Monday, September 27, 2010

`Flying Leaps'

To the fourth- and fifth-graders in the special-education room where I work I read an old favorite of my younger sons – The Mystery of Eatum Hall (2004) by John Kelly and Cathy Tincknell. It’s a rarity among recent children’s books in that it has no ideological axe to grind, makes no claims to "sensitivity," isn’t afraid to be comically violent (a wolf is baked in a pie, Titus Andronicus-fashion, of his own devising), indulges in rather sophisticated wordplay and is funny without having any point to prove.

Horace and Glenda Pork-Fowler are a married pig and goose who live to eat. They receive an invitation from Dr. Hunter, the new owner of Eatum Hall, to “a weekend of free gourmet food!" Gluttony blinds them to the trap, despite ample clues, but they happily stuff themselves, avoid being ingested by a wolf dining society and return home satiated and oblivious.

None of the students I work with is a confident reader, and much of their spoken language is a hash of lazy slang. None is articulate and most of their humor is on the burp-and-fart level (not unlike my own). The book choice was an experiment. It’s not the sort of title most of them would choose from the library, assuming they use the library. I prefaced the reading with explanations of words – “glutton,” “fowl,” “gourmet” – and such things as dinner invitations, surveillance cameras and pie-baking but needn’t have worried. Not one of them understood the trap set by the wolf or how Horace and Glenda avoided it, but all stared quietly, mouths agape, as I read the story. I read with animation, inserting appropriate sound effects and funny voices, but that alone couldn’t explain their attentiveness. Nor could the likelihood that most of them probably have never been read to at home.

Purely by happenstance William James provided a partial explanation. Friday night, hours after reading the story aloud, I was rereading Chapter 9, “The Streams of Thought,” in James’ Principles of Psychology (1890). This I found in a footnote:

“We think it odd that young children should listen with such rapt attention to the reading of stories expressed in words half of which they do not understand, and of none of which they ask the meaning. But their thinking is in form just what ours is when it is rapid. Both of us make flying leaps over large portions of the sentences uttered and we give attention only to substantive starting points, turning points, and conclusions here and there. All the rest, 'substantive' and separately intelligible as it may potentially be, actually serves only as so much transitive material. It is internodal consciousness, giving us the sense of continuity, but having no significance apart from its mere gap-filling function. The children probably feel no gap when through a lot of unintelligible words they are swiftly carried to a familiar and intelligible terminus.”

Not only a philosopher and psychologist, James was a son, brother and father. Chances are his observations are rooted not in experimentation but family observation. He recognized “flying leaps” when he saw them.

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