fully dressed in my most treasured cotton dress. What a relief it was to find that invisible garments had never been part of my wardrobe.

As today's youths hitch a ride on the information superhighway and explore the broad avenues of educational technology, they will find all the facts they need. But I hope they will carry two important pieces of luggage: imagination and creativity. If these get lost along the way, what are the chances that these children will know what it's like to invent a world?

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