You never know what a school visit will be like. If the kids will have read your book or not, if they will be engaged and interested or bored and distant. If they will open up to you or shy away, since you are a stranger and an adult and that oh-so-mysterious thing, a writer.
And then sometimes they spin you right around and show you the slice of the universe they carry around in their backpacks.
After my talk in South Portland a couple of weeks ago, the kids were milling around the library and two kids started playing an odd game with a long row of identical powder blue books. Each book was about an individual animal, with that animal’s name and a photograph emblazoned on the front in bright colors and large print. The boys stood on chairs behind the shelf so they could pull out books without looking at them.
One, who wore glasses, looked up and yelled “Miss Cat! come over here! We’re playing a game!”
I did, and the boy in glasses told me to stand still and they would pick for me. With a little theatrical flourish, he closed his eyes and pulled one of the books at random.
“This is what he is,” he said, gesturing at the other boy, who had blond spiky hair. He turned the book around and held it straight out with both arms. On the cover was a crocodile.
The blond boy yanked out another one. “Oh yeah?” he said to the boy in glasses. “Well, this is what you are.” He flipped the book to reveal a toucan.
“And this is what you are!” the boy in glasses turned back to me triumphantly, and selected another book.
On the cover was a moose. I laughed. “I can be a moose,” I said. “They’re big and strong and stubborn and they make funny noises, just like me.”
This went on for awhile, grabbing books with closed eyes and trumpeting: this is what he is, this is what you are, oh yeah, well you’re both of these put together, I’m gonna pick three and all of them are Miss Cat. Well, if I were a MAD SCIENTIST I would make one animal out of THESE ONES and it would be a MONSTER and that would be YOU.
I was, variously, a moose, a wolf, a muskox, a flamingo, a grizzly bear, and a walrus. The blond boy was a butterfly, a shark, a mountain lion, a mosquito, a swan, and a kangaroo. The boy in glasses was a dolphin, a hummingbird, a lion, a zebra, a whale, and a rabbit. I was also a whaleantelopebee, and they were an elephantfrogmanatee and a peacocktigerkoala.
And I couldn’t help but marvel at them, the very primal and human moment when theyse children learned how to make metaphors. Not I am like a swan, you are like a wolf, but I am a swan. You are a wolf. He is a shark. I am a rabbit.
And it’s more than metaphors–it’s divination. It’s folklore. If I close my eyes and reach out into this collection of randomly-ordered images, whatever my fingers find will say something essential about me, or my friend who wears glasses, or the lady with black hair and the red book who came to talk to our class today. It will not say what they’re like, it will say what they are, deep down inside. So If I choose a worm for myself, I will be sad, because it means I am a worm and I have this whole set of ideas about what worms are. If I choose a tiger, I will be happy, because I also have ideas about what tigers are and in the world I live in it’s better to be a tiger than a worm. What animal I am tells a story about what kind of person I am, and what my life will be like when I grow up.
It’s this incredibly basic thing, somewhere between magic and storytelling, and you can see exactly where fairy tales come from in these boys grabbing blue books like Tarot cards, like runes. Where totems come from, and fetishes, and half the shamanic toolbox–oh, no Miss Cat, we’ll draw for you. If you draw your own it doesn’t count. Those are the rules.
No one taught them to do it. No one taught them those rules–though certainly there are cultural narratives at play in their reactions to drawing The Rhinoceros versus The Kitten. Though I found it wonderful that with the exception of the flamingo, all of my animals were the sort usually masculinized–big and strong and somewhat dangerous–and they didn’t question it at all. The draw has spoken. Nor did they express particular dismay at being butterflies or swans. It wasn’t about what kind of animals they liked. It was a deeper magic, as a certain lion would say.
What they were doing was very real. Paleolithic human wizardry. We still do it as adults, of course, as a million usernames and pagan names and Halloween costumes and D&D characters and cosplayers attest. The marriage of image and soul fuels story and our conceptions of self, all the more so in the world of the internet where we can use images that are not our actual selves to represent that self–macros and userpics and icons. We are always making ourselves into metaphors. We are deciding with endless online quizzes what animals or fairies or vampires we “are”–in hopes, I have always thought, of borrowing some of the power of those characters and images for ourselves and our actual non-fairy lives. We want those images to mean something more, to say something fundamental, and once we decide they do, they do–that’s how some kinds of magic work.
In play, we show our best selves, the people we dream to be, long to be. And we pantomime acts and narratives that once upon a time were seen as holy, as the very keystones of faith–because they are instinct, they are beautiful, and they are true often enough.
I spent an afternoon with two small shamans and they told me I was a moose. I was a wolf. A muskox, a flamingo, a bear and a walrus. We did a good trade. I brought my magic to them in the form of a red book, and they brought theirs to me in blue books. We wizards know a bargain when we see it.
We shook hands when it was over. That’s how colleagues say good-bye.