At the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, I present a new craft or art project to our eighty-two boys every month. In the past years these monthly projects have spanned the range from soapbox derby cars and tie-dying to oil painting and macramé. I love my job and I love teaching but during January one of the frustrations I deal with on a regular basis has really begun to bother me.
This month I’ve been positively giddy about building rockets but out of the eighty kids I’ve offered a rocket kit to, less than twenty have followed through and actually built one. Less than twenty. The rest just don’t get it. “What’s the point,” one boy told me and asked if he could be excused to go play Halo. There is something wrong when a teenage boy doesn’t get excited about a tube full of explosives that is made to be lit on fire and shot into the sky. It bothers me. I deal with the same issue every month and it makes me sad that the imagination and sense of wonder in some of these boys has been so crushed. If we paint, they often try to throw their work in the trash when I’m not looking because it didn’t come out as photorealistic as they imagined it. If we’re building pinewood derby cars they give up and walk away because it doesn’t look just like the one on the side of the box. Where are children learning to be so critical?
Boys don’t seem to know how to dream anymore. When I was a kid (ugh, I’m pretty sure starting a sentence like that qualifies me as old or something), we spent all our time outside: skateboarding, building ramps, exploring the woods, hunting bullfrogs with BB guns, planning tree-forts that we’d never build, and flattening pennies on railroad tracks. There was just no end of things to do, or plan, or get away with. But at work I see kids that are completely lost when they are told to turn off the TV and go play. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that they don’t know what to do. On a campus with eighty teenage boys I have never seen a game of tag. Not one. They don’t know what tag is. The only games they know are basketball and football, because they’re taught those on TV. Often when boys are asked what they want to do when they grow up, they don’t have an answer, not even a wild and crazy one like ‘be a rapper’ or ‘play in the NFL’, they just shrug. They’ve never thought about it because they’ve been spoon fed their entertainment for the whole of their short lives and have never had to entertain themselves with their own imaginations..
If a child doesn’t learn how to imagine, how to dream, how can he ever learn how to hope? What’s going to happen twenty years down the road when life has led them to their wit’s end and they find they aren’t able to see something better down around the bend? I’m afraid our culture is in the process of stripping children of their desire to create, and imagine. When a generation without dreams inherits the earth, what possible good can be left in it?
You’d be appalled if I told you how many stories I have of parents that look at their child’s creative efforts and tell them with a frown that it’s not very good and they are wasting their time. Sometimes it’s all can do not to grab people and shake them and make them see what a precious thing they’re destroying.
One day, when I have children of my own, I can’t wait to foster their imaginations. I can’t wait to see a ferocious dragon in a smear of fingerpaint. I can’t wait to see the grandeur in their scribbles and swirls. I want to teach my children that the world is a place of endless possibility if only they can learn to see it. I want to show them that the untamed imagination of a boy can grow into the steadfast hope of a man. Until then, I’ll have to settle for the joy I take in seeing the creative spark ignited in those precious few who dare to build a rocket, set it all afire, and cheer it into the great blue yonder.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.