The Thoreauvian Effect
By Carol, Atrium School Parent
People have been calling my 5th grader names. Strangers, friends and family members alike. He is a lover of school and a maker of friends. He reads and smiles and runs and does what 10 year old boys are created to do. Throughout these elementary years, however, there has been some name calling that is changing who he is. Luckily, for us, his experiences have not been rooted in bullying, but rather in edification. My son has been called a mensch, an inspiration. Adults have described him as holding sage wisdom, deep commitment, enthusiasm, articulation. Peers have accused him of being cool, awesome, amazing. Imagine a world where this was the common artery that name calling followed through our schools and communities. Positive messages naturally bleed into the hidden crevices of our children's hearts, feeding their deepest and most meaningful parts. Often, however, we forget this small ingredient of humanity and kindness. Instead, the moments of youth are, for many, filled with whispers and shouts that draw attention to what seems inferior or missing. The power that a single word wields in the self-concept of a child is mind-boggling.
In his own words, my son, with the initials HJW, "LOVES HDT!" And he expresses his feelings in just that way, using capital letters as the volume knob in his own writing. Henry David Thoreau was an assigned hero for an in- depth, long term study in the Grade 2 at Atrium School. It didn't take long before my own Henry's respect and appreciation deepened and HDT become a personal hero, no longer standing behind an intellectual curtain. He felt aligned with his 19th century Transcendentalist teacher and hummed with thoughts of the sacredness of nature and life. In him, there was adventure and peace, clarity and uncertainty, commitment and innovation.
And so, it seems apropos that my HJW has developed a love for Walden. As the years since his introduction to the abolitionist author crawl by, my son has hiked, swum, celebrated and explored the trails and views that HDT so enjoyed and valued. His connection deepens. While in the Grade 3 at Atrium School my son watched another friend assume the role of Thoreau in the annual heroism study and was inspired do more to ensure the longevity, beauty and conservation of the Pond. Locally, we have a cupcake bar called Treat Cupcake Bar that supports youth who want to do a creative service for others through their "Treat Others Well" program. He applied by writing a letter that was seeped in enthusiasm, gratitude and love for all things Thoreau. His lines revealed a clear conviction that the Walden Woods Project should be supported by our collective attention and intention. His voice, full of passion, spoke clearly with wit and intelligence to attract the attention of the "judges." In the end, his essay was chosen and he was allowed to help design the "Walden" cupcake. He easily shared sketches and ideas with the "Treat" liaison, focusing upon characteristics that he believes are at the core of Thoreau's time at Walden. Her interest fueled his sense of ownership in the process of making a difference. She did need to temper his vision a bit, however, with the gentle reminder that the medium was frosting and the canvas a cupcake top. For one summer month, his cupcakes were sold at two local branches of the store and 50% of the sales were offered to the Walden Woods Project in my Henry's name. The sales totaled $970 and he was thrilled to know that $485 was earmarked for conservation of such a sacred space. I assure you, in a child's mind, this amount will guarantee that Walden Pond is nurtured and saved from commercialized change.
If I had had a camera and the forethought to monitor my son's facial expressions throughout the moments of this journey, I could have created a montage that would say everything. But I had neither and so here I rest with the images engraved in my mind's eye. As soon as he got word that he was chosen to create a cupcake, he shared his big news. He sparkled and beamed and read the words aloud to the anticipation filled room, "Mom...Grandma...Ben, I was picked! I won!" He soon began the process of contacting people who could help his cause. He reached out to the gentleman who professionally role plays HDT, remembering his offer of support during a past serendipitous meeting at the Walden bookstore. He then connected to a woman at the Walden Woods Project to share his hopes and wishes. From both, he asked that they post an announcement and photos on their respective Facebook pages. He envisioned word of the cupcakes expanding throughout the realm of social media via strands of people who shared a love for HDT. He also wrote to our own friends and family, inviting them to enjoy the cupcakes in the name of service. And then, the metaphoric ball started rolling.
He received numerous texts and photos from individual friends and whole families as they ate their treats. Each message cradled words of endearment and kudos. My son didn't realize that by bringing HDT to the stage, he would share the spotlight with his hero. The leader of Atrium School's PTA organized an "invasion" of the cupcake bar as a show of support for both Henrys. He received a hand-written letter from one of my old classmates, whom he had never met personally, that contained a $20 bill. Her request was simple, "Since I no longer live in the Boston area, please use this money to buy four cupcakes. I would then like you to offer them to anyone who you think might appreciate a treat, a smile, a surprise. I trust that you will know who will enjoy them most." I assure you he found it easy to deliver the cupcakes to some elderly, mostly house-bound, sisters in our old neighborhood and to a favorite great aunt just home from a stay in rehab. He felt such joy and pride sharing his creations and story. That summer month was woven with vibrant yarns of generosity, kindness and beauty meant to embrace us.
We turned the corner towards August and the imminent start of school and his Grade 4 adventures. To our amazement, rather than fade into our memories, my son's connection to Thoreau deepened. Without further effort on his part, creative opportunities manifested before him. The single words of acknowledgment grew into phrases and ultimately stretched into full length notes that expanded beyond the boundaries of people whom we already knew and into a realm of impressed strangers. My HJW was an inspired inspiration. Again, I realize, in hindsight only, how many priceless facial expressions the camera lens forgot as he continued to unwrap the gifts of his HDT odyssey.
