Take Back Your Imagination: The Power of Story

This past week, our ninth grade spearheaded Take Back Your Imagination Week. In an effort to “unplug” and reclaim the joys of the three R’s: reading, writing and real (not virtual) relationships, they created and signed a contract: no iPods, no texting, no email, no Facebook, no computer games, no television, no DVDs, no visits to the movie theater. In other words, unplug cold turkey. And to lessen the pain, this innovative group planned game nights and international dance lessons, hosted a barbeque and attended a philosophy discussion. Most importantly they read.

As summer approaches, parents have an opportunity to provide healthy supplements to offset their children’s highly saturated media diet: great stories.

Why stories? Great stories appeal to the whole person. They meet St. Augustine’s criteria for good teaching and good preaching--they delight the appetite, they instruct the mind and they move the heart. For St. Augustine, it was the New Testament, for Alexander the Great it was Homer’s “Iliad’’ and ‘‘Odyssey.” Abraham Lincoln read and reread “Macbeth” to engrave upon his mind the dangers of unbridled ambition.

Stories invite us to discover the kind of person we ought to become and the kind of person we ought not to become. Good novelists are not only good storytellers, but also great psychological portrait painters. Their characters give readers access to the private, highly-personalized world of moral motivation. Fictional life struggles can awaken the moral imagination of young readers and help them to become more adept at ethical reflection.

Whenever I taught “The Great Gatsby,” I noticed the sway its characters held over my students. They were troubled by Jordan’s reputation for lying, Tom Buchanan’s arrogance, and Daisy’s total preoccupation with herself. They had mixed feelings toward Gatsby, trying to decide if he was naive and misguided or if he was dangerously obsessed and borderline insane. Perhaps the most striking evidence of this influence occurred at the end of one my classes. Two girls were packing their books and discussing weekend plans, when one of them blurted indignantly, “You are such a Daisy Buchanan.” Whether or not the details of the conversation warranted such a slight I’ll never know. What I do know is that the young woman accused felt the blow with full force. She was reduced to tears, and a bitter quarrel ensued. It was the first time I had witnessed the invocation of a literary character nearly give rise to a fist fight.

Good stories help us to re-examine our perspective. In the novel “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien’s fictional account of his own experiences in Vietnam, the narrator catalogs what soldiers carry with them: love letters and dog tags, C-Rations, ammunition, and even a dead man’s thumb. What they carry with them -- both externally and internally -- weighs on them and reflects in some way how they define themselves.

I will never forget the discussion this novel prompted in a Teachers Academy I led one summer. After an animated conversation about the things we carry and our students carry, one teacher related an experience she had been carrying with her for years. She and her husband were driving in a blinding snowstorm along a narrow country road one Christmas Eve, when a two year old boy darted into the street right in front of them. They braked immediately, but it was too late. The little boy was struck dead. His mother, who was watching from the kitchen window, rushed outside, scooped up her son, brought him into the house and called the ambulance. Waiting for the ambulance to arrive, the mother invited the distraught couple into her home. Every Christmas since the accident, this mother invites the couple to her son’s memorial service.

Still deeply troubled by the tragedy, the teacher driving the car had quietly remained the victim, carrying the burden of this tremendous guilt in her haversack. It wasn’t until she had the opportunity to reflect on the “things she carried,” that she could appreciate the gift of forgiveness she had been taking for granted all these years.

In Dante’s “Purgatorio,” the second book of his “Divine Comedy,” the pilgrim souls learn to progress toward heaven through what Dante the poet repeatedly refers to as a “conversio,” a turning around or pivoting, which gives them an ability to see more clearly where they are headed and why. Let this summer be an occasion to take back the imaginations of our children with stories that nurture their minds, move their hearts and prompt them toward worthy goals.

Dr. Karen E. Bohlin is head of the Montrose School in Medfield, and senior scholar at Boston University’s Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character.