Rarely does my neighborhood offer peculiar sights. There’s a walker who charges down the street with ski poles in the middle of summer and a very tall cross-dresser I haven’t seen in years. During swim team season toilet paper hangs gracefully from trees, and in the spring girls in prom dresses duck into limousines. That’s about all that’s worth rubber-necking except for a family of deer and the occasional dog in the middle of the road who’s jumped the electric fence.
But this morning I drove past a scene that caused me to double-take. Children waiting for the schoolbus stood in a single file line. No parent was near. Silent, unsmiling, hunchbacked with heavy backpacks, the kids stared straight ahead or down at the ground. The tableau was so strange and depressing that I was instantly reminded of the statue at the FDR memorial in Washington, D.C. of grim-faced men waiting in a bread line.
No doubt the children’s well-intentioned mothers instituted the single-file line to prevent them from knocking each other into the street and getting hit by a car. But this sleepy suburban corner is hardly a high-speed highway.
I resisted the impulse to jump out of the car and stir up movement as I would a flock of pigeons on a sidewalk. I wanted to yell, Hey kids, use your last few minutes of freedom and get your ya-ya’s out! Here they were, about to go off to school where they would stand in line to go to the bathroom, to the lunchroom, to music class, to recess, and from where they will graduate to go to more school and wait in more lines until they are out in the world with the rest of us, waiting in lines at the bank, the post office, at Starbucks and amusement parks, waiting their turn to vote, to renew a driver’s license, to order fast food, to turn left, to buy the newest Apple product.
I’m not against lines or orderly conduct. But as we tell our children, there’s a time and a place for everything.
The rest of the story is that when I came home I found out that Maurice Sendak died.
I may be stretching the connection here, but if there ever was one not to stand in line, it was Sendak. If ever books encouraged nonconformity, they were his. Reading the many tributes to Sendak, I learned that his art was inspired and haunted by relatives killed in the Holocaust. Relatives who no doubt stood in lines to be exterminated like cattle.
I’m fond of Sendak—you can link here to Stephen Colbert’s funny interview with Sendak to get an idea of what a cranky genius he was—and his death makes me wistful for many a bedtime when I read his books to my children and many a trip to the library when I was a girl myself and attracted to his illustrations of sturdy, confident and often indignant children.
I felt not an ounce of nostalgia when the other popular figure of children’s literature, Jan Berenstain, died this past February. I hated her books refused to read them to my children. The illustrations were overly cartoonish, the message-driven plot unbearable. Show me a child who cleaned her room, told the truth, ate less junk food, or watched less TV because she read a Berenstain Bear book, and I’ll show you a specter of your own wishful thinking.
By contrast, Sendak’s books were unpredictable and wildly imaginative. The plot and illustrations could go off in any direction, often in dark directions. You don’t have to have read Bruno Bettelheim to know that children naturally experience dark thoughts and emotions, and fairy tales and literature like Sendak’s offer safe avenues for dealing with such. As a firm believer in the uses of enchantment, I’ve always avoided picture books that read like Hallmark cards. Love You Forever and that incredibly boring book with elongated rabbits about how much the mother rabbit loves her baby rabbit always seemed too trite and desperately earnest to force upon children. Put the bunny book up against Margaret Wise Brown’s brilliant Runaway Bunny and you see how insipid and unimaginative the imitation is. Better to just tell Junior in your own words that you love him and always will. And then read him good books like Sendak’s and Brown’s.
And for pete’s sake don’t force him to stand in line when he doesn’t have to. Let him and his schoolmates examine the grass, sit on the curb, chase each other, chatter, grunt, shout, cackle, draw their names in the cement with rocks, blow dandelion seeds into the air, kick acorns. No one will get killed doing that. Or even remotely ruined. Let the wild rumpus begin, folks. It ends all too soon.
But how sad if the rumpus never begins all.