“The Phantom Tollbooth” and The Bulletin Board Moment

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting up for lunch with Lucien Vattel, Executive Director of GameDesk, an exciting new grade 6-12 charter school launching in Los Angeles in fall 2012.  We got to talking about the reading struggles of incoming sixth grade students, as well the intersections of math and the humanities that GameDesk hopes to navigate.  Norton Juster’s fantastical “The Phantom Tollbooth” (TPT) (with equally as whimsical illustrations by Jules Feiffer) immediately leaped to mind as a suggested reading: not only because it seems like the perfect accessible bridge for emerging readers to traverse “STEM to STEAM to STREAM” areas, but also because TPT marks one of the most formative moments in my life as a student, from P.S. 83 to my Ph.D.

the cover art in my childhood copy.

Lucien asked if I’d ever written the following story down, but it had never dawned on me to do so, even though I gush about TPT whenever someone talks about transmedia storytelling and children.  (Here’s chapter 1 to whet your appetite if you somehow missed it during your literary life.)  The announcement of a new 50th anniversary edition of TPT this fall with additional essays from esteemed authors and artists, and a preview of one of those essays by the epic Michael Chabon published recently in The New York Review of Books sparked me to pen my own slightly self-indulgent ode with a simple message.

The Bulletin Board Moment

When your Kindergarten class can walk to the magical Bronx Zoo on any given afternoon (well, any afternoon in September, May, or June barring snow, rain, or absurd NYC humidity), the idea that rich worlds hide in the crevices and corners of your universe – as Milo, the protagonist of “The Phantom Tollbooth” discovers – doesn’t seem too far fetched.

I think some people feel compelled to work in the field of education either because 1) they had a crummy time in school and want no child to ever have that kind of experience OR 2) they had the kind of education that they wish they could gift to every kid.  I completely fall into the latter category.  I count my lucky stars (and a couple planets for good measure) that I was able to spend K-3 at P.S. 83 on Rhinelander Ave. in the Bronx in one of NYC’s “E.G.” or “Especially Gifted” programs.  I suppose they call it “Gifted and Talented” these days, but I like “E.G.” because it has the additive connotation of “e.g.,” of exempli gratia, of being an exemplar.

I took the school bus in from my fourteenth floor apartment in Co-op City (former home of Sonia Sotomayor and Queen Latifah, too), reuniting daily for 4 years with the same group of kids from kindergarten onward.  Even after moving to the suburbs the summer going into fourth grade, I to this day maintain close friendships with a number of kids in the class.  In fact, the discovery on the first day of my Sesame Workshop internship back in college that my mentor/boss Jen was an another P.S. 83 E.G. alum (and from Co-op City too!) made me even happier than the free swag, travel stipend, and the real Oscar the Grouch in the lobby combined.

Meryl & Mrs. GershWe were a very tight knit class who knew all knew each other and each other’s families.  I imagine it must have been difficult psychologically for the teachers who were the only ones new to us each school year.  In third grade, we had Mrs. Gersh.  As evidence of my fondness for her by the end of that year and my general lifelong geekiness, please see the picture to the left, in which I dressed up as her on the last day of school (so basically, the opposite of this).

Every classroom in P.S. 83 had a standard large, wooden-framed, rectangular bulletin board on the wall outside the classroom, to one side of the door.  Having been back in the analog days, you could say it was kind of like our class’ website.  Each month, Ms. Gersh updated the bulletin board so as to represent the class, usually of the projects/poems/artwork variety.  The bulletin board symbolized a collective statement about all of us behind that door to the outside world walking past.  One downside to our insular E.G. community was that I don’t particularly remember in all my years there ever befriending anyone in any other class, not even the “not especially gifted” children our same age in the school.  The bulletin board communicated with them if we could not personally.

That one child in the class could own the entire bulletin board with something that represented them and only them, and that Ms. Gersh would encourage me to be that child, seemed to defy the laws of physics of third grade to me when it actually happened.

Let me map out, by way of the Sea of Knowledge and The Doldrums, how I came to have my “bulletin board moment” and further sketch out the significant role of TPT.

I feel deeply in love with TPT at first read.  Its saturated wordplay and accompanying black pen sketches reminded me of my beloved Shel Silverstein books.  TPT will also always be mentally paired with my other “words + math” crush of a book, “Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions” by Edwin Abbot, another book with a wondrously strange topography.

I felt the human shape of syntax when I read these books.  I had hundreds of little “Wizard of Oz” moments while reading them – but instead of that famous black & white to color scene in the movie, I understood new possibilities when moving from one to two dimensions, or driving through a real or imagined highway tollbooth.  What if math were a caste system?  What if individual letters in the alphabet had personalities of their own?  Like if A, B, and C were a cool popular clique, and D always tried to tag along, but ended up getting stuck with the dowdy pair of E & F.  Imagining social relationships between letters and numbers made them glide more easily in my manipulation of composition and computation.

Our class’ reading of TPT culminated in a hubbub of art projects at our desks.  At some point during the afternoon, Mrs. Gersh must have noticed how my project started to spill over the corners and creep onto the linoleum squares on the ground adjacent to my chair legs.  My rendering of the entire world of TPT with every single major character made from yarn, construction paper, and googly eyes – a version of fellow Bronx-born kid Jules Feiffer’s map above – was too expansive for my single square in a grid of 27 child-sized desks.

So naturally, she gave me and only me THE class bulletin board as a canvas instead.

I’m fairly sure that I missed more than a few lessons, because I remember working on the bulletin board for multiple afternoons after that first one.  I recall feeling such pride and trust put in me, sitting outside the classroom all on my own working in relative silence.  Other students in the class would leave to use restroom or bring a note somewhere, and stop to ask questions of me.  Kids and teachers from previously unknown parts of the school noticed too as they walked by, and struck up new conversation.  I was building a world, and a world was building around me too.  I felt like the official artist-in-residence-of-the-month of my class.  Piece by piece, I bricolaged a public display of craftmanship and personal sense of passionate purpose in my work that I now strive for daily.  Throwing “words + math” onto the metaphorical (and sometimes physical) wall is basically my official job.

Every child deserves to have their “bulletin board moment” – an anecdote to the sort of boredom embodied by TPT’s protagonist Milo.   The moral of TPT – that a child who is disengaged from school and disenchanted with his room full of toys must have access to alternative “tollbooths” to his or her own pathways to imagination – has considerable bearing on recent reports that more US children drop out of school because they are bored, not because they can’t keep up.

All children deserve teachers who bend the rules, the time, and the lessons – and the support of administrators, parents, and the classroom unit to do that very bending.  All children deserve caring people in their lives who notice passion and don’t wait for a timid child to ask for permission to let it unfurl all over a wall, drippy glue and all.  All children deserve the opportunity to talk about their work in authentic ways.  All children deserve to practice learning to be okay with devoting one’s love to something that is inherently impermanent.

MY bulletin board got replaced with THE bulletin board the next month.  I think I held on to my handmade corrugated cardboard figure of Tock the Watchdog for only a little while after, or maybe I just have a really strong tactile memory of running my fingers over the thick brown paper.  Between Tock who had nothing but the time, Milo who had plenty of it, and the millions of Milos in our current educational system, TPT will always be a timeless personal memory and timeless professional inspiration.

One response to ““The Phantom Tollbooth” and The Bulletin Board Moment

  1. Jess Piotrowski

    Love this post … and love the Full House link even more! I still remember looking forward to TGIF every Friday!

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