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Growing Down

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island

Several weeks ago, I was invited to a local elementary school to do a writing workshop. I did not need to be asked twice to spend a morning. Children are always a tonic against my sagging faith.

Sitting in a circle, we confessed to things we did not like to touch: cold dirty dishwater, spoiled tomatoes in the refrigerator, creepy bugs and worms, prickly plants. There were loud yuks and laughs. Then we shared those things whose touch we liked: a baby's hair, the rough cat's tongue, polished wood, rose petals, velvet.

After each of us had written a story about one of these touches, I asked "Would anyone like to read?"

Every hand in that circle went up. Not just up, but up and waving, up with exclamation points. "Listen to my story" several said who could not keep still. Words and images spilled out everywhere, barely contained by a vocabulary of a few hundred words. The children oohed and clapped to hear each others' stories.

We read them all, and I read mine, too. It was not the best one, and not as honest as any of the rest.

The morning was bittersweet because I knew what would happen to those hands. By sixth grade, only half of them would respond. By 11th grade, none. No hands in my college class when I beg "Who wants to read?"

Those hands stay down until age 55 or after. In adult writing workshops, the hands come back up, a few eagerly as third graders.

What is there about that awkward age between third grade and retirement that keeps hands in check?  Not only hands, but most of our potential, too. We ask children "What do you want to be when you grow up?" The poet e. e. cummings saw through that question. In our culture, he said, children grow down, down from "will be" to "was," down from imagination to caricature.

How we can keep those hands raised?  Don't ask me. I've had 54 years of growing down since third grade.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.