Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lorax, interrupted: April 2, 2006

Kids learn what they want to learn, no matter what you try to teach them. So I may speak for the trees, but what they hear is something else entirely. 

How reading my son ‘The Lorax’ backfired

    When I was a kid, my mom and I loved to read "The Lorax" by Dr. Seuss. We’d sit on the couch and marvel at the beautiful Truffula trees and the astounding shortsightedness of the Onceler, who chopped them all down and ruined everything to make his infernal Thneeds.

    I was heartbroken by the poor, songless Swomee-Swans doomed to choke on smog and the gummygilled Humming-Fish who had to abandon their ponds to find less toxic homes.

    Ensconced nearby in his chair, my dad would occasionally interrupt the story to shoot my mother half-serious barbs about brainwashing his children with commie propaganda.

    She’d smile, and we’d keep reading.

    Years later, I pulled my little son into my lap and opened "The Lorax." I knew the story would resonate with him as it had with me, that he would understand the value of protecting the world that sustains us through the lessons of this visionary children’s book.

    My son absolutely loved "The Lorax." He loved the part where the Onceler built a big factory with lots of smokestacks, and he especially loved the part where the Onceler invented the Super-Axe-Hacker, "which whacked off four Truffula trees at one smacker."

    "FOUR Truffula trees with ONE SMACKER!" he said. "WOW!"

    "Yes, but the poor Truffula trees," I said, nearly pleading. "Now the poor Brown Bar-ba-loots have no Truffula shade, they have no Truffula fruit."

    "FOUR trees with ONE SMACKER!" my son said. "WOW!"

    Did I mention I’m married to a mechanical engineer?

    When my son got old enough to ride his bike on the Riverwalk, I took him there, and we stopped a few times to talk about the trees and the water and the birds. We walked out onto the piers to admire the views. His eyes glazed over as I pointed out the herons perched on the rocks. He was totally unmoved by my little speeches about all the different kinds of plants and animals that live in and along the river.

    But he sure did like the train trestle that runs across the river and the big factories along Amnicola Highway and the giant power station at Chickamauga Dam. Now when we go riding on the Riverwalk, it is always with the stipulation that we will visit the big power station. For him, the rest is incidental.

    This has been one of the more awkward lessons I’ve learned raising children, the realization that what I want to teach them has virtually no effect on what they will actually learn. They are who they are, unabashedly.

    I’m just here to make the sandwiches and keep them from playing in traffic. 

    (The other lesson is that English-major genes are recessive and do not stand a chance against the genes of a mechanical engineer.)     

    My younger son, who is 14 months old, recently learned to walk and has been staggering all over the house, swaybacked, hands in the air, shouting with glee. He looks like the world’s tiniest drunk.     

    My older son, who will be 6 soon, sits at the dining room table, brow furrowed, building complex Lego models of actual machines that do actual things. He looks like the world’s tiniest mechanical engineer.

    The little one will benefit from the lessons I learned on the big one, I suppose.

    When the baby gets a little older, and I pull him into my lap to read him "The Lorax," I won’t be disappointed — or surprised — if he is enchanted by the Super-Axe-Hacker and unmoved by the plight of the Swomee-Swans and the Humming-Fish. I won’t plead with him to consider the sad fate of the Brown Bar-ba-loots.

    I’ll take him and his brother to the Riverwalk to gawk at that dratted power station. We’ll stand interminably at that train trestle and count the cars as they clatter by.

    But they still have to pretend to look at the herons and listen to me talk about trees. As the woman who makes the sandwiches, I have at least that much leverage. 

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