Monday, December 15, 2008

The Unfortunate, Too Self-Sacrificing, Encouraging Excessive Greediness From An Ungrateful Boy, Tree

story by shel silverstein
music by henry mancini & composed by francis lai
"The Giving Tree" By Shel Silverstein

I love Shel Silverstein, but I hate the misconception that people have had for years about this book. I have only recently been reminded of my disdain for the unnecessary controversy surrounding this book when a friend of mine said,

"I loooooooooove "The Giving Tree" and I think it has such a wonderful moral to teach children..." I wanted to strangle her.

But this story actually begins when I was in ninth grade. Allow me to elaborate.

I was not a very productive student. Yes, I am saying it now - I was not studious and I was not (in general) a straight "A" student. However, my lack of superior grades were not related at all to my level of intelligence. On the contrary, my mother could never understand why I was not bringing home A's and B's (in most subjects), because she recognized that I was extremely bright and capable, and always told me so. But, I just did not care enough to work for it. There was no motivation on my part, UNLESS, I had a teacher who made it interesting for me, or it was a subject I was interested in. I was never out to prove anything, (I was secure in my intelligence) and I had no plans to attend an Ivy League University, so may as well have fun in school.

In spite of my disinterest in most subjects, especially Hebrew subjects, I somehow managed to make it into Honors English. I am a "Liberal Arts" girl. Science and art would be my forte`. So Math, English Literature, English Composition, and Science were the subjects that brought my grade average up, and gave me the A's. But it was English Composition that I loved the most. Since 6th grade, teachers always made a point of specifically recognizing my writing, and this recognition would propel me further in this subject.

Throughout school my grammar, spelling (without the use of the non-existent spell check), vocabulary and composition were impeccable. (I can't say the same now, as I am a bit rusty with the writing. In fact, I can't even remember when punctuation comes before the quotation marks and when it comes after.) So when it came to my writing, I became one of those students who would cry "foul" when I didn't get an A. Which actually never happened, until "The Giving Tree" became the topic of this one specific writing assignment.

Mrs. E., our ninth grade teacher walked in one day with a green covered book under her arm. She took her place in the front of the class and said,
"I have a book I want to read to you. It is my favorite book. I love the lesson this book teaches us and I want you to pay close attention."

And with that, she proceeded to read the book.

Now I was already familiar with Shel Silverstein's writings. I had two of his poetry books in my collection - "Where The Sidewalk Ends" and "A Light In The Attic", although I had yet to encounter "The Giving Tree". I knew Shel S. to be a cynical and satirical writer, often trying to get a message across by writing it in the opposite, more profane sort of way. In fact, Shel S. did not start out as a children's writer, he didn't even think he could write for children. He did write for Playboy, definitely not child friendly. He also wrote a book called "Shelby's ABZ Book" geared for adults. It was a mock-children's book capturing his renowned cynicism by giving awful advice to readers. Such as, "Mommy loves the baby, more than she loves you".

One of my favorite poems of his was "Little Abigail And The Beautiful Pony" It was from the poetry collections "A Light In The Attic". It was about a girl who saw a pony and wanted it so badly, she tried to manipulate her parents. She kept saying, "I want that pony, I have to have the pony..." Her parents tried to appease her with other things, such as ice cream. But then she said, "If I don't get that pony, I will just die."

And do you know what happened at the end of this CHILDREN'S poem? Her parents did not get her the pony and she DID die. My favorite part comes, though, at the bottom of the page where Shel writes, "If your parents don't get you what you want, this is a good story to share with them". The point - you need to learn from his backwards humor that this child was a selfish, self- absorbed child and the parent's were in fact right to stick their ground, even though she died.

And "The Giving Tree", not much different.

After Mrs. E. finished reading the book, she so "brilliantly" shared her feelings to a class of 27 girls.
"The tree is so "selfless" and so "giving" and so "sharing". We can learn from the tree how to be so "selfless" and so "giving" and so "sharing". Oh, and the little boy, gave the tree his friendship... blah, blah blah... Now your assignment is to go home and write what YOU think this story teaches us."

REALLY? Now what do you think 26 out of 27 girls in this class who have not been taught that they have a mind of their own and should maybe consider expressing their OWN opinions (if they have any left after the teacher just brainwashed them and influenced them with her own superfluous opinions) are going to write in this assignment? And who is this 27th girl? It's me, the, thinks outside the box, non-conformist...

So I write - how we do in fact learn great lessons from the tree and the boy. But as usual, Shel's satirical writing is usually meant to teach us the opposite of what we may immediately see.

So the boy ONLY comes back to the tree offering friendship, when he wants something. His friendship is certainly not unconditional, which makes him greedy and selfish. And the tree is not self-less, but rather, self-sacrificing. Which in my opinion is not okay for two reasons.
1. It tells the boy that his behavior is okay, which by far, it is not.
2. It is not okay to be self-sacrificing to the point that you become used up and there is nothing left of you.
In addition to this, the tree can not find contentment alone, or happiness within himself, but is dependent on the "friendship" of a greedy boy. This means to me, that the tree lacks self-worth.

In fact this whole story reminds me of the abused wife or girlfriend. The guy already seeks out a woman who lacks self-worth because this makes her vulnerable, and makes it easy for him to feel more powerful as he controls her. She doesn't want him to leave her, even though he is abusive because then she will be alone, and her lack of self-worth prevents her from believing she deserves or could achieve anything better than this treatment. And the abuser only shows kindness or "friendship" when he wants something from the abused. And he uses her up until there is nothing left of her.

We could apply the lessons in this book to all our lives in some way or another.
For instance:
It is not healthy to be a parent that is so self-sacrificing, that we become a used up rag. It teaches our children to lack respect and have a constant sense of entitlement, when we never say "no" to them. And we as parents, mothers, can allow ourselves to do FOR ourselves. And we can find contentment in what we can do for ourselves (in addition to the contentment we feel knowing we can do for those who are dependent on us).

But, one need not be a parent, to relate to this story in some way.

I was literally the only one out of 27 students who expressed a very different opinion on this story by Shel Silverstein. And even though there was not one grammar mistake, not one spelling faux pas, it was the first (and last) time I ever received a "C" on a writing assignment. And I will never forget the lesson I learned from that grade. There are those, who can not look outside themselves, Mrs. E. was one of them. She never really wanted OUR opinions to begin with. She just wanted us to validate her own thwarted ideas. But I am not that "self-sacrificing".

For those of you who never read the book, I implore you, click the link above and let me know what you think. I welcome disagreeing opinions as well. So don't be shy.

0 have shown Orah a little love: