“A paperclip is not a pet.”

paper-clipsAnd that, my friends, is an accurate snapshot of what is wrong with public education today.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with the teachers. Nothing. There is nothing wrong with having general standards to maintain a modicum of consistency in a transient world. And there’s probably nothing wrong with an organized procedure for informing families of their children’s progress (a.k.a. report cards). Although I can’t believe there isn’t something better.

What is very wrong, however, is that our children – our impressionable students who are the hope of the future – are being told every day in every way that “a paperclip is not a pet.”

Henry is a knight in aluminum-foil-covered raincoat armor and a duct-taped half-milk-carton helmet in Jennifer Trafton’s book Henry and the Chalk DragonHe is an ordinary boy with an extraordinary imagination. He has the soul of an artist in the body of a hero, trapped in a classroom where the “art” project is pasting identical bunnies holding identical leaves of lettuce on a cardboard box. The finished box will be placed in the school cafeteria during National Vegetable Week and Henry’s class is hoping that their collaborative work will win “Best Work of Art.” The prize, of course, is the coveted pizza party.

Oscar is Henry’s best friend. (Except for sometimes.) When Henry tells him “there was a dragon in my house this morning, and now it’s inside the lunchbox,” Oscar doesn’t say Are you crazy? or How can a dragon fit in a lunchbox, stupid. No, Oscar asks, “How many teeth does it have?”

And that is what makes Oscar the best kind of friend.

When Oscar tells his teacher, Miss Pimpernel (don’tcha love it?) that his pet octagon is in the very interesting shoebox on his desk, he is quickly corrected. “There is no such animal as an octagon, Oscar. An octagon is a shape with eight sides, like this … ”

octagon-86174Oscar’s response is priceless: “That’s a fossil of an octagon. An octagon is hairy and eats circles.” He told her that once his octagon ate $11.45 in nickels! 

Jade joins the conversation. “I have a pet paperclip. It’s like a silvery snake all curled up.”

Thank goodness Miss Pimpernel is right there to set her straight…

Jade, a paperclip is not a pet.

And done.

Done with imagination and story telling.

Done with encouragement and learning styles and “everyone is unique.”

And, I am telling you right now, it’s just wrong in so many ways. Sure, I understand it’s a children’s story. It’s not about rigor or classroom management or even teachable moments.

But that tiny sentence, seven little words, jumped out at me. This is what is wrong with what we are asking our teachers to do, day in and day out. It is a crystal clear picture of what our children are hearing every day, all day.

We are teaching our children that if they want to be encouraged and applauded, if they want to be successful in the eyes of the world, their childlike nature must be checked at the classroom door.

Important note to my readers: I cast no, none, zero aspersions on the work of the writing or art or music teachers I know – or any of them that you probably know. They cheerlead for the areas of our educational system that are woefully underfunded and under appreciated. I hold no classroom teacher responsible. They are running as fast as they can to “cover” the over-flowing amount of concepts, strategies, information, and test-taking skills they have been mandated to teach. It’s NOT on THEM at ALL!!!

My bone-picking is aimed at a system that claims to value the beautiful and different in every student while squeezing them into a tighter-and-tighter-fitting box of academic benchmarks and expectations with no room for the unusual, quirky, or remarkable.

My beef is with a system that tells every child who sees things differently that paperclips aren’t pets and school is no place to be brilliant.

If we, as a society, do not have the time to acknowledge and promote the noodlings of a young mind long enough to ask them about their pet paperclip, well, then, shame on us. If we can’t even grant a moment of nonacademic grace before we slide right into … but, that’s a good example of a simile, so let’s talk about that, well, shame on us.

Art, creativity, beauty – it’s in our DNA. I don’t like using such a cliché, but good golly, Miss Molly, it’s true. From ancient to modern times, we have heard the same message:

“Music is a more potent instrument than any other for education, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.” – Plato
“The Arts and Sciences, essential to the prosperity of the State and to the ornament of human life, have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.” –George Washington
“The future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create.” President Barack Obama
“Logic will get you from A to B.  Imagination will take you everywhere.” –Albert Einstein
“If you have only two pennies, spend the first on bread and the other on hyacinths for your soul.” –Arab Proverb
“Politicians don’t bring people together. Artists do.” –Richard Daley, Former Mayor of Chicago

My lovelies, I’m not sure what the solution is to the issues our leaders have with public education. Why they aren’t listening to the experts in every other field is beyond me. But, if we don’t at least talk to each other about this, our world will suffer for it. And so will our kids.

So, let’s talk. A lot. And pretty loud. Maybe they will hear us.

Oh, by the way, I have a hunch that Miss Pimpernel is more than she appears to be, in a good way. So stay tuned…

And don’t you wish for all the world that we all had a lot more friends like Oscar? And shouldn’t we all be the Oscars of the world? Let’s give it a try.


A paperclip is not a pet and school is not place to be brilliant. Click to Tweet


  1. Boom! I love this! My kids each had an extra coat hook for their imaginary friend’s stuff, boxes and whatever they needed for whatever creature, visible or not, may have snuck into school with them and snack time was a blast to see who needed a block or plastic number or puzzle piece for that creature to enjoy for their snack. I called them all brilliant. And nobody had to know. Great article, Nancy! (I know I was just a non-credentialled preschool teacher, but imagination is where it all begins) 🎈

    Liked by 1 person

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