I was one of those fortunate children whose parents read to me. The stories were not what hooked me. I saw that books were full of possibilities, a portal to other worlds. I also saw the the only way to access these worlds for myself was to learn how to read. I remember being four years old and looking out a high-rise window over the myriad signs that decorated New York City rooftops. My companion was an eight year old girl named Brucia. “Can you read everything you see?” I asked her wistfully. When she assured me she could, I remember wondering if I would ever reach that point where I could read everything I saw. (Here is the “emptiness” of Roethke’s line.) Then I could get into books anytime I wanted without being dependent on my parents. So in my determined way, I pestered adults for help and taught myself to read.
When I was eight, we made papier maché finger puppets in class. Mine was of my father, featuring short lengths of yarn pasted vertically around his head as a frame for his bald pate. I received a lot of praise for my cleverness. Over the weekend a mouse in the classroom came and ate the nose off my puppet leaving behind a disfiguring hole. (The paste was an edible (tasty to a mouse?) mixture of flour and water.) My teacher was worried about my reaction. How would I feel about having my work so unforgivingly destroyed? Much to her surprise, for me it was no big deal. Even at that tender age I realized that the puppet itself didn’t matter. I could always make another and no one could take that ability away from me. That same year my favorite doll fell off the bed on to her nose and it, too, was irrevocably marred. I was inconsolable and vowed to myself that I would never invest so much emotional energy into a possession. The loss was too hard to bear. Acquiring skills and creating new things thus became my passions.
Passion can be described as a feeling but it manifests itself in the world as behavior, strong behavior that recurs frequently despite obstacles, setbacks, and long periods without obvious feedback. Passionate people are often unreasonable; they persist in spite of off-putting events or lack of approbation and support that might make others quit.
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world around him. The unreasonable man persists in his attempts to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” (George Bernard Shaw, 1903 play “Man and Superman.”) [GBS was a misogynist so he was not about to include women in such a profound statement.]
Behaviorists know that strength of behavior is built with payoffs that are highly intermittent and might only be perceived as a reward by the individual exhibiting the behavior. The well-struck tennis ball becomes its own reward and is a first step in the steep learning curve of a potential champion. Hitting the ball in a racket’s “sweet spot” feels good. But the pursuit of a world-class trophy requires a commitment and a faith in one’s own abilities that defies the inevitable (reasonable) naysayers who know that the odds of reaching this pinnacle are extremely long.
"Invictus" is one of my favorite films. It depicts an unreasonable Nelson Mandela, played brilliantly by Morgan Freeman, who believed that he could unite his post-apartheid nation if only the rugby team, the Springboks, could do the impossible and win the World Cup. He had formidable strikes against pulling this off—the team itself was an underdog that didn’t believe itself capable of such a feat and the freshly empowered black citizens of the “newly christened Rainbow Nation, South Africa” hated everything that stood for their former Afrikaner oppressors, especially this team. They were certainly not about to root for it. Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Addiction is not passion. Dr. Gabor Maté, a family physician with a special interest in child development says:
"The difference between passion and addiction is that between a divine spark and a flame that incinerates.." [For more on Dr. Maté watch his Ted Talk.]
Passion motivates learning, exploring, becoming a part of and interacting with something larger than oneself. It is sometimes interpreted as "grit." There are passionate teachers out there. They are the ones that change lives. I'll be you can think of one right now.
Passion for writing nonfiction for children is experienced by the authors of iNK Think Tank. We authors work against all odds, creating works of literature to engage, inform and inspire children about the real world. You can get a delicious sampling of our work and our passionate voices in our Nonfiction Minutes. If we want kids to learn and think about the real world and foster a passion for learning, why not give them great reading material? One issue is that our books are not used in most classrooms where they can do the most good.
Our problem? What can we do to change this small part of the educational landscape?
The answer: Whatever it takes.