In mid-August, an electronic letter arrived via Henry's role playing cheerleader. There had been a week-long workshop in Concord, it seems, that had welcomed educators from all over to walk and study within the woods that Thoreau had so eloquently described. On the last evening, the guests shared a meal, a conversation with the HDT impersonator and a feast of Walden cupcakes. One gentleman, moved by the story of my son's untainted enthusiasm and "thoughtful design", followed his own instinct and sent words of congratulation and recognition. The word "special" leapt from the virtual page and draped itself around my child. The wisdom of this stranger reverberated within my son, "Follow that great interest you have in Mr. Thoreau throughout your days and I believe that you will never be disappointed in life." This was a gift of immeasurable value and shows the power of connection, meaning and validation. Without ever meeting my son in person, this fellow Walden lover, saw the best in HJW. Moreover, he was not too busy, too distracted, too uncertain, too afraid, too soaked by the minutiae of his own life to, in a moment, shine a light on someone else's greatness. As a mother watching the self-discovery of my then 9 year old, I am deeply grateful.
We believed, mistakenly, that with the last cupcake sale came the end of this particular storyline. We had forgotten that what is true for adults is also true for children. When one continues to offer an exuberant "YES!" to the reflections of his own brilliance, he sees more of it. Before long, my son received a request to write a few lines to be incorporated into a fundraising endorsement for a Hollywood film about Thoreau. Again, a snapshot of his facial expression is etched in my memory. I watched as he smiled, "Wait. I have to read this again ..." and wondered to himself if he was being asked to move to sunny CA as a leading role. His was to be the voice of youth. In 4-5 lines, he highlighted both the importance of understanding the value of HDT's life and the preservation of Walden as a sacred space. Without hesitation, he started playing with how he would word his response. He referred to the Underground Railroad and Thoreau's influence on Ghandi and Martin Luther King. He labeled HDT as smart, brave, creative and helpful. He emphasized the importance of a favorite and bare-boned quote, and reminded us to "Simplify, simplify." My elder son's sometimes reserved approach melts away when anything Thoreau lands in front of him; he naturally calls forth his fearlessness and clarity. At the end of his short piece and with a confidently broad grin, he announced his willingness to be an extra if filming comes to Concord. He skips down the proverbial yellow brick road of lightness, courage and possibility.
The next letter to land in my inbox was a request for my son to be a reader for a biography/activity book to be written about HDT and published by the Chicago Review Press. This writer had heard of my son and had seen his cupcakes, describing them both as "wonderful and inventive." She wrote, "I would be honored to have such a young and dedicated Thoreauvian offering me sage advice." Why, I am left wondering, did I not photograph this moment? Perhaps my intuition knew that these memories would be lasting and that a 3D, stagnant depiction may erase some of the inherent fluidity and magic. Henry pondered, "I'm called a Thoreauvian? That's so awesome. Mom, she called me a Thoreauvian. I've never even heard that before. Cool." Another part of him has been named and identified. He may not actively refer to himself as a Thoreauvian forever, but, like all name calling, it will live and pulse within him. The brightness of this label will shift throughout his days, but it will never be deleted from the script of his life. Again, this woman whom we hadn't before met, has fertilized all that is positive in my child's character. And he, once again, responded with a resounding "Yes!" to her inquiry and looked forward to donning an editorial hat, enjoying a splash of future fame as he was to be named in the acknowledgements and receiving an autographed copy of the book when it jumped into published form.
After diving into the manuscript drafts whole-heartedly as the youngest and only child first reader, HJW honed his eye for interest and detail, playing with chapter after chapter throughout much of the school year. He smiled proudly and humbly when he learned that he had indeed discovered and highlighted a typo that had eluded all others, including the author and the more experienced Press editor. By the end of this process, it felt natural to accept the author's invitation to be part of a filming project meant to supplement her writing. He, of course, dreaming of complex Lego sets, loved the idea of getting his first paid gig! And so, one rainy fall weekend of his Grade5 year, our family made the trek west. The first day was filled with a Concord that was reminiscent of Thoreau's own journeys through town followed by a walk and conversation around Walden Pond. On the second day of filming, Henry met only with the author and her camera woman at the Thoreau Farm to create one of the projects offered within the book, Henry David Thoreau for Kids - His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities. More recently, he visited the Farm once again, this time for the book launch and to see the book in print for the first time.
My son has been invited into the world of effortlessly attracting opportunities that continue to feed all that is true, unique and amazing about him. He is neither boastful nor overtly seeking external validation. He is not chasing his next experience, but rather watching the unfolding with quiet fascination. He simply sparked a flame and now continues to enjoy the light and heat that comes from fanning a fire with passion, openness and willingness.
Our schools, playgrounds, families and communities are riddled with name callers. We see the irreparable damage and simmering hurt that stems from labels and stereotypes. We witness how creativity, intelligence and humor can go wildly awry, leaving the downed trees of one's spirit in their wake. We hear the silence of adults as they overlook all that is wondrous and inspirational in our youth while focusing on their cell phones, IPads, invisible thoughts, unsatisfied needs, gripping stresses, unrelenting memories.
And so, this is a call to action. My 10 year old son has enjoyed being called names throughout these past years and it has changed how he sees himself. How many of us can honestly say that? It is time to look within and then to seek all that is sparkling about the children who decorate our lives. This is our point of leverage. This is how we love. This is how we change the world. This is how we model the process of recognizing light and goodness. This is how we teach our youth what it is to be human. This is how we live and strengthen a web of planetary healing. This is how we alleviate the sinking sense of lonely isolation and separation and instead nurture a clear relatedness and deep connection. This is where we are all left recognizing our own, and others', sacredness.
As one friend quipped, "This is the Thoreauvian Effect." How wonderfully perceived.