Saturday, August 13, 2011

Giants, Wizards, Dwarfs...and Mermaids?

Robert Fulghum is a writer, philosopher, and public speaker. You may remember him as the author of the popular poem "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." He also wrote a book with the same title that contains lots of mini stories. I read the following story, "Mermaids," to my Exploratory class this week. When I finished, I asked them to tell me about the little girl. Their answers, written below, might surprise you. Read it and think to yourself how you would describe the mermaid.

By Robert Fulghum
Giants, wizards and dwarfs was the game to play.
Being left in charge of about eighty children seven to ten years old, while their parents were off doing parenty things, I mustered my troops in the church social hall and explained the game.  It's a large-scale version of Rock, Paper, and Scissors, and involves some intellectual decision making.  But the real purpose of the game is to make a lot of noise and run around chasing people until nobody knows which side you are on or who won.
Organizing a roomful of wired-up gradeschoolers into two teams, explaining the rudiments of the game, achieving consensus on group identity--all this is no mean accomplishment, but we did it with a right good will and were ready to go.
The excitement of the chase had reached a critical mass.  I yelled out:  "You have to decide now which you are--a GIANT, a WIZARD, or a DWARF!"
While the groups huddled in frenzied, whispered consultation, a tug came at my pants leg.  A small child stands there looking up, and asks in a small, concerned voice, "Where do the Mermaids stand?"
Where do the Mermaids stand?
A long pause.  A very long pause.  "Where do the Mermaids stand?" says I.
"Yes.  You see, I am a Mermaid."
"There are no such thing as Mermaids."
stands there looking up, and asks in a small, concerned voice, "Where do the Mermaids stand?"
Where do the Mermaids stand?
A long pause.  A very long pause.  "Where do the Mermaids stand?" says I.
"Yes.  You see, I am a Mermaid."
"There are no such thing as Mermaids."
"Oh, yes, I am one!"
She did not relate to being a Giant, a Wizard, or a Dwarf.  She knew her category.  Mermaid.  And was not about to leave the game and go over and stand against the wall where a loser would stand.  She intended to participate, wherever Mermaids fit into the scheme of things.  Without giving up dignity or identity.  She took it for granted that there was a place for Mermaids and that I would know just where.
Well, where DO the Mermaids stand?  All the "Mermaids"--all those who are different, who do not fit the norm and who do not accept the available boxes and pigeonholes?
Answer that question and you can build a school, a nation, or a world on it.
What was my answer at the moment?  Every once in a while I say the right thing.  "The Mermaid stands right here by the King of the Sea!" says I.  (Yes, right here by the King's Fool, I thought to myself.)
So we stood there hand in hand, reviewing the troops of Wizards and Giants and Dwarfs as they roiled by in wild disarray.
It is not true, by the way, that Mermaids do not exist.  I know at least one personally.  I have held her hand.

Tell me about the little girl. Middle schoolers answers:

"Crazy!" (as he circles his finger around the side of his ear several times)
Someone made the cuckoo sound.
<Teacher's eyebrows go up>
"She belongs in an asylum."
<Teacher adds big eyeballs>
"Not like the others!" (Disgusted and confused look on his face.)
Finally, a girl from the back quietly stated the word "Independent."
<hopeful sigh>

Now, I did NOT read this story to them for the purpose of highlighting what sassy little girls do to annoy adults, but they did not naturally infer that logic. No sireee! They assumed I was reading the story to illustrate what not to do. Once I got over the shock, I realized how much sense they made.

Middle school is about conforming; therefore, their responses are naturally middle schoolish. Don't you remember? Most likely, you watched the behaviors of the people around you just so you would know what to do and how to act. As the pre-adolescent struggles to move away from his/her parents, he or she begins to grasp for a different anchor. At this stage in their lives, that may come from their peers. The outliers are the ones more determined to make their own way-whether that's positive or negative.

Is the ability to conform necessary? Yes, I think so. There are times in our lives that we must learn to do the accepted thing, obey the rules, or play the game. I’m just a big fan of the ones that dare to be different.

I want them to like and be grateful for who they are.

Individuality should be appreciated and celebrated. The sad truth is I’ve been fighting this battle for 17 years, and I’m no closer than I was 17 years ago <sigh>. Society encourages conformity. Media encourages conformity. Even some parents encourage conformity. We may want to be the mermaid, even crave it, but I suppose that must wait until we get through the Giants, Wizards, and Dwarfs stage of life.

1 comment:

  1. I conformity some dare to be different but it is a struggle. Enjoyed reading this.