Samuel J. Tanner 8 minute read


Our discussion in class turned to innocence and experience the other day.

Incidentally, I cannot seem to teach without this concept coming up. This is probably for a couple of reasons. First, William Blake is my spirit animal. Song of Innocence and Experience are embedded somewhere deep inside of my psyche. Secondly, so much of literature is about the movement from innocence to experience. I am, at some level, always a student and teacher of literature. Literature is a representation of being alive, right? So existence is about figuring out this movement between innocence and experience too, right? Education is absolutely about this move. How do (and should and can) adults guide children towards experience? These are central questions about teaching, to be sure.

Much of the literature I have taught can be read in terms of innocence, experience, redeemed innocence, or those murky spaces between these amorphous categories. The high school catalogue is rife with characters who move between these spaces. To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Crucible, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and on and on and etc. Many of the standard selections you would find on any high school syllabus in the United States could be read in terms of movement between innocence and experience. Again, classrooms are a good place for such talk. Ostensibly, people in classrooms are (or should be) trying to figure out how to make better sense of their (and others) experiences. They should be trying to grow up.

My entire professional life has been about interacting with children. To be fair, these children have mostly been young adults. People are all over the place in terms of experience or development by the time they are in high school. Personally, I felt like I was simultaneously 12 and 48 in high school. Anyway, I have spent serious time and energy watching children become adults. I have tried to help countless people reckon with adulthood. To what effect? Who can say? Standardized tests are silly and do not account for real teaching. I am referring to the complex work of mentoring young people as they grow up in an infinitely complex, unsafe universe. Story is a better way to represent that work than test scores. My next book project is about collecting and making sense of the strange, (strange, strange, strange!) story of my teaching career.

About stories.

Good literature makes us aware of how difficult it is to be alive. Children's literature (or any literature, for that matter) that glosses over or oversimplifies unpleasantness always leaves me feeling unsatisfied. This is even truer in the age of internet connectivity. People now publish and construct their haphazard narratives on social media. Glossy selfies and generalized political statements do not seem to be a viable way to delve into the difficult work of making sense of our troubled existences. Try as you might, it is impossible to avoid complexity unpleasantness in living. Better to embrace it, wrestle with it, and come to terms with it.

What do I mean by complexity and unpleasantness? I don't know. Take your pick. We are mortal beings. So we are going to die. Wrestle with that, baby. People can be as selfish and cruel as they can be giving and loving. That seems worth chewing on. We live in an age where 1% of the world is in control of nearly all of the wealth and resources on the planet. (FYI: There is nothing accidental about that. Check your history to see how systems were formed to create these conditions. It is all there). We also live during a time when life is going extinct at a monumental pace due to our desire to drive fast cars, mass produce knick-knacks, and spend our days staring into silly little pixilated screens. I am not trying to create anxiety and worry. I just don't think it makes much sense to gloss over the trouble of being alive.

I will not try and define innocence but, to me, it has something to do with thinking that your life will happen the way that you want it to. Experience, for me, is the harsh realization that it will not. Experience also has something to do with how unsafe the world is. Redeemed innocence might be something worth seeking. It is the thing I would want my students or children to seek. It is the thing that I think real adults attain. It has something to do with making peace with the fact that things will not go the way that you want them to. It might be about being okay with uncertainty and learning how to navigate this vastly unknowable universe we find ourselves in. Improvisation, baby.

This dilemma might be what drives Hamlet off the deep end. He laments that "the time is out of joint, o cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right." Poor kid. Time is out of joint. It will always be. We cannot set it right. We can only learn to relax, respond, and keep adapting. It is a fascist who tries to arrange their circumstances in their own image. Beware these people. They are, to me, dangerous children.

It is strange to observe Solomon and his brother Samson so closely. My life is currently dedicated to watching or interacting with a toddler and infant. Solomon is so particular about where he wants me to sit or stand, how he interacts with toys, or what he wants to play with. He melts down when things do not go his way. This meltdown might includes tears, screaming, or even the occasional head bang. Again, poor kid. Time is out of joint for him. Nothing he can do will ever set it right. I understand his dilemma but he will need to start figuring out how to relax, respond, and adapt. That is part of what we are charged to learn here.

I don't mean to ramble this week. My students watched the French film The Red Balloon in class last week. I first saw the film when I was in kindergarten. It destroyed me. Some of my innocence was lost as I watched a little boy's balloon get popped. If you haven't seen it, go watch it. It is on youtube and it is worth your time. I have found excuse after excuse to use this film with students. I have managed to find a place for it in elementary classrooms, in 9th grade, in 12th grade, in graduate courses, and now in my literacy methods courses. The text can serve a variety of purposes. Last week, we used it to discuss the nature of formal and informal education. Our talk drifted to innocence and experience. I was surprised because I didn't push the conversation that way.

The movie, if it is going to work, requires the audience to empathize with a child. It is a text that asks adults to view it like children and, if they do so, they are able to experience that unpleasant moment when a person realizes that they are powerless to keep the complex, unpleasantness at bay. Again, what a powerful movie. It was a formative interaction with literature for me when I was a child.

Watching the movie got me to think about how I interact with Solomon and Samson. It is so easy to impose my will on Solomon when he is playing or frustrated. It is so much harder for me to empathize with what he might be thinking or feeling. It is difficult to work with him to help him process what he is experiencing in a particular moment. I think there is something illustrative of teaching in this realization. First, I think teachers should not pretend to be transmitters of ultimate truths. Put that idea out the window. Our truths might not work for somebody else. Next, a question comes to my mind. How can teachers empathize with students and help them adapt to their circumstances with the understanding that realities are diverse, dissimilar, and require nuance to navigate? Throw out the tests. Most tests assume an arbitrary truth and then impose that truth at the expense of questioning. My second question above would require some serious imagination. God knows I did my best, but I don't think that I have yet accomplished a satisfactory answer in my own pedagogy. First K-12, then higher education, and now two boys -- I'll just keep trying to learning how to be a better student and teacher. I'll keep trying to figure out how to be a useful adult.