Before I had kids, I did a poet-in-the-schools thing with elementary aged children. I took a hidden tape recorder, and asked the kids absurd questions. What sound does the color blue make? How does green taste? Where would you explore if you were an ant? a pirate? a bird?

The littlest ones flailed their arms in the air, waiting to be called upon. They KNEW, each of them, the answers to these questions. They didn’t argue with others who had a different answer, they just waited their turn. If pink smells like grandma’s hugs to you, and wet earthworm to me, so be it. They enjoyed each other’s answers, and fearlessly trotted out their own, unselfconscious and imaginative.

Later, I typed their thoughts into poems, and came back to read them aloud to the “authors”. When they recognized their own ideas, they sat an inch taller — it was like playing a chime, with one kid after another breaking into a grin. They wanted to see where their own words were, on the page, put a finger on that line even if they couldn’t read it yet.

With second and third graders, though, something had already changed. They crossed their arms, defensively, when I asked them questions with no clear answer. They looked at each other, uncertainly, hesitant to risk saying something in case it was stupid or wrong. They smirked at other people’s attempts to play along, and tried to cover nervousness with “too cool” boredom. The eager to please ones, and the creative ones, would go along, but still stayed in safe territory, giving logical answers that sounded more like “guessing what the grown up expects me to say” than any real flight of imagination.

It was subtle, but saddening nonetheless. When I brought my (litter trained) rabbit in a basket, the little ones wanted to know what he was thinking about. When he closed his eyes, they wondered if rabbits dream. I have a poem called “the rabbit’s dream” that is marvelous — including rabbit cousins in Kentucky, house sized carrots with chewed-out rooms, and some truly absurd scenarios beyond that.

The big kids were tickled by the bunny, too, but asked the logical questions. What’s his name? How old is he? What does he eat? and then they were done, feeling like they had covered it. Sigh.

Somewhere along the way, at home, in school, or in the wide world, they had learned the lesson of childhood: “There’s one right answer, and the grown up knows it.’ Too often they learn that adults ask them questions — not because they want to hear answers — but because they are testing you, catching you daydreaming, or looking for an opening to tell you what THEY consider important.

Carrot-and-stick methods are de rigeur in settings where teachers are asked to control, instruct and measure too-large groups of kids. What gets measured is the subjective. Grades, quizzes, true, false and multiple choice. We rarely were asked for our own answers.

I don’t think it’s an accident that most people’s ability to draw is arrested at about third grade level.

We schooled our kids at home, and perhaps delayed that kind of pressure, but they are in the world like the rest of us, and are not immune to the “socialization” of self doubt and “safe answers”. We spend a lot of time reminding a nervous kid, before sports competitions, spelling bees and theater performances.. “What happens if you do screw up?” – NOTHING. “What happens if you do well?” – NOTHING. Yes, we’re proud when we do well, but we should be proud to have the courage to try at all, to risk failure.

The biggest gain, in my mind, of schooling outside of the large group setting, is that we have been able to maintain and encourage a spirit of inquiry. That age at which kids ask questions about everything around them is a precious thing, and needs to be nurtured — mostly by not ANSWERING the questions, but rather helping kids find their own answers, by experiment and research, by asking in several places. They may never get an easy, sure answer, but they learn to learn.

I don’t know the answer to breaking through the fear that keeps us from being free, creatively — free to try and fail — free to be artists. With my kids, and now with my students at the guild and the community college, I try to applaud effort and focus on process. I don’t recommend listening to your kids as if they have something important to say, though… my parents did it to me, and now I am the most long-winded, self-important blowhard I know.

Kelly in Ohio .. getting ready to clear the laptop off the kitchen table and set for dinner, at which all five Savinos will talk at once, being witty and insightful, bright and fabulous, and excessively long winded.