Inspired by Lauren Drew’s use of “Less Attitude. More Fitness.” as a #mentortext in the #writingthief #mooc Make Cycle 3: Mentor Scavenger Hunt, my mind veered to another well-known fitness slogan; Nike’s “Just Do It.”
Imagine my shock to discover the disquieting origins of this saying, which has been an upbeat, encouraging declaration in our cultural consciousness since 1988. This means students in our classrooms have heard it their whole lives. According to a 2009 New York Times article, “Just Do It” is a spin on “Let’s do it.” Those words were uttered in 1977 by Utah convicted killer Gary Gilmore just before he was executed by a firing squad. As reported in the article, a former Nike marketing chief admits that “the origins of ‘Just Do It’ were not widely known or acknowledged.” Not surprising!
This discovery caused me to think deeper about words, phrases, slogans that are deeply embedded into our cultural fabric. How much do we understand about the origins and reasons we use those particular phrases?
The animated film Robots, released in 2005, is packed full of pop culture spoofs. It includes references to, among many others, Britney Spears, Star Wars, and Michael Jackson. Young children watching the movie at the same time I was were responding to the surface, slapstick humor. I found it to be hilarious because of the cultural references. The children missed that layer of humor, because those references were not (yet) part of their consciousness.
Isn’t that layering a common attribute in the most timeless texts? The comic series Calvin & Hobbes is a case in point. Young children can enjoy (and identify with!) the situations Calvin gets himself into beginning at a young age. As they grow older, they can explore those stories again and get a whole new level of understanding, not only of the plot, but the humor. Then, when they themselves become parents, they will understand Calvin’s parents better, and possibly show more sympathy for their plight!
These reflections impressed upon me how important it is to ask students to explore stories. Not just the surface level, but each layer. This investigation will vary, depending on the age of the students, but we can ask even young children whether they can name other stories that are similar to what we are reading to them. We can ask older students to think about possible influences that contributed to a writer’s storytelling. We can also guide them into drawing connections between past and present interpretations of common themes and characterizations.
In Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement address to students at the University of the Arts, he describes some of the steps of his journey into becoming a recognized writer. Gaiman is a brilliant writer and storyteller. Nonetheless, he has been a #writingthief of other writers, some apparent, others less so. He acknowledges influences as varied as G.K Chesterton, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King, and C.S. Lewis.
My personal favorite of his books is American Gods. I love the way he weaves ancient mythical characters from several continents into a rich mythical tale of his own. In the process, he also creates a few new gods, to reflect current cultural preoccupations. Since I am a #lifelong #reader, I recognized many of the (renamed) characters in American Gods, and thoroughly enjoyed Gaiman’s representation of them. If I were less of a reader, I would have enjoyed the story, but I would have missed the richly textured layers he weaves into the plot.
Another excellent reason to inspire today’s young people to enjoy not only contemporary fiction, but to also reach back to stories told over the millennia, in order to build a rich understanding of who we are, and where we came from.