The Child Inside

(Craig Campbell)– My first memory of wishing that I was older brings me back to age 5. I remember thinking, “wow, those second graders really have their [shit] together. They know how to do it right.” (# kindergartenproblems.) Fast-forward to second grade. I’m walking into school from recess, and one of my classmates runs up to me and calls me a “butthead.” I was absolutely mortified. Weren’t we all SO beyond that word? I looked forward to 5th grade, when I wouldn’t have to deal with such puerile behavior… Middle school marked the beginning of a series of awkward stages, and, as I was beginning to become aware of how I looked, I always wistfully longed to be older, to find a place beyond the pimples and braces where I could reach some kind of stasis in self-image.

Maybe I was hyperaware of the limits of adolescence because I had older siblings. Whenever I did something stupid and quintessentially preteen (like douse myself in AXE body spray) they’d call me out on it. It was a constant reminder that there was a wiser and more mature destination ahead. Their lives served as reference points for what mine would be in 4-7 years.

I was generally not-happy during the second half of high school. I remember being regularly pissed off about the most trivial things. I began to accept the reality that something inherent to my character made me an irascible person. And that was sad. But in those moments of anger or loneliness, I was always able to look forward to the eventual escape from habit and habitat into the new world of college.

With the end of my first year at Amherst College in sight, I’ve been reflecting on my growth over two semesters here. I’ve definitely changed, and while I won’t say “for better” or “for worse,” I’m certainly happier with who I am today than who I was in high school. It turns out I’m not an angry person at all! And this year has been the first time I’ve felt satisfied with my age. Or maybe “satisfied” doesn’t even apply, as I no longer think of age as a number. More importantly, I feel more like a child at Amherst than I ever did at home. I had a perfectly content childhood – family, school, and friends were all fine – I just never felt like a kid.

So why do I feel like one here? Why now? Part of it, I think, is that we interact very little with adults. Removed from Mom and Dad, the two most permanent adults in our lives, we limit our interactions with actual grown-ups to our professors. Other than that, we just happily abide with one another in our sacred bubble. Because of the freedom afforded to students through the open curriculum and exiguous discipline, Amherst seems to become more of a (academically rigorous) playground.

In my “Art in the Realm of Dreams” course, we’ve discussed the reasons that artistic and literary dreamworkers throughout history have found dreams so appealing. The unconscious, the triumphant id that reveals the “truth” of dreams, pierces through to the “truth” of ourselves. Across the mediums we’ve covered (painting, literature, film) dream-scholars all point to ambiguity, contradiction, and absurdity as means to understand the dreamscape. But more fascinating (to me) is the necessity of “childlike idealism,” the unscathed wonder of a kid, in the realm of dreams.

A Carnival Evening, 1886.

Henri Rousseau, with little in the way of formal art training, endeavored to render a “joyous childlike vision of the world in which distortion is at the same time comic and deeply revealing.” (From The Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck, in which we also studied Guillaume Apollinaire, Alfred Jarry, and Erik Satie.) Rousseau painted “primitive” art, which some contemporaries criticized as immature and worthless. The composition lacks finer technical aspects like realistic lighting and detailed perspective, but that’s exactly the point – they’re beautiful anyway, and that’s all that matters. These paintings depict a variety of fantasies from the perspective of the wonderstruck child. Motivated by awe and spontaneity, Rousseau’s lack of mimetic “reality” doesn’t seem to matter so much. In dreams, it’s not about what you see, but what you feel. Rousseau and the other avant-garde artists strove to extend those feelings of innocent joy from the dream into every facet of their waking lives.

Though the dreamworkers retreated to the emotional territory of childhood, they retained the “sensibilities of adults.” Which is the only reason it worked for them, and the only reason it works for me. We can believe in miracles, live through fantasy, and play (a word which has grown foreign to most of us) without giving up the parts of adulthood we cherish.

I’d originally intended this post to be about cartoons, but exploration of my inner-child just proved too seductive to leave out. Anyway, sometime this winter my friends and I rediscovered the addictive appeal of the animated Nickelodeon series “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” With all three seasons completely available for streaming on Netflix, it was the perfect 20-minute distraction. And we shamelessly love it.

We love Avatar because it allows us to imagine and live our fantasies by watching the animated water/fire/earth/air-bending. But that’s not enough. It’s the story of Aang the Avatar that keeps us fascinated. It’s about a boy struggles with growing up, a pariah discovering a new family, a young adult compromising responsibility with whimsicality. Zuko’s moral struggles and character as an ambiguous antagonist stem from the psychological damage of a distant father. Avatar’s follow-up series, “The Legend of Korra” plays with all sorts of political drama, including “Equalist” rallies in Republic City that mirror the historical Communist gatherings.

The success of a fantasy realm in popular media is curiously hit-or-miss, and the world of bending in Avatar successfully captures the appeal that make Hogwarts, the Hunger Games Arena, and Middle Earth so thrilling. That’s why the 8-12 year olds to whom this show is ostensibly targeted get hooked. Because it’s so fun to watch the magic! But we are adults(ish), and although we can inhabit that same state of childlike awe, we have adult sensibilities that the writers clearly pander to. Because of our experience, we can understand the political satire, subtle humor, and finer ambiguities in these shows.

So find your own inner child, She-Bomberz! I’m happy to say I’ve found mine.