Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Kite at the Top of the Sky: An Allegory for our Expectations

Last night I read a story called “The Kite” to my youngest daughter, from Arnold Lobel’s Days with Frog and Toad, the fourth book in his brilliant Frog and Toad series. These stories are some of our favorites. I’ve read them dozens of times to my three daughters.  Lobel, who died of AIDS in 1987, had an ingenious way of building great philosophical and psychological depth into these stories without ruining their fun.

In “The Kite” (which you can read HERE) Frog and Toad go to a meadow to fly a kite. Frog is full of optimism and encouragement, exclaiming that their kite will “fly all the way to the top of the sky.”

As they make their attempts to fly the kite, however, a chorus of skeptical (and somewhat cruel) robins demoralize Toad. “That kite will not fly,” they say, “You may as well give up.” And Toad returns to Frog mimicking them. “Frog,” he says, “this kite will not fly. I give up.”

This scene repeats itself several times. The effect is very funny but not merely funny. It’s also discomfiting. As Frog relentlessly encourages Toad to try different strategies for getting the kite in the air, one begins to realize that Toad is both internalizing the robins’ words and, devastatingly, associating himself with the kite: “This kite is a joke,” he says. “It will never get off the ground.”

But Frog refuses to allow Toad to give up and finally hits upon a successful strategy. In a fit of frantic movement and enthusiasm, Toad shouts “UP KITE UP!” and the kite soars. The narrator notes that the robins “could not fly as high as the kite.”

This isn’t a “little engine that could” story, I don’t think. In many of the Frog and Toad stories, Frog similarly encourages Toad to get up and go or to keep trying with less obvious results. They’re not necessarily about “how to accomplish great things” so much as how to thwart depression. Lobel seemed to know a thing or two about the relationship between depression and self-esteem.

But reading “The Kite” this time around, I started thinking about those robins; about how they might represent the way in which a community impacts one’s sense of self-worth and thus one’s behavior.

What are the consequences, I thought, when a community tells you, explicitly or implicitly, that you will “never get off the ground”?

In far too many of our school communities, the chorus of robins prevails. Their cynicism, their low expectations, are an organizing principle and there are not enough relentless Frogs to disrupt their authority.

On the other hand, I feel honored to have witnessed the transformation of children who arrived at an excellent school believing they were “junk” only to be surprised and lifted up by a chorus of Frogs among their peers and teachers. Those children (and in many cases their parents) were transformed not merely by the encouraging words but rather because those words reflected a core belief of the community -- backed up consistently and relentlessly by action.

Our belief in possibility must necessarily be married to a promise to follow through. Every child with a kite, every kite to the top of the sky.

Mike Magee is CEO of Rhode Island Mayoral Academies

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