By Jonathan Alexandratos
I’m in third or fourth grade. Elementary school, for sure. I’m failing most of my tests and quizzes. Most people appear to have some aptitude in either Math or English, but I’m off in a corner wondering if it’s possible to be bad at both. When I get home, I’m sent to my room to study. I don’t study. I play with my action figures. I create vast worlds out of LEGOs and whatever other plastic shards are around. Toys fall in and out of love. They fight. Viciously. If I can sneak into the kitchen, maybe some wind up in the freezer as punishment for some crime against the toy box. The words I’m supposed to study in textbooks don’t make sense, but these stories do. My head and heart need these stories. They’re the only ones where I can see myself as I want to be, not the stalling student my teachers write notes home about.
I’m 33. I’m a college professor at a community college in New York City. I teach developmental English. It’s my job to take students who hate reading and writing and turn them into college freshmen who can at least put together a competent paper if they have to. I see so much of me in these students. On day one, I always ask my classes what they’re good at. So much of school becomes about what you’re bad at. We should start with what’s working. Often times, I’ll hear answers connected to pop culture: playing video games, watching movies, drawing anime, collecting figures. I like these answers because they orient their consumers toward story. If you like video games, you probably have some sense of world-building and story arcs. If you like creating comics, you may know a thing or two about creating characters. All of this belongs in the English classroom.
And so do toys. Some students come in with a vast knowledge of toys. Others have to jog their memories for what they played with so many (read: like, five) years ago. I level the playing field with a writing prompt. Students will, for ten minutes in-class, write about their favorite toy(s). Then, we share. From Bratz dolls to Transformers to Nerf to the sticks and leaf piles that became myriad toys limited only by the bounds of the imagination, we’ve talked about it all. But what comes up isn’t only the toy, it’s the time they got the toy. No one wants to discuss the fact of the Steve Austin wrestling action figure; they want to talk about the Christmas where they got the Steve Austin figure and all the other wrestlers and had a huge brawl in the living room. In other words, story emerges.
As students soon learn, this has been the writing process for a number of incredibly successful authors. The one that we often study is Sandra Cisneros and her short story, “Barbie-Q.” Here, Cisneros writes about a girl who loves Barbie, but grows up poor, so she has to get her Barbie dolls from a fire sale after a warehouse has partly burned. The main character talks about the smoke damage and melting her dolls had suffered, but ultimately decides that the dolls still have beauty, still have value, as long as she values them. I find the story incredibly moving. It plugs into the Barbie world we know, but adds the perspective of someone who can’t afford the dolls in mint condition. It then unfolds into a lovely treatise on body image and beauty standards, and that lands so well in a room full of young adults mostly in their late teens.
With students’ individual toy stories and Cisneros’ tale in the room, I give the students a third task. I hand them a toy, and they tell me the story of that toy. Frequently, students won’t know the character I’ve handed them. That’s even better. Then, they can truly follow their whims and make that vessel carry whatever story they want. One year, a student knew she received an action figure of The Rock, but didn’t know much about the character beyond the fact that he wrestles. On her own, she spun a tale about a female wrestler stuck inside the body of The Rock.
Every time The Rock wrestles, it’s really the female wrestler who brings the skills, but everyone praises The Rock instead. This infuriates the woman inside The Rock’s body, and she struggles to reconcile her need to do what she loves with the fact that a man will get credit for it. There was so much in that story, from threads of Trans-ness to commentary on sexism. As we discussed what she wrote, the student became more and more aware of the layers of meaning that underlie her words. Later in the week, she wrote more of this story on her own and showed it to me. This is the objective of the lesson: to get students to a place where they’ll be motivated to write more on their own. If they can get there, then they can find their footing in the world of reading and writing.
There’s a quote often attributed to actor and producer Martin Gabel that says, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” In pedagogy, I take this to mean, “Don’t simply go through the motions, exist in a place. Camp out there. Make it your own.” When students use what they love to insert themselves into the world of literature, they exist there. They carve out a home. They don’t just submit a paper because their teacher said they had to. They start to belong.
Toys offer us that sense of belonging from an early age. I’m reminded, here, of another toy line I often use in my writing prompts: Julie Kerwin’s IAmElemental action figures. Kerwin created these toys after wanting to buy her young sons positive, female-representing action figures, but finding none. Each 3.75-inch action figure is molded into the form of an original heroine named after a virtue (i.e. “Creativity,” “Bravery”).
I like that these figures come with their virtues printed on their shield accessories because students in my classes often don’t know some of the words, so this makes them pause and look them up, thus adding to their vocabulary. By creating IAmElemental figures, Julie Kerwin gave more people a way to find their best avatar for play in the toy realm. Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with being the woman in The (plastic) Rock’s body, but some people of many genders might feel the need to see themselves more easily in what they play with. IAmElementals provide that chance for a sizable number of consumers, just as many other toys offer a similar feeling to different individuals.
The big, behind-the-curtain secret of teaching is this: we are all just trying what worked for us, and hoping for the best. If anyone tells you that their lessons work with absolute certainty, they’re lying. Sure, there’s preparation and planning, but, after a point, we roll the dice and hope for the best. So, if an educator has to gamble, better to gamble on your passions. At least there you know that, if the lesson isn’t successful, at least students saw you get excited about something in a classroom, and that excitement is contagious. For me, few things are as exciting as action figures and dolls.
They are what former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall would call our “third thing,” or an object that, when shared by two people, can contain their love, wonder, and joy. It is a concrete object that holds and mixes the best that abstract emotion can offer. And, ultimately, it is this that many classrooms need: opportunities for teacher and student to observe and create together. For toys, this spirit is baked right into one of its most popular products. The origin of the word LEGO comes from the Danish “leg godt,” meaning, essentially, “play well together.” If students learn that this, as opposed to the adversarial I-know-more-than-you oppressive heirarchy, is the foundation of school, they’ll be motivated to stick with it, even when the lessons don’t come with toys.
Sometimes, after class, when I’ve recovered my toys from the day’s lesson, I’ll sit there at my desk playing with them. In my mind. I’m in elementary school again. But I’m also my adult self. We’re playing together. The toys become the books that I was told repeatedly I didn’t have the capacity to read. My stories become the writing that was never good enough. The feeling is electric, letting your grown-up self and your kid self mix within the “third thing” of an action figure. In that quiet moment, I could swear that spark gives life to the toy, who reassures us both that it all turns out okay.
Jonathan Alexandratos is a New York City-based playwright and essayist who writes about toys, being Non-Binary, and, occasionally, why Sprinkle Spangles was the best cereal. They host the podcast My Plastic Life, available wherever you get your podcasts.