What children’s books teach

It is a humbling experience to stand before a class full of students, some of you eager to learn and some of you not.

There is something very inspirational about an earnest search for truth.

Students don’t want to play charades; you don’t want to just go through the motions. You want to learn, most of you, and you want to experience reality in the classroom. An honest search for “The Real Thing” is what we are after. We, teachers and students alike, are tired of masquerading. We strive for the real, the genuine, not a cheap imitation.

As a professor, it is a constant struggle for me to shrug off the mask with which I attempt to cover my inadequacies, to reveal my true self to students, colleagues and even members of my family. Why should this be such a struggle?

Why is it a struggle to be Real? Margery Williams centers on the process of becoming Real in “The Velveteen Rabbit,” one of my family’s favorite children’s stories. As is true of the very best children’s stories (Kenneth Graham’s “The Wind in the Willows” and E. B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” come immediately to mind) the mother or father who faithfully reads the stories to the daughter or son is rewarded as richly as the child. In our family, Evelyn has been the real teacher, the one who has been so richly rewarded in that way.

In “The Velveteen Rabbit,” a conversation between the Skin Horse and the Rabbit is really about the moral and theological problem of becoming the person that we are meant to be in the company of those that we love: The Skin Horse lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces.

He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainstrings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.

“What is real?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side-by-side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become real.”

Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.

Generally, by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

(And) once you are real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

Surely, at least with the ones that love you and are loved by you, being real is worth the wear and tear and hurt of the effort. Surely, the same can be said for the teacher-student relationship.

What a liberating concept, to drop the protective mask and teach and live and behave genuinely. Becoming real. Perhaps such a concept would for teachers? And what, after all, are families for?


Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history.