My granddaughter Freya June is sitting in her cardboard box. I mean house. I mean castle. At seven months, she is smitten with the doors and windows and snug corners and contours of her new toy. It has no bells and whistles. Nothing moves. There are no whirligig devices for small motor coordination, and brightly colored attention-grabbers. The large box is static. And full, not just with Freya. The imaginative possibilities exceed the box’s cubic inches.
The photo of Freya in her box recalled for me my earliest Christmas present: the black castle that my parents constructed for me and my brother during our preschool years. Perhaps it was during tight economic times for the young family. Perhaps it was because mom and dad had an infusion of creative inspiration and an anti-commercial ethic. But their construction project that Christmas remains vivid to this day.
The big black box had a thrilling, sinister sheen. There were battlements and crenellations from successive layers of smaller boxes topped by repurposed egg cartons, all spray painted with a gloss enamel. Of course there was a drawbridge. And my parents had gone to the Baskin-Robbins store for empty ice cream tubs to make not only towers, but also knight helmets, with visors and eye holes. It was positively medieval, long before my brother and I had that word in our vocabularies.
One of my favorite school principal-days also came to mind. Pre-schoolers Caleb and Ethan arrived at my office door to invite participation in their big project. The two nascent engineers, their neatly rolled blueprint in hand, two rubber bands keeping it neat and tidy, began to share their carefully laid plans for a rocket ship, part of the class “Not a Box” project (See the inspiring book by the same name: “Not a Box,” by Antoinette Portis). In other words, it’s not a box, it’s a rocket ship.
The engineers spoke. “Mr. Nelson, we’re building a rocket ship. Do you have time to talk with us?”
The It’s Not a Box Project was Not Just a Project. It was a conversation. Yes, our engineers had a detailed, colorful and imaginative diagram to be executed in three-dimensional glory. However, the launching pad of this rocket ship was the conversation around my office table. I was supposed to ask questions, seek clarification of aspects of the drawing and engage these future Tesla engineers.
I posed a suggestion. “What if you use tin foil and make the rocket look metallic?”
It was a curve ball. Not in their plans. How would they adapt their drawings and materials list? It was an invitation for Ethan and Caleb to wonder, think, examine their options.
“Ethan! I know! We can have a conversation about this,” said Caleb, rocket ship engineer and conversation primer. He and his partner analyzed the situation. My recommendation would be for an external part of the ship. Its late-entry building material caused consternation, but not failure. A very precise, rational dialogue ensued. A new plan was ratified based on sound management and aeronautical engineering principles (preschool division). The project was still on track for an on-time, on-budget delivery. I prepared the special stamp and signing pen. The rubber bands went back on the carefully rolled blueprint. The rocket men returned to their factory, the launch pad awaiting.
I’ve always loved the point of view of an old friend of mine, a former school head. Jonathan Slater told the faculty, one September, “Watching and listening are the greatest of the teaching skills — the most difficult to master truly, the most demanding to sustain over time … By and large, children go about as far as the adults in their lives invite them to go, and truth to tell, most children are not invited to go very far. They are not invited to be curious, to be informed, to discriminate — except in the best of homes and in the best of schools.”
Which is to say that a school is not a box. Permission to rocket to the moon? Granted. Fasten your seatbelts for take-off. Warp factor nine, Mr. Slater.
Back at my house, Freya June is coming for Christmas. It’s an invitation to prepare her castle. Or bear cave. Or space station. Or igloo, submarine or planetarium. Let the engineering conversation begin. It’s not too soon, even though it’s only her first Christmas.
Todd R. Nelson is a former school principal, and new grandfather, in Penobscot.