Make Me a Child Again Just for Tonight
by Milton R. Stern
Questions and Answers for the Prose included in the CHSE +2 Alternative English book ‘Approaches to English – I’.
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About the Author
Milton R. Stern (1928-2011) was an American writer. His parents came to the United States from Eastern Europe. Stern had a formal education in English literature. He did his Ph.D in the same subject. He did commendable work to popularize literature among the masses. He won many literary awards for his writing and for his services to society.
“Backward turn backward
O Time, in your flight
Make me a child again just for tonight”
Elizabeth Akers Allen wrote these lines for her poem “Rock Me to Sleep, Mother” in the late nineteenth century. When juxtaposed on the life of the modern day child, the lament in the lines seem so irrelevant. Nonetheless, reading the lines makes the reader thoughtful and perhaps nostalgic.
1. The poet reminisces about her joyful childhood days. While reading this essay, the reader needs to bear in mind that the childhood years (around 1830-50) were quite different from the experience of the present day child. Gone are the carefree days, the freedom to wander around, and the other simple pleasures of life. Technology had not made such gross intrusion to our lives, and the fierce grooming and mentoring the modern child has to endure to succeed in life was unheard of then. Despite this time gap, the reading of the poem evokes emotions and memories in the readers’s mind.
Children of today are a harried lot. They endure relentless pressure from the parents, peers, teachers, and the s-called well-wishers in the neighborhood to study, train, compete, and excel. The seniors forget the fact that not all children are born to excel in certain chosen areas of study. The world offers a vast canvass where one can draw one’s career goals. By narrowing down the career path to academic excellence, we subject the innocent child to grow up in their own way and pace. Childhood that is supposed to be the nearest thing to absolute and unpolluted joy becomes a turturous race that scars and distorts the child’s personality. No wonder, coaching centers, mentoring clinics, psychiatric facilities have proliferated. These yield little lasting value, but rake in humongous profits to the canny operators.
2. The human race has evolved through many ages. Every age has its own value systems, social norms, and sentimentality. The present age is no exception. We, collectively, have shaped it. So, we can find fault with the age that we have shaped.
3. Miss Allen’s poem gives us plenty of food for thought. It makes us introspect and ponder if the carefree, hassle-free ways of childhood would not provide us a more efficient path to learning than the evening classes, where working people, slog in the class room after they have expended their energy in their regular day-time work. If these people could retrace their path backwards to their childhood days, and regain the freshness and receptivity of their minds, they can learn their lessons better and more effortlessly.
4. Backwards travel in time might be a bizarre idea, but taking a leaf from the childhood and examining the way we learnt new things then be a worthwhile proposition. In this context, the poet uses the metaphor ‘just for tonight’.
5. Children are incredibly faster than adults in picking up new facts and skills. Learning about the English royals or mastering the art of picking pockets (as in Oliver Twist of Charles Dickens) come more naturally, and spontaneously to a child, than to an adult. Children when pushed to a corner learn to evade the calamity by lying. Lying comes to them naturally. It is their God-given defense against harm. Those, who do not face such hard times, also do not lack any propensity to learn new useful things. A first or second grade kid picks up spellings, pronunciation and use of new words with relative ease. Reading of maps proves to be an easy task for them. In the same way, they learn about exotic animals. The Museum of Natural History does not pose any formidable challenge for them. They endear themselves to their parents and their teachers by exhibiting such innate tendency to learn a new thing every other day.
6. There are two other considerations that gives children an edge over their elders in respect of ease in acquiring new skills and knowledge. Adults think twice before asking a question in a class room, or to a coach. The fear of their question being too basic or stupid makes them hesitate to ask a question. They don’t like the idea of being ridiculed in public for their ignorance. As a result, many gaps in their learning process remain open. On the contrary, children feel no inhibition in asking questions whenever they don’t understand anything. The quality of their query don’t bother them. Such unfettered ability to question and learn new things expedites their learning process. There is another factor going against the adults. They are generally weighed down by responsibilities, cares, and social burdens. The slate of their mind is seldom clean. With clutter in the mind, absorbing a new idea or a fact gets hindered. The children have nothing in their mind to constrain them. They are carefree, inquisitive and arguably, very receptive. So, children learn things faster and better.
