My students are not creative. They stare at me with blank expressions when I encourage them to create, to generate new ideas. Even diligent students when asked to create--to risk being original--gasp in horror as if I’d asked them to rob graves.
I have come to the conclusion that children today are not creative because they have always been entertained. Their childhood days are programmed and pressured by lessons, camps, workshops, and appointments. The remaining unscheduled hours are spent viewing television and playing video games. They are never forced to create their own play and entertain themselves, nor given the time and freedom to do so.
Growing up in the pre-television years of the early 1950s, my brothers and I were forced to be creative to escape the doldrums of summer; our survival depended on it. In retrospect, I realize that we were low-maintenance children. Our days were uninterrupted by orthodontic appointments or even regular medical or dental examinations. There were no gymnastics, ballet, or piano lessons. Summer camps were unheard of in our small midwestern town, as were Little League and other organized sports for children. In true Yankee frugality, our parents captured our entire childhood on one roll of film. We were read to, taken to church, and implored that the least we could do was to act “normal.’' We didn’t know about fashion statements; nor did we understand that we were bonding--creating our own fun and making memories to sustain us in our old age.
Every summer vacation was a renaissance; our spirits would awaken as we indulged in a myriad of wonderfully exciting activities to pass the lazy, gentle days of summer. I remember organizing the neighborhood children into circus troupes and marching bands. We played house, set up stores and lemonade stands, re-enacted school, hunted buried treasure, and made war. We dressed dolls and cats and made hundreds of mud pies and gallons of “pokeberry wine.’' Forts were built only to be destroyed by bands of marauding Indians. Strings were waxed and tin can telephones were strung from house to house. Fun became paramount in our lives, and we never seemed to have enough time for it. When the heat finally sapped our young bodies of energy, we sprawled lazily onto a quilt under a shade tree and spent sultry afternoons reading each other’s worn stacks of comic books. If we were lucky, we could steal back outside after dark and catch lightning bugs to light up mayonnaise jars bearing carefully ventilated lids.
Treats included a nickel a day for a popsicle at the neighborhood grocery store and a monthly trip to the library. Visits to the town swimming pool were limited to a few each summer, that is before a polio scare dry-docked us all. But Saturday matinees were our special love. Our gang of neighborhood children boarded the bus and rode downtown every Saturday, to recharge our creative batteries with new ideas for the upcoming week’s play. After watching Peter Pan, we brandished wooden swords and dueled with Captain Hook, each taking a turn at being the villain and sporting a coat hanger hook. The Tarzan movies initiated swinging out of trees on ropes and inspired the building of treehouses. We became “Supermen,’' donned capes and leaped from our garage roof, despite our mother’s ominous warnings about developing flat feet. Discarded boxes from the corner store were rudely fashioned into covered wagon tops for our Radio Flyer wagons, as we planned our westward journeys. It was a time when Roy Rogers was king, mothers were home, divorce was rare, and we had little to shake our sense of security.
In reminiscing over my years of backyard adventures, several incidents burn brightly in my memory. But everything else pales in comparison to the day we hanged Billy Creap.
We were freshly home from a particularly enticing matinee, where we had been duly impressed by a rope snare trap, which some formidable hero had devised to catch a bandit. Our creativity surged to an all-time high and we became enamored with our plan of action. We chose a small willowy tree near our garage and soon discovered that three mid-sized children could climb the nearby fence, leap onto the tree, and “ride it down.’' Holding the top branch securely, we soon roped the tree and tied it to a stake that had been carefully driven into the ground. After some deliberation, a second rope boasting a slipknot was attached to the leafy top and left dangling to the ground.
I don’t remember ever discussing who our victim would be; we all knew it would be Billy Creap, a pesky, stolid child, probably a year or two younger than the rest of us. Being disadvantaged, Billy didn’t accompany us to the wonderful world of the silver screen, so he was totally naive about such devices. Although the term was yet to be coined, I’m certain that Billy would today be considered an “at risk’’ child. We only knew that the Creaps, our most decadent neighbors, were a poor, transient family and, from the fights and noises that erupted from their end of the block, it was a vague wonder to us why the parents weren’t in jail somewhere and the kids in reform school.
Ignoring any dire consequences, we threw discretion to the wind, and in breathless anticipation, we persuaded this disheveled child to be a part of our experiment. As he stood with his foot in the loop of rope and waited patiently while the rope was being cut, I had a sense of being borne along by something great and wonderful. When the rope was finally severed, the effect was beyond our wildest dreams. It was momentarily exhilarating as Billy was yanked upwards and swung wildly in an arc above our heads.
Our ecstasy was short lived. What emitted from Billy can best be described as a primal scream. I am certain, in his desperation, he thought we were trying to terminate his existence. Our thrill turned to panic, and we felt his terror as we watched him writhing in futile efforts to extricate himself. Until that moment, we had not considered how we would get him down. By the time his terrified screams had turned into pleas for his mother, we were, as cowards always are, in full flight. Peeking between Venetian blinds, we watched from the sanctuary of our kitchen as Mrs. Creap, “the floozy,’' in her too-tight sweater and her heavily made-up face, cut down her hysterical son. As she hustled him home, we heard her angrily mumble "....never play HERE again!’'
Knowing she didn’t socialize with our mothers, we felt we possibly had a chance of not having the deed reported and therefore escaping punishment, but we still kept a low profile for a few days. As we suspected, Mrs. Creap had domestic issues of much greater magnitude and did not create a problem for us. She did appear, however, to suffer from acute irritability whenever she encountered us thereafter. Had it been any of our other neighbors, we’d have needed a new identity. Sadly, the Creaps were probably accustomed to being victimized.
Upon reflection, I realize that everything I do is probably the manifestation of some childhood experience, and I sincerely hope that Billy didn’t suffer any lasting pain due to his brief, horrific swing through space. Maybe when I’m old and they take me to the home, other events will be more resplendent in my memory, but presently I am doomed to remember that afternoon as possibly one of the best days of my life.
Jokingly, I tell friends that I have never been in military combat, but I have spent quite a few years teaching junior high school English. How I wish I could awaken my students and involve them in activities that would excite them out of their complacency and arouse their latent creativity. Of course, I would never lure one of my students into such a rope snare and allow him or her to dangle head-down in terror to stimulate the class and erase the doldrums ....but I have entertained the thought.
A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as The Hanging Of Billy Creep