A little mischief does a kid good
Life with children
Bart King, who's a bit of a cutup, has taken a leave of absence from his job as an educator. But while he's making a living in the funny business, he hasn't stopped teaching.
King is the author of four books, the best known 2004's 'The Big Book of Boy Stuff,' which has sold more than 100,000 copies. He followed that up with 'The Big Book of Girl Stuff' in 2006.
Now, King has released a new work, 'The Pocket Guide to Mischief,' a suggestion box for troublemaking that, while urging restraint, challenges youngsters to take a somewhat irreverent approach to growing up.
King, who will promote the book with a pair of local appearances in April (visit www.bartking.net for details), taught for 15 years at Beaverton's Cedar Park Middle School.
He was prompted to write by his students, who wondered if the guy handing out all the writing assignments had any game of his own.
'Being called out as a faker, that was what got me going,' he says.
Once under way, King says, his primary objective quickly became clear: Produce stuff that kids will read. He says National Endowment for the Arts studies indicate that Americans are reading less and that young people, in particular, don't do books.
He calls the most recent NEA report 'the death knell of literacy,' but still thinks injecting a little mischief into kids' reading lists might be the way to turn things around.
'One of the keys to keeping kids interested is to allow them anything,' he says. As a teacher, 'I tended not to be the nervous Nellie type. That attitude also applies with the things that they read. I think it's utterly sensible to monitor screen time, but when it comes to the written word, a looser leash is nice.'
Parents know too well that steering children toward books isn't always easy. Kids who spend most of their school day in relative confinement are inclined to let loose once they're home. Sitting quietly with a book is not usually a priority.
That's where authors like King come in, delighted to entertain youngsters with goofy ideas about boogers and skid marks and all manner of deviltry.
My son is an avid fan of Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants series, books that feature characters with names like Professor Poopypants and the Wicked Wedgie Woman.
It's pretty silly stuff, but it represents the same mildly anarchic outlook that helped King inspire his Cedar Park students to engage in more physical activities, another of his passions.
'When I look back at some of the fun things we did, we engaged in competitions and behaviors that were so much fun we would have near facial cramps,' he says.
'If there had been a safety expert for the district or a lawyer there, they'd have had fits. At one point, the kids said, 'You're not real big on safety, are you?' '
King, who's quick to point out that he never lost a child to injury or worse, says getting kids to be active may be even more urgent than getting them to read.
'Parents are less forceful with kids now,' says King, who points to the national epidemic in childhood obesity as a sign that unhealthy behaviors in children are not being curbed.
'One-third of all kids,' he marvels. 'That is profound. What it comes down to is activity.'
King's next book looks to the past for wisdom. It's an adaptation of the work of Jessie Bancroft, who wrote the 1909 'Games for the Playground, Home, School and Gymnasium.' Bancroft was hired to teach physical education by school officials in Brooklyn, N.Y.
'It's fascinating to read her work,' King says. 'The language is a little late Victorian - a lot of the material is either politically incorrect or archaic - but it's exactly what we talk about today. How can we engage their minds? How can we engage their bodies?
'She gives the games a kind of noble purpose. I tried to keep that. For the kid, what is it we're doing that's helping and what is it we're doing that's just useless?
'It's easy to be a doomsayer. That said, I think that, as a culture, we'll wise up.'
King was the faculty adviser to the chess club at Cedar Park, and some of his former students were on the Sunset High team that recently won the Oregon state tournament.
In hanging around them, he made a surprising observation: The kids moved between reading, movies, video games and a pool table with surprising ease.
'This is kind of a new breed,' he says, 'a high-octane grade of kid. These kids are firing on all cylinders.'
King sees an opportunity. With a bit of guidance - including the silly, slightly off-color kind - he thinks our kids can be better than ever.
'Kids will find their own balance,' he says. 'I don't have a negative outlook on the future of kids. I wasn't intending to write about the glory of childhood in the '60s. It's fun to see kids more sophisticated. I think they're more aware on a lot of levels.'