Activities

I just remembered something, and very vividly.

When prospective students and their families describe their days, their schools, or their camp experiences, the word "activity" pops up frequently. They ask about what “activities” students are involved in during their days here at SVS, or what kinds of “activities” we offer?

Something about that kept nagging at me, beyond the fact that I know I don't like organized activities, and that there are many good reasons not to.

And now I suddenly remembered what this something was: my very own first (and last) childhood experience with an organized activity.

This is what happened: A craft-loving neighborhood mom had organized some courses in our local community center. There was some buzz about these activities, my classmates were signing up for them, so perhaps I should sign up too? Didn't I like crafts? Yes I did! Learning how to knit had been so exciting it kept me up late into the night. In the stationery store, I always begged my mom for clay and craft paper, and I was always making stuff. So indeed, why not?

The class in question was some kind of a metal etching class involving copper metal foil, some acidic chemicals, finishers, and stuff to mount the final results. So far so good. Somehow, it still sounds as if it could have been a good thing.

But it wasn't. Probably because of the chemicals, or the expensive metal foil, or the fact that things had to progress on a very particular schedule (Tracing design day 1, chemical treatment day 2, etc.) this turned out to be an encounter with a highly structured activity of a kind I have avoided ever since. It was so structured in fact, that I still feel I do not remember much about what I actually did, but the "stepness" of the process. And that the mom/teacher and I did not seem to like each other much.

There was something else wrong with it. Whatever it was that we were doing did not stand on its own. If it was an approximation of some existing artistic practice of technique, it was not quite recognizable as such, and I have never seen anything else produced in this manner.

Or perhaps it just was no fun because it was entirely circumscribed:

We could choose from a number of designs to trace onto the copper foil. None of them appealed to me, and there was no option of creating your own design, so I chose a particularly ugly one for the sole reason that the mom/teacher said it would probably be too hard for anybody to finish in time. (I had a more competitive streak back then.)

So I struggled through the few afternoons, fueled to some degree by this drive to prove that what I had chosen could be done (even though the mom said it was not really possible), and in the end, I held in my hands an ugly (if well executed) and useless craft object that I would have probably happily forgotten about, if it hadn't been for the profound sadness I was overcome with at the same time.

It was a horrible feeling of having been fundamentally cheated out of my time. Several afternoons had come and gone, and now they were lost. I had a very clear sense of how valuable every one of those afternoons had been, and that I had given them up for this meaningless piece of copper and plaster. Outside it was getting dark, and my day was over without me having had any chance to do something.

It was a new emotion, and a feeling that could not have been more different from how I usually felt when I was just doing something on my own at home or around the neighborhood: drawing, rummaging, roller skating, playing with other children, just doing stuff. I wasn't always happy, but I was always somehow fulfilled at the end of the day.

The absolute emptiness I felt that dusky evening moment taught me how satisfying those other things that I usually spent my days with were, and I missed that feeling of fulfillment intensely.

Do I even have to spell out the rest?

That class was probably the only activity that would have counted as an "activity" in today's educational world, with the tags that seem to matter in today's parenting universe: structured, supervised, creative, parent involvement, community. This was the kind of activity I could have put on my childhood résumé for a private school if that had been an issue at that time, and if the mom in charge would not have been so annoyed at arrogant little me, she could have written a glowing letter of recommendation about how I did the thing that was so hard she didn't think anybody could do it, at least not in time.

But in effect this course was memorable to me only for its pathetic nothingness, for some truly wasted time, as an encounter with estrangement, and as an experience of loneliness reserved, I think, exclusively to engineered activities in community centers.

Well, maybe it was worth doing it for that one might say: an early lesson in the modern condition has its own merits, and yes, I did learn a lot from this experience.

But the point is of course that the idea of this class was not to convey a lesson in emptiness and estrangement - which it brilliantly did to me - but to be fulfilling. And that this craft course that was to be about something, taught me instead what nothing really feels like, while all my doing-nothing afternoons and evenings, with no immediate result or finished project, were the real something: my life.

So you'll understand why I'll happily share doing something with others, but I will not cajole them into it. It can be great to do things and learn a skill in a course if you really want to do it, but it has to be a real interest, real skills, and, dare I say, real people doing it.