Monday, February 18, 2013

The Figures of My Childhood

This post is written as part of my homework for the MIT Media Lab's MOOC, "Learning Creative Learning." For this assignment, we were asked to write a response to the essay,"The Gears of My Childhood," by Seymour Papert. It was the foreword to his 1980 book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, which I keep hearing great things about.

When I think back to the prime intellectual and educational influences on my childhood, I come up with two things: reading and painting D&D figurines.

For whatever reason, my parents didn’t have a working TV in our house until I was 10 years old. This meant that my brother and I had to figure out other ways of occupying ourselves in all the odd little intervals during which our peers would have watched a TV show. We had our outlets—my best friend who lived right down the street was from a TV-centric family. I don’t even think they had a dining room table, as it would have been unnecessary for them. They had TV dinner tables. But because of the age difference between my brother and I (six years), we had different ideas about the best way to spend our time. Most often, we both chose reading. Looking back at my 5-10 year-old self, I would probably say that I was a prodigious reader. Thanks to the fact that I had nothing else to do, and parents who were readers themselves, and who didn’t feel the need to tell me what I should be reading, I read widely and curiously. I lost myself in books on a daily basis. I remember existing fully in the worlds that I read, losing hours to be with the Five Children and It, or searching for the Weirdstone of Brisingamen, or wandering with Taran. Being called to dinner five times because I just didn’t hear my mom calling me against the pull of a great story.

I suppose that this taught me a thing or two about imagination, about what it means to be invested in a story. It taught me to not be afraid of books, for sure. I still love books, and easily could spend hours in both libraries and bookstores—my wife and children usually have to drag me out of both places. It taught me that just sitting around reading is a great way to spend my time, and that one can almost always gain something from that pursuit. I also learned how to sit for hours on end reading a book, which came in very, very handy when I was in college and grad school, and still occasionally comes in handy when I have a stack of papers to grade.

When I was eight or so, my brother and his best friend discovered Dungeons and Dragons. As they started to play, they started to collect the little, lead figurines that made imagining one’s placement on a dungeon map more manageable. My brother and I both started to collect the figurines, and along with that came the process of painting their dull, gray skins with more lifelike colors. Because the average height of these armored warriors, mages, trolls, and skeletons was about two inches, this meant manipulating tiny brushes and many different colors of paints, both acrylyc and oil-based. The attention to detail necessary, as well as the planning needed to figure out how you wanted a character to look, gave me an appreciation of really trying to do something well because I wanted it to come out well. My parents didn’t care, though they gave praise when I painted a nice one. My brother was pretty wrapped up in his own painting, but not so much that he wouldn’t point out places I’d messed up. Those tiny, fantastical figures pushed my little fingers’ coordination past their capabilities, but my failures to pant accurately never made me want to quit, and they made the successes stand out like beacons, leading me to more complex and intricate ideas for the next figurine.

So, in short, the lessons I learned from the big influences in my childhood were to sit still, lose yourself in a story, and pay attention to detail. Not bad, in the long run.