School, my father told me, was the best place in the world. It was where you learned about everything. My mother was a teacher then, and I envied all those children she went to see every day.
I couldn’t wait.
But I had to.
Kindergarten was a tiny place just across from the hospital where my father worked. To me, it seemed vast. I couldn’t reach the doorbell, and I never dared to play on the looming slides and swings. I didn’t enjoy painting with water on blotting paper and watching it dry and disappear. I was frightened by the nonsensical clapping songs and I detested any sort of entertainment, especially the magician we went to see twice a year for a treat.
Magic was a lie. The world was full of true wonders. I wanted to know them all, and invent new ones.
I wanted to be in school.
One day I had a fight with another child who insisted that whales breathed water, not air. That was the last straw. I’d already listened to her insisting that clouds were blue on a white sky, as in her drawings, because clouds were full of rain and the sky was empty, and that when the sky looked blue it was just covered in clouds.
We were separated and I had to sit at a table across the room with a child who didn’t talk.
“Did you know that whales breathe air?” I asked her. “They do.” She shook her head quietly. “Do you want to know more about whales?” I asked. She nodded. “I will tell you tomorrow,” I said.
At home, I asked my mother about whales, and I concentrated hard to learn it all. My mother had a song she liked to sing about a whale called Jonathan who swims in the ice-cold Northern sea, and she told me that whales eat krill, which is all the tiniest things in the sea.
The next day I couldn’t wait to see my new friend.
“Welcome to school”, I said. “Whales are not really fish. They live in the ice-cold northern sea and they eat krill.”
The next day, my class had doubled. Two silent children stared at me with awe, and all I had prepared was the subject of carrots. All I had learned about carrots was that you can eat them in a way that leaves a weird spiny core, and I had no idea why that was the case.
“This was a short lesson, “ I said after my demonstration, “but tomorrow I will teach you about time.”
At home, I went straight to the bookshelf. There was a whole row of non-fiction books, heavily illustrated, including “The How and Why Wonder Book of Time”. Time seemed an easier subject than for example dinosaurs, because there were many dinosaurs but only one time.
I stared at the images of sundials and wondered if I could make one. I deciphered the words as well as I could.
I had already learned to read by badgering everyone constantly to tell me what every bit of writing anywhere said, and once I realised that the word on the sugar packet was SUGAR I was off, reading first all the labels, then all the signs and finally all the books in my world.
I wasn’t so good at talking yet. Sentences came out of my mouth in the wrong order, some sounds weren’t quite right and I wasn’t ever sure what other people actually knew about or what I had only dreamed.
But I tried my best.
“Welcome to school,” I said. “If you fall into a black hole in outer space, you keep falling forever. But you won’t, because you can’t fall upwards, that would be flying. Maybe we can make a clock, but I don’t know how. I’m sorry. I will find out more.”
A short time later, we were told that we’d go to see the magician again. I started screaming and didn’t stop until they’d taken me out of kindergarten forever.
From then on, I stayed home and read and drew and learned. I was happy that I didn’t need to waste any more time with clapping and water painting, and I was looking forward to starting school.
It turned out that school meant sitting still and learning one letter at a time.
The first day we all went “i”, which was the sound one might make sliding down a slide or stepping in a puddle, as the pictures illustrated. I leafed through the book and wondered what it was trying to teach me. It was all complete nonsense. There was no information at all, the pictures were lovely but was this really the only book we would be reading all year?
Every day I went and wondered what was happening to me. There was a classroom library, but I wasn’t allowed to touch the books unless it was reading time, and reading time only happened when it rained at recess. Asking questions was bad. I drew animals and rockets all around the edges of my exercise book, telling myself there would be an end to every lesson. The first weekend, I hid under a chair at home and told everyone I lived there now. Soon after, I started having stomach aches and nightmares.
I still dream about school and wake up sick.
I’d forgotten about all of this until last week when I went to visit a friend who has a two year old daughter. At bedtime, there was a huge stack of story books to choose from, several of them written by me.
She chose an illustrated French dictionary instead. “That’s her favourite”, my friend said.
I watched them read together.
My friend read out the words, asked questions and explained. Her daughter nodded to herself, whispering the names of animals, making claws and growls of lions not as make-believe but to remember: lion. It’s striking how grown-up tiny children look when they are learning something.
It’s just as striking child-like adults react when they just worked something out… because in this, the most profound and life-important enjoyment, we remain the same.
We all want to work things out.
That child I was fighting in Kindergarten was reasoning out the nature of clouds as much as I was, and she really cared about whales.
If the adults had taken notice and picked a few books off the shelf for us to look through together, our tiny self-teaching school would have grown and grown.
They let us paint with water to save on paper when they should have let us mix colours.
We could have made a sundial with the adults, right outside, right then, if they’d just asked us what we were doing instead of laughing at our seriousness.
We sang clapping songs every day to keep in line when we could have sung about whales in the ice-cold northern ocean.
My dad was right. School should be the best place in the world.
It wasn’t. There was no best place. But there were books.
I love my job of writing and illustrating stories for children, but my first, true and most profound love will always be non-fiction books. If you write them, thank you.
If you read them: welcome to school.
Tomorrow we will build whatever you want, I hope.
Viv Schwarz, May 2016