Reveille revisits the optimism of childhood

Peter Pan was right. To grow up is to be in danger of forgetting the lessons of childhood.

Case in point: A few years ago, when my oldest child was 10, she presented me with one of her school essays. I dried my hands, wet from washing dishes, and grabbed a red pen, thinking she wanted me to correct her mistakes. So I scanned the page from top to bottom, marking as I went. Then I handed it back to her, with barely a word. When her face fell, I realized I’d blown it.

As a mom, I had broken the golden rule of parenthood. My daughter didn’t want me to correct her grammar—she just wanted me to say it was good, to validate her ideas. I did say I was sorry, but the damage was done. She never showed me another essay.

Recently, it was my turn to present some of my own childhood work to strangers, but thankfully, they didn’t get out their red pens.

The Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC Moncton Chapter) participated in the Frye festival on April 21 by hosting an open mic event called “Reveille!” at the Moncton Press Club.

This free event encouraged the public to present their angst-ridden childhood poetry and prose to an audience ready for some light-hearted giggles. Invited guest authors Beth Powning, Jacob Berkowitz, Christiane Duchesne, and folklorist Kay Stone showed up to prime the crowd with their youthful pieces.

I managed to read a short excerpt from a tragic spy novel I left unfinished at age 14. It was an embarrassing ride down memory lane, but I survived. As the evening wore on, however, I noticed a few common threads weaving their way through people’s journal entries, poetry and schoolwork, threads worth considering. I thought I’d share them with you.

Children are melodramatic. No matter what they’re writing, whether it’s an off-beat Cinderella getting to the ball in her halter and mini-skirt, or a mistreated girl who’s “beaten times and starved,”  or a boy writing lyrics about spending the night with a girl in an oak chest (?!) the situation is always grim, grave, passionate, and/or permanent. Thankfully, miracles often intervene, with life-changing results.

Children live in the present. They’re trying to figure out the world: what they’re feeling, thinking, saying, wanting and wondering right now. Loss, friendship, intolerance and strife, (poetry about life in Northern Ireland during “the troubles,” for example,) the nature of separation and death, personal responsibility, (say, poetry about staring at an empty fish bowl after the author failed to feed the goldfish!) and what it means to be accepted.

Children dream big. Kids write about being the smartest, running the fastest, jumping the highest, rescuing the damsel in distress, marrying the handsome prince. Adults focus on the details and the impossibilities, but kids see the big picture.

Children love adverbs. Adverbs are children’s first foray into deep emotion. If they can’t find them in the dictionary, they make’em up: Despairingly, dismissively, expectantly, simultaneously, patronizingly, sardonically, sarcastically, triumphantly…you get the idea. And with dialogue, their characters stated, snapped, grated, enquired, commented or breathed, instead of plain old “said.”

Children take themselves seriously. Their words and ideas, however silly they sound to adult ears, are logical and reasonable to a child. They expect adults to take them seriously, too.

Perhaps this is why I cringed at the idea of sharing my own adolescent work. To my adult ears, these 28-year-old words sound ridiculous, but I poured nearly a year’s worth of spare time into them. At 14, I thought my book would be a best seller. I remember how crushed I was when it wasn’t accepted by a publisher, and how I gave up on writing for many years as a result.

So, Reveille was an opportunity for me to leave some insecurity behind and enjoy a few laughs, but it was also an opportunity to embrace the optimism and clarity of childhood. It’s a two-hour life lesson I highly recommend. Next year, be there or be square!


  • Deborah Carr on April 30, 2010

    Well…as the girl who was beaten (10 times) and starved (in a later story, I invented the word ‘starvatiousness’ – was I not getting enough to eat??), I can say you’ve nailed it, Rhonda!

    We have to be so careful to allow children to continue dreaming big. I, for one, am so glad you didn’t throw that novel away. It is something to be cherished now as a means to see your younger self.

    You were a pretty talented writer at 14, I must say…and I was intrigued to note now much of your excerpt included dialogue..considering you are deeply interested in writing plays right now…Curious, huh??

  • Rhonda Herrington Bulmer on April 30, 2010

    I never thought of that before, Deb. I really do love writing dialogue. Even back then, I imagined the conversations in my head. (I was going to say “heard the conversations in my head,” but I thought it sounded schizophrenic!)

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