Monday, December 24, 2012

Breaking the Santa spell... and should we?

A couple of months ago I spent a week at a very conservative Christian boys’ school as their Writer in Residence. I’ve done this gig many, many times a year for a decade and a half, so I reckon I’ve seen most of the curveballs that a roomful of school kids can serve up. Some have been troubling, some infuriating and some just… well, weird. I’ve seen kids throw up partway through a talk (probably not my fault), I’ve seen a child have a seizure mid-workshop (almost certainly not my fault), I’ve even witnessed a full-on physical confrontation between two young women that might, indirectly, have been more or less attributable to something I might have said, thereby (in a very loose sense) making it my fault.

But this, what I’m about to describe to you, was a complete surprise. Was it troubling, infuriating, or weird? No, it was in fact all of those, all at once.

So. Imagine a library containing one author, one teacher-librarian, and fifty 5th Grade boys. Imagine that author explaining to those 5th Graders about how writers use misdirection, much as stage magicians do. That is to say, while we’re telling a story about one thing, we might also be addressing some theme that is ‘bigger’ than the simple story within which it is couched. 

‘Because we know that when a magician does a trick, they’re not really being “magic”, don’t we?’ I asked, rhetorically. ‘Because we know that magic isn’t real, don’t we?’

Let me pause to briefly explain something. In that moment, I thought very hard about what I would say next. I really did. That’s because I have a more or less fully developed frontal lobe – the part of one’s brain that projects forward and assesses potential risk. Which is why I didn’t go where you probably thought I was going next – describing the founder of the Christian faith as ‘Magic Sky-Jesus’. Because that’s not what I do. I’m terribly careful to avoid offending people, since I like being invited back to places. I’m there to talk about stories and writing and books, not to make fun of Jesus, Mohammed or anyone else considered sacred by anyone. 

So while I didn’t plan to offend anyone, I did think – I actually thought – that I’d be safe to remind this room full of ten- and eleven-year-old boys that magic isn’t real. ‘We know that the Easter Bunny isn’t real,’ I said. ‘Neither is the Tooth Fairy. And as for Santa Claus…’

I know. I know. But come on – these boys were in 5th Grade! 5th Grade! My own kids were still putting out carrots and milk on Christmas Eve right up until their eighth birthdays, and I found it endearing and cute and the stuff of a whimsical childhood. But 5th Grade? Really?

To be fair, none of the boys batted an eyelid. Not that I noticed, anyway. Neither did the teacher-librarian. Until the following morning, that is, when she received five irate parent emails complaining that ‘some guest speaker’ had come to the school and told their boys that ‘Santa doesn’t exist’. It was their prerogative to expose that little bit of dishonesty at a time of their choosing, they claimed, and I guess they’re probably right.

The teacher-librarian thought the whole thing was pretty funny. So did I, to be honest. What I found slightly less amusing was the fact that one of the class teachers (who hadn’t even been in the room at the time) had sent a group letter to all 5th Grade parents more or less apologising on my behalf. 

But here’s the thing. Imagine your own ten-year-old coming to you in tears, complaining that some mean man had come to school that day and claimed that Santa was a lie. The way I see it, you’ve two possible courses of action. The first is to quietly utter a prayer of thanks that, as unpleasant as it is to see your child weep, you can now have that conversation. You can now say to your child, ‘Honey, the truth is that we’ve been meaning to talk with you about this for some time. And this seems like a good time to do it. Fortuitous, even.’

The second course of action is to actively promote the lie and, once the tears are largely dried and belief restored, open up the laptop and fire off an angry missive. (To anyone considering Option 2, think on this: how much greater will that feeling of betrayal be when the truth is finally allowed to come out – at, say, twelve or thirteen – and you have to admit to your child that yes, you did lie for a long time, before grasping the opportunity to lie some more.)

All right, so mea culpa. Lesson learned. I still relate my craft to magic versus misdirection, but Saint Nicholas of Myra no longer scores a mention. It’s not that I’m shying away from the truth; it’s more that I understand that it’s not my job to decide when other people let their kids grow up. 

That said, let me make one final note on what I now call 'The Great Santa Contretemps of 2012'. I briefly considered sending out my own email of apology to the parents of those 5th Graders, saying the following: I wish to apologise for any misunderstanding over my recent comments to your boys. I suffer from dyslexia*, and actually meant to say that Satan doesn’t exist. 

How might that have played out, I wonder?

* NB: I am aware that it is a common misconception that dyslexic people get their letters jumbled up, but to be honest, Anticipatory Coarticulation is simply too much of a mouthful. Happy Christmas, everyone!


djboz said...

Nice one James. I am not immune to "foot in mouth" in the classroom either.

Anonymous said...

James I dropped the easter bunny thing when it was clear Adelaide didn't believe it any more and she was outraged. I said, but you donlt believe in it. She said, but you are supposed to pretend I do! I was gobsmacked and yet at some level, I got it- after the believing phase comes this shared joke believing phase which i think actually ameliorated the fact that you lied about the bunny ( or santa or whatever) because they are complicit in the lie- sharing the fun of make believing. And I skipped that stage ...

isobelle carmody

Anonymous said...

This is miserable. To be invited into a school and then make judgments on our children like that and then to destroy a belief or idea or whatever it is that might be dear to our children's hearts is cruel. Yes, your children might be believing in different things but it is not a clever idea to judge the wider world by what your children do/think/believe in. Your account of this suggests to me a pettiness that is disturbing, especially in someone who writes for children. Please, go more gently, and accept that people and our children are all different, and try not to spoil childhood for those who still want to have it. Narrow-minded cynicism is a negitive force. One of those children, at least, that you "awakened" on your visit, did not enjoy his Christmas as much this year.

james roy said...

Thank you for your comment, Anonymous. But I must urge you to re-read the piece, in which I say that I was in fact trying NOT to offend or insult or upset. As ever, being cruel was the furthest thing from my mind, and I certainly didn't set out to 'destroy' anything. As I say towards the end of the piece, I have modified my talk accordingly, having recognised where I inadvertently went wrong on this occasion.

Finally, Anonymous, when you say "One of those children, at least, that you 'awakened' on your visit, did not enjoy his Christmas as much this year", am I to take it that your son was one of the boys in that Year 5 class? If so, I unreservedly and sincerely apologise for diminishing his Christmas experience.


Misrule said...

There's clearly no judgement being made on these children in your post, James, and no intention of malice in your actions. I, too, share your surprise that year 5 kids would still believe in Santa Claus. Indeed, many of the conservative Christians I have known over the years have been very anti-Santa, so given the school you were in, you could easily have assumed that you were on safe ground.