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Children are wise teachers

The irrepressible cartoon character Dennis the Menace teaches us how to savour life and take its ups and downs in our stride

By Devi Kar

  • Published 14.11.18, 8:54 AM
  • Updated 11.03.19, 7:46 PM
Dennis sometimes causes acute embarrassment by speaking the truth at the wrong times
Dennis sometimes causes acute embarrassment by speaking the truth at the wrong times Shutterstock

Some of the greatest lessons of life are learnt from children. Through their uninhibited truthfulness and spontaneous reactions, we get to know many truths ourselves. I have learnt — and continue to learn — a great deal from my young students. Curiously, characters from children’s books and comics also teach me lessons of life.

One of the most endearing and timeless child characters is surely Dennis the Menace, who has regaled generations with his observations and comments. He has been around since 1951, but has had a makeover recently for the ‘click and swipe’ generation. Thus, we find Dennis exclaiming in astonishment that his grandfather “writes email on paper”! This is a familiar scenario. I find many senior people not quite settled into the 21st century. They are uncomfortable about digital storage and preserve everything in hard copies, which are filed away in steel cabinets. One of my friends gets her secretary to type all her emails and keep the printouts in a file on her desk every morning. Similarly, Dennis’s reply to his mother when she tells him that “money does not grow on trees” is a sign of the times. Feeling insulted, Dennis states that, of course, he knew that ‘money grew at the ATM’. He seems well versed in current socio-economic affairs too. When he sees an object stamped ‘Made in USA’, he remarks that it is quite old. Like other Americans today, he usually sees articles that are made in China.

Dennis causes acute embarrassment by speaking the truth at the wrong times. He once gallantly offered to bring a fan for a woman visitor saying, “My Dad said that you are very hot.” Our younger students do the same. For example, one will blithely tell you about the rollicking time they had on the beach and add as an afterthought, “My mother told me to remember to tell you that I was absent because I had fever but actually I didn’t feel ill on the beach.” These innocent pronouncements remind one of Mark Twain, who said that only children and fools always tell the truth.

Dennis’s gems of wisdom make him appear like a mini philosopher. A few years ago, I had picked up a book, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar...: Understanding Philosophy through Jokes, by two Harvard philosophy majors. Described as “a sprightly crash course in philosophy”, it soon became a bestseller. This little joke book covered topics ranging from metaphysics to logic and meta-philosophy to relativity. I realised that, while we are entertained, we gather many lessons from comic characters. So almost every day I look out for a nugget of wisdom from Dennis, and he seldom disappoints.

When Dennis returns from school, his mother never fails to ask him what he learned in school that day. But he is surprised that his mother never asks his dad what he learnt when he returns from work each day. It is a legitimate question if you subscribe to the principle of lifelong learning. Once he asked a profound question, “When do you know that you are old enough to know better?” In fact, nobody does, though we keep remonstrating children of all ages with these words. One of the wisest observations that Dennis has made was when his pal, Joey, asked why their formidable old neighbour, Mr Wilson, looked so pensive. Dennis’s reply was that he was brooding about “stuff that he wishes he had done but didn’t and stuff that he wishes he hadn’t done but did!” I think we all ponder over this.

Most teachers acknowledge that they learn much from their students. I clearly remember an incident from my days as a young teacher when I had been sent to substitute for a Class III teacher. On discovering that the class had been learning a poem, I decided to discuss it with the children and then illustrate it on the blackboard. Like all teachers, I, too, had developed ultra-sensitive ears, eyes at the back of my head and antennae that were always up. Naturally, I soon sensed that something was afoot in the room. So, I turned from the blackboard and surveyed the class. Everybody looked quite innocent but soon a tiny hand went up. On asking its owner what the matter was, she complained in a shocked voice that the girl sitting next to her had said that her art tutor draws much better than me! Before I could think of an appropriate response, the girl with the tutor stood up — totally unembarrassed and thoroughly poised — and stated matter-of-factly, “My art tutor is an art teacher and you are not. For that you draw quite well.” I thanked her profusely and wondered yet again about the wisdom of children, their easy ability to get out of a sticky situation and the value of their unadulterated observations. Also, I realised that I had learnt an important lesson in relativity.

The irrepressible Dennis teaches us how to savour life and take its ups and downs in our stride. He also knows how to console adults: “Cheer up Mrs Wilson, I am not getting any younger either!” And like many children I have encountered, he has mastered the strategy of getting his parents to do what he wants — “May I have a triple sundae with jelly topping and nuts? Alright, then may I please have a small cookie?” No mother would ever be able to deny the second request and Dennis thinks, “That’s what I wanted in the first place!” Dennis often tells his buddies something that we would all love to say as we get older: “So far guys, it’s been a pretty good life.”

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