A Child’s Imagination

Photo by Jerrico W.

When I was twelve years old, I used to go out into the creek behind our house and pretend that I was a traveler who had been in a terrible accident and was now stranded out in the woods or on some unknown island. My plane had crashed or my ship had sunk, and I was alone, a sole survivor – unless I had a friend over – and my only hope for survival was to find food and shelter.

My brothers and I spent entirely too much time building a “fort” back in the creek that was never remotely finished. We cut down saplings and weaved them around a clearing to make a wall that barely came up to our calves. It was a very large clearing; a smaller clearing might’ve yielded a much higher fence. We nailed boards to the tallest tree and it became our lookout. We buried a giant metal drum some distance from the fort (so my dad wouldn’t know we used it) and it became our fire pit. My older brother was really careful with this. He made sure there were no leaves, grass, or debris near it…we had a small stream nearby so we could bring water if there was an emergency. We had a small stack of firewood and a huge tree had collapsed at the edge of this smaller clearing, making for perfect seating.

During summers, when temperatures reached 95-100 degrees, my younger brother and I would steal my dad’s shaving kit and go out in the front yard. There was a massive stone buried to the left of the driveway. Our house was on some of the hardest Oklahoma land you could come across – it was mainly red rock and hard clay. My little brother and I decided to become archaeologists and excavate the rock. We used my dad’s shaving kit because it came with a small bowl and a big fat brush – normally for applying shaving cream – but we used it to brush back the dirt like real archaeologists do. We never managed to dig up this giant plate of rock – mostly we just ended up with a decent sized collection of rose rocks.

The point behind all of this is that children are amazing. Oklahoma heat is no joke. It’s not hot with a nice, cooling breeze. It tends to be 100 degrees with sticky humidity and this thickness that feels like you’re trying to breathe in molasses. The remarkable thing is…children will tolerate that heat, sometimes prefer it, to the air conditioning inside a boring house just so they can explore and investigate the world around them.

Now, I hope I still speak for the children of today. Granted, we didn’t live in the city and we didn’t have any computers yet. Yes…a world without the home PC, oh…my…God, that world did exist once. We also grew up in a slightly more “country” setting. The nearest neighbors were a bike ride away as opposed to a stone’s throw (though that’s changed a bit in these recent years.)

Imagination drives children to play. All it took was a little bit of pretending and my creek became a new world to me whenever I stepped out into it. It wasn’t just four acres behind my house – it was a forest with tall trees and vicious animals lurking in the shadows. Other days I was like a pioneer and I would take my dad’s machete into our fort and get back to “work” building our settlement up.

(And yes, my dad gave me permission to use his machete – by 12, I was already pretty adept with a machete and a hatchet, and I had my own dirk that I wore in my boot.)

I like to think that, outside of school, I had a tremendously fulfilling childhood. I spend school breaks on my grandparents’ farm roaming over countless acres of land. I rode four wheelers, explored a different creek every day, rounded up cows, collected bones strewn across the fields where cows had died following coyote attacks… We left the house when we woke up and we were gone until the bell rang for lunch hours later. And after eating, we’d go back out until dark. Our imagination filled the hours.

School is the place that tries to strip you of your creativity and imagination. You’re not allowed to be crazy and inventive. You’re required to follow a strict set of rules and if you deviate, you have to redo the assignment. It’s even worse now days…there’s not even any PE anymore. What do kids do all day? Sit in uncomfortable plastic chairs and memorize names and dates only to regurgitate them later?

You wonder why the youth of today can’t solve minor problems when they crop up. They’ve never had to use their minds – they’ve only had to exercise their mimicry and memorization skills. If they’ve seen someone do it before or they were once told how, they can do it. If not, they freeze up and look for help. Children today are too afraid to try new things; they’re afraid to take risks.

But…on the other hand, children with strong imaginations – those that do somehow manage to retain that ability to think without instruction, I think they’re slightly punished in our society today. We stamp out creativity so much in school that if you have it, you’re mocked, you’re considered weird rather than quirky, you’re odd and people don’t want to be friends with you, etc., etc., etc.

I like to believe my imagination is just as strong as it was when I was a child. In my pottery class, I wanted to be unique and creative instead of typical, so while everyone else was making pots and bowls – I made a wishing well with a stone bench and a little bucket complete with a dragon guarding it. He has a pile of gold and jewels at his feet – and he must be young, because he’s decided to make the coins in the wishing well his new treasure.

The part that’s hard for me is differentiating between adult and child. When I leave my house and step into the “real world” everyday, I’m expected to leave that child-like outlook behind and take on my responsibilities and be an adult. When I get to work, I’m expected to work hard and be polite, respectful, efficient, and mature. Now, it’s not impossible to do all these things – I like to believe I do them all quite well. What’s hard though is maintaining a self-image. I’m not this adult I pretend to be at work.

I don’t know that I ever grew up enough to be this adult I pretend to be. To me, it’s just one more role for me to take on while I’m away from home. It’s a heavy part to play. Sometimes I want to cast it off when I know I can’t. Children hold nothing back – they have the ability to see the world both as it is and as they want it to be and they call it as they see it, no matter which way they’re viewing it.

Children are happy. Why is it that adults so often aren’t? Why do we see things only as everyone else tells us to? I work with people younger than me, some by four or five years, but I still don’t feel like an adult around them. I feel even younger than them at times, as if they’re my senior and I’m just a kid. I haven’t grow up. I’ve become an adult physically, by age, and also by societal standards, but my mind isn’t any different than when I was 12 years old.

If I was given the chance to go traipsing through the creek with a friend or two, pretending to be pirates searching for the cave concealing our hard-earned (stolen) gold, I’d jump at the chance. I guess I write because I’m not given that opportunity anymore. I can still imagine it even if I don’t get to go out and do it.

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