How Teaching 1st Graders Helped Me Rewrite My Own Fairytale

Last summer, reeling from the breakup with my boyfriend of four years, I fled to California to spend some time with my parents (and live near the beach, which never hurts when healing a broken heart). I was three thousand miles away in a self-imposed exile. I thought that if I was in California, I wouldn’t have to think about getting the furniture back from the apartment we were supposed to share. I would spend the summer doing yoga and going on runs by the ocean. I would heal with distance.

It didn’t quite work like that. No amount of sunshine could stop my mind from running back to New York, wondering what he was doing, what he was thinking, or what he was going to say when he finally recognized his mistake and apologized.

When I realized my master plan wasn’t working, and that I couldn’t spend all summer crying, I took a job as a teacher’s assistant at a summer school in California. I would spend my days teaching elementary school students; I wouldn’t have time to sit at my computer writing longwinded emails asking for explanations, then deleting them without pressing send.

It was a simple question I asked them, really — even for first graders. What should our story be about? A PRINCESS! they all shouted, A BEAUTIFUL PRINCESS WHO IS TRAPPED IN A TOWER.

It was easy enough work, and the kids made me laugh. They asked questions, like why I wore men’s clothes when I showed up in a button down shirt, and stuck their tongues between their teeth as they concentrated writing little essays with a list of adjectives they didn’t yet understand.

One day, I decided that we should all write a creative story together. It was a simple question I asked them, really — even for first graders. What should our story be about?

A PRINCESS! they all shouted, A BEAUTIFUL PRINCESS WHO IS TRAPPED IN A TOWER.

Of course.

So we started to write about a princess who lived in a tower. She was trapped in the tower, although it was unclear just who was trapping her. But the princess had a friend, and that friend was a …

A DRAGON. AN ENORMOUS DRAGON NAMED LARRY. AND THEY GO ON AN ADVENTURE!

Fabulous. We had a dragon and we had a princess. Sounds like they are going to go on excellent adventures, what should they do?

WELL, IT’S HER BIRTHDAY AND SHE WANTS A PUPPY, SO SHE AND LARRY GO ON A JOURNEY FOR A PUPPY.

It was never discussed how the princess escaped from the tower to go look for a puppy with Larry. So the dragon and the princess went off and looked for a puppy...

BUT IT’S A FAKE PUPPY WITH WHEELS INSTEAD OF FEET.

Sure. That works — I wanted the students to get creative, and they certainly were trying. So Larry and the princess chase the puppy into the cave and Larry can’t fit into the cave because he’s an enormous dragon, but the princess runs in after the puppy, and then the cave suddenly closes at the entrance trapping Larry outside because the puppy was a trap that was sent by ....

AN EVIL WITCH WHO WANTS TO CAPTURE THE PRINCESS!

Was the witch the same witch that was trapping the princess in the tower? How does she escape?

SHE GETS MARRIED! They shrieked.

Wait. Everyone, just wait. She’s still in the cave. Let’s focus. She’s in the cave, what happens next?

THE CHARMING PRINCE COMES AND THEY GET MARRIED!

The hysteria was building. I could feel it. Isn’t the princess only eight years old? Didn’t we just establish that it was her 8th birthday? That’s much too young for her to get married.

SHE ESCAPES THE CAVE AND WE GO FORWARD TEN YEARS AND SHE GETS MARRIED!

Even if we jumped forward ten years, the girl would be only 18. But —

NO, SHE GETS MARRIED. HER NAME IS LIZZIE AND SHE GETS MARRIED TO MR. JOHNSON.

(Apparently, I’m getting married to the teacher in the classroom next door.)

SHE GETS MARRIED. YOU GET MARRIED. YOU GET MARRIIIEEDDDD.

The chanting. It was like Lord of the Flies. There was a bonfire and a pig’s head and Piggy would get his glasses stolen and die before not too long.

But the princess is only eight! She has so much ahead of her! I tried to tell them.

The bell rang. The kids trotted off, confident that the princess had escaped the cave and gotten married at the age of 18.

Now, almost one year since the breakup, I often think about the day we wrote that story. There are so many things that I wish I could have told my first graders, had I known then: If I could, I would have told them that sometimes things don’t always work out for the princess the way she thought they would, but that’s OK. That sometimes a girl needs to go on some adventures, and do something on her own, before she decides if she wants to settle down. That the princess needs to be comfortable being alone: at a restaurant, at a movie, at a bar, in her own bed. That it will take time.

I want to tell them that it will take weeks and months; bad dates and good dates; new crushes that give you hope, and flings that let you down. That you’ll have days when you feel bold and you pursue guys you thought were out of your league, and laugh it off when you get rejected. That you’ll have days when you feel so numb inside that you’re sure you won’t ever date again. That sometimes, your heart will physically hurt when you think of how things could have gone.

I want to tell them that it’s OK not to know what your story should be about, and that you can — and should — write your own. I want to tell them that when times get rough, you need to find your own way out, without the help of the next handsome prince to come along.

Or maybe I wouldn’t tell them any of that. Maybe I would let them stay in their blissful six-year old world’s where the handsome prince always marries the princess because they are in love and there’s no reason they wouldn’t. Because the truth is, they won’t understand any of it anyway — until one day when, devastatingly, they will.

The only person who I needed to tell any of it to, the only person I needed to make understand, was me. And I think I finally did, once I started with a simple question: What should my story be about?

Images: Herald Post/Flickr; Giphy