This article was published as a guest column today in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s education website, Get Schooled. Click here to read it on the AJC.
This winter holiday, Neeti and I watched Mary Poppins Returns in the cinema. The original with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke is one of my childhood favorites.
In an early scene, Mary Poppins, who has just arrived at the Banks’s home, is being introduced to the three children when Michael Banks shares that his youngest, Georgie, is afflicted with “excessive imagination.” Now I didn’t care much for this sequel; it doesn’t have quotable lyrics and the characters, apart from Lin-Manuel Miranda and the three Banks children, are largely forgettable. But those two words used to describe Georgie, the youngest of all in the movie, struck me then and have remained with me since.
As an educator, I have come across many children who have overactive imaginations. Like Michael describes his child, so do adults describe those other children too: cute but with a dismissive tone as unworthy of any further or serious consideration. We dismiss those children’s ideas precisely because they have overactive imaginations; and it’s cute because a child can make such tall claims but an adult may not without inviting ridicule or mockery.
Having worked with and around thousands of children now over the course of my career, I believe it’s our children, not adults, who actually have it all figured out. As adults, we are the ones flailing around, somehow afflicted with the memory loss of what it means to be a child. We lose our innate ability to “imagine excessively” the older we grow, and then bound to reality, we wonder why we never find ourselves lifted off the ground for more than a fleeting moment. Our imaginations turn into hope, shackled, though, by reality.
At the end of the movie (spoiler alert!), a lady is handing out balloons in the park. As person after person chooses a balloon, they find themselves suddenly lifted high in the air. This, however, does not work for one man. His feet remain planted firmly on the ground. The balloon lady has a simple and direct explanation for him: he’s forgotten what it means to be a child. These are not magic balloons; the magic is inside children and anyone who can still remember what it means to be a child, to still have an “excessive imagination.”
So, this new year, when you find your feet planted too firmly, too rigidly on the ground, try and remember what it was like when you were a child. Maybe you will find yourself soaring too, high above the rooftops with a different perspective, a lighter one and more expansive, than if you just clung onto hope but with no imagination.
I didn’t like Mary Poppins Returns as much as the original. However, this version did something for me that the original did not: the children, not Mary Poppins, are the heroes in this one. They really have it all figured out from the beginning; and we, the adults, would do well to remember it and follow our children’s example.