March 29, 2013

Fairyland and the Deep-down Third Grader, by Anna Ilona Mussmann

Success, in fairy tales, is achieved through adherence to arbitrary instructions. Nowadays the message of obedience appears degrading; yet as a former teacher of third grade students, I notice a familiar mindset in the rules of fairyland. These rules express the sort of outlook that is embraced by the developing eight-year-old mind.

"The Turtle Dove," by Sophie Anderson

The dynamics of the playground are not so different from fairyland. There are teachers with random, arbitrary instructions—everyone must keep her hands in her pockets when standing in line, or use his blue notebooks for spelling, or circle with yellow and underline with red. Why? Because that is the rule. There are mean people who may persecute one indefinitely for no discernible cause, there are kind people who will share their lunch or soccer ball, and there is the potential for great deeds of strength and sporting agility that will awe and impress the class. Many an undersized, twitchy child has imagined feats that would allow him or her to rise from the status of Ash Lass or Lad to favored companion of the reigning leader. The problem is that they seem to lack the knowledge that provides power. 

The life of third graders is full of inscrutable mysteries. Completing homework is no longer enough to achieve good grades, and the elusive A’s and B’s that their parents are fixated upon seem the result of an opaque process. Their friends embrace or reject them on whim. Their upper-grade schoolmates engage in peculiar romantic sagas fraught with apparently unnecessary angst. Their new freedom from constant supervision is accompanied by a slew of warnings against strangers and other hazards. Trying to piece together the rules that govern the world, third-graders synthesize insufficient information and produce startling conclusions. Is it any wonder that children seek refuge in a belief that, should one be fortunate enough to know the mysterious instructions upon which the world spins, one need only walk forward to triumph?

The thing about the rules is that they are great equalizers. Any child who finds and follows them will succeed, and that is what epitomizes the heart of the third grader: logical as they appear, most are not entirely convinced by what we call reality. Deep down, they are not free from unsettling fears and unrealistic optimism. They might find an enchanted sword or candlestick, they could be selected by the fairies for assistance, and possibly their abilities are far greater than they appear.

Is all this to say that fairyland is only a place for children, or that it appeals only to the immature? No. We adults may think that our sophistication rises far above that of the eight-year-old, but ultimately we too are trying to make sense of a mysterious world in which things happen that we cannot understand. Perhaps that is why we continually rewrite, subvert, and analyze fairy tales. We try to change the rules, but we are sure that somewhere—somehow—those rules exist, and will help us understand.

Anna spent her own third-grade year pretending that she was a cross between Laura Ingalls and an Andrew Lang heroine. She blogs about writing, stories and literature at


Lissa said...

Well said! In addition to following the rules, successful fairy tale characters seem to have an instinctual way of finding the right thing to do. How and when to use the magical implement they've been given, for instance. It's part of the process of growing up, but certainly does not end there, to be able to make the right choice in any given situation. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

Teresa Robeson said...

That's an interesting comparison and analogy between the third grade world and the fairy tale universe. :)

Laura B. said...

Loved reading this essay because I still have the heart of an 8-year-old and will always love fairy tales. Thanks for writing this!

Anna Mussmann said...

Thanks so much for the kind words! I'm glad you enjoyed reading this.