7. There are a few more aspects that render adults poor learners. Many of them assume that they have fairly in-depth understanding of everything under the sky. This breeds vanity and arrogance. An adult who assumes he knows a lot inadvertently shuts the windows of their minds to fresh ideas and information. Their know-all sense stands in the way. Some adults, have, over the years, get so conditioned to accept what the ‘experts’ or ‘teachers’ say that they feel it odd to question the veracity of anything. This blind disposition to unquestioningly accept new teachings makes them poor learners. There s a third variety of adults who have lost the noble ability to ‘listen’. They fail to tune themselves to the teacher wholeheartedly. The youngsters score over the adults in this regard. They listen to their teachers in total submission. More importantly, they understand that their teacher, while teaching, is learning too. The difference is that the teacher has an wider array of answers to questions. Such refreshing openness of the young learners puts them ahead of the adults as quicker learners. The adults generally fail to fully utilize their teachers by subjecting them to incisive and skeptical questioning.
8. Those in charge of running evening colleges point to the fact that teaching to ‘experienced’ students is a rewarding exercise both for the teachers and their adult students. While this argument appears acceptable, it is to be conceded that it is not complete. Attitude to learning is as important for a student as their experience. Compared to the adults, the youngsters exhibit much higher enthusiasm, and they are much less self-conscious and afraid of being mocked while asking their questions.Lack of real life experience comes as a boon to the young learners. So, the question arises — can the adults reclaim such freshness of mind? Can they succeed in this by asking, “Make me a child again just for tonight’? Yes, it appears possible, but only if they manage to reclaim the spontaneity of a six or seven-year-old.
9. The author feels it’s possible.
10. What is of paramount importance here is the ‘purpose’ of learning. Many experts including those in the Navy call it ‘motivation. Motivation in children is an inborn trait. All children yearn to learn new things around them, all the time. They have an insatiable desire for exploring the world. Growth of the mind happens concurrently with the growth in their body. It’s phenomenon tied wth the passage of time. Children want to communicate with others, and they also want others to convey their thoughts to them. For them, growing up entails more knowledge, more power, and more more authority. All these come with a sustained and fast gathering of knowledge and skill. They want to articulate their feelings well, just as they want to understand others.
11. Everyone accepts the fact that children are inherently inquisitive. This is considered natural. When they stay away from school, the authorities pull them up for having wasted some learning opportunity. In the same way, the parents rejoice to find their children learning newer and newer things every day.
12. Such inherent tendency to absorb all new things in life is singularly absent among adult students attending evening classes. The adult student is seldom applauded for learning anything new. None takes notice of his learning journey, and no one pulls him up for staying away from class. The craving to learn new things is the cornerstone of a child’s personalty. Nothing can separate the inquisitiveness of a child from his self. A child with no desire to explore and experiment is like deadwood. Thirst for knowledge sustains them: lack of it makes them moribund. When tasked with understanding a truly difficult concept, adult easily find an alibi for avoiding the daunting work. Adults easily conclude that time available for them in the midst of their working lives is too small to fully master any single domain of knowledge. There is no dearth of experts who tell us that ‘A little learning is dangerous.’ They can even say, ‘You can’t teach new tricks to an old dog.” Apart from such pervasive negativity, there is a widespread opinion that belittles intellectualism in our lives. Intellectual complacency is common place today. For example, if an adult knows how to avoid getting wet by rain, he should assume that he has learned enough of the required life skills. If he pursues knowledge-aquisition further, he could be a victim of mockery and derision.
13. When the acquiring of new skill or knowledge becomes a necessity for career advancement, the evening class goer might receive a clap for his venture. The possibility of tangible benefits like getting pay rise or a promotion in office determines the advisability of enrolling an an evening class. It can be for improving one’s English , or any such thing. Going to college for learning something that would come handy at a much later day is generally frowned upon by friends and relations. Nonetheless, it would be a good idea to ignore such criticism.
14. An adult might like to pursue a course in literature, music, and art through the evening classes.
15. The doubting man might ask if the adult could have put his spare time to better use.
16. Another doubting Tom could ask if the adult wants to be an eccentric intellectual.
17. The adult learner would aver his abiding interest in such subjects. He would add there is a multitude of people with such interests.
18. The adult learner explains that the people like him might have interest in widely divergent fields –from language skill development to Chemistry to Biology. No matter what the areas of interest are, the learning process could be vastly be effective, if the adult students develop the attitude and openness and freshness of a youngster.
19. Finally, the adult learner craves to go back to his early childhood days (even for just a night), so that they can imbibe the inquisitiveness, the dare, and the instinct to ask questions, pursue knowledge, and savor the pleasure of learning. The adult student asserts that in every human being, his childhood avatar lies dormant. Awakening it is crucial to unlock the potential of a human being to learn and assimilate new things in an accelerated pace.