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Children can be so inconvenient. But it is impolitic to say so blatantly.

Children can be so inconvenient. But it is impolitic to say so blatantly.

Simplia was bored again. She was grousing again. She was pacing and petulant. Again. And Sagacia had had just about enough. `

“Cut it out,” she said, not even looking up from her knitting. “Go find something to do.”

“I can’t. There’s nothing to do. All our friends are away. The Fairy Tale Lobby is deserted. No one cares. No one’s writing us letters.”

“No one writes to us,” Sagacia said. “All the real mail we get is addressed to Vasilisa.”

“I don’t think I even believe in her anymore,” Simplia pouted. “She’s been away so long I’ve forgotten what she looks like. I think maybe she was a just a pigment of our colorful imaginations.”

“The word is ‘figment,’ and you’re wrong. She’s as real as we are. And you know it. You always get this way during the dog days. You hate hot weather, so you don’t stir anymore than you absolutely have to.  Everybody’s off somewhere on holiday, the neighborhood is quiet, everything in the village slows way down…not just the Fairy Tale Lobby. It’s August. You know things pick up again as soon as everybody’s home in September.”

“But I want something to do NOW,” Simplia whined.

“Then go to the post office. We need some stamps. And who knows? There might be some real mail to distract you.”

“No there won’t. All we ever get at the post office is coupons and catalogs. But all right, all right. I’ll go.”

As she flounced out the door, Sagacia and Murzik gave each other a Look and a shrug. They were finally at peace, the one to check her gauge and make sure she hadn’t dropped any stitches, the other to resume his nap.

Fifteen minutes later Simplia returned with a sheet of first class postage stamps — “Check it out! Jimi Hendrix commemoratives!” — and … real mail. Addressed, of course, to Vasilisa the Wise.

“I saved it so we could read it together.” It was her peace offering. She knew she had been acting like a stinker.

“I’m on a straight knit row, so I don’t have to count stitches. How ’bout I keep knitting and you read?” suggested Sagacia.

Simplia read the postmark: “Spearfish, South Dakota.”

She ripped open the envelope and read the letter:

Dear Vasilisa —

We all know the famous Einstein quote, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” And I don’t know anyone who doesn’t give lip service to this idea. But the fact of the matter is, fairy tales are NOT being read, they are not being spoken, they are not being heard. The fairy tales that are, in fact, being “consumed” by children are being reinterpreted in the form of video games (where death is only virtual, and it doesn’t stink); they are being depicted larger than life on cinema screens; they are being lavishly and luridly illustrated in graphic novels and picture books; they are being lampooned by parodists. At this moment in history, popular culture is lousy with fairy tale references, motifs, imagery. But I don’t often see fairy tales being shared orally, aurally, in real time, person to person, eyeball to eyeball, one on one, in small circles, or even in large venues. 

In this tiny university where I’ve been teaching for the past thirty years, I am witnessing a disturbing phenomenon the likes of which I’ve never before encountered. This year our university enrolled the first class of students whose entire education fell (and fell hard) under “No Child Left Behind.” Here are students who know how to pass tests, students who aspire to higher learning, students who are not stupid. But an alarming number of them seem devoid of imagination, incapable of empathy, unwilling to tolerate ambiguity, and, I fear, incapable of the introspection necessary to lock in on important questions. These students have been deprived of Story, of fable, of fairy tales, of the spoken word as a engine of imagination. Their Spoken Word environment has been one of Instruction, Admonition, Scolding, Coaching, Encouraging, Correction, Fact Dissemination. There’s little time in a contemporary child’s life for daydreaming, for boredom, for introspection, for hearing stories told to them personally in the moment.

I wonder, dear Vasilisa, do you think it’s too late for them?

Speculating in Spearfish

p.s. I’m sorry we had so little time together at the Council Sessions last month. Next year, we should come a day early or plan to stay a day after. At any rate, it’s always wonderful running into you!

Simplia refolded the letter and returned it to the envelope.

Sagacia didn’t look up from her knitting. Softly, she said, “Well, there’s somebody in Spearfish, South Dakota, who thinks Vasilisa is real.”

Simplia let out with a sigh and an eye roll. “All right. You told me so. I’m going to take this down to the Fairy Tale Lobby and pin it to the cork board. I’ll be back.”

Sagacia called after her, “If my favorite barista is on duty, would you bring me an extra spicy almond milk chai latte?”