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Back to school 

Do you know the Muffin Man?

Recently, I awoke from a dream of two summers ago when, after my mother's death, I made a trip to Charlotte, N.C., to see the houses I'd lived in as a young child. The owner of one of them let me in and I went into my tiny bedroom off the kitchen. It sounds ridiculous but, during the visit, and even more vividly in my dream of it, I recalled a continual fantasy I had in the room.

The fantasy was drawn from the poetry volume of the Childcraft Encyclopedia, which included the lyrics to the song "The Muffin Man," which my mother must have read to me. I remember the illustration from the book and especially the closing line of each stanza: "the muffin man, who lives in Drury Lane."

As a child, I had no idea what "Drury Lane" meant and I associated it with my chest of drawers. I felt both terrified and excited to know that the muffin man was living in my bottom drawer. No, this was not the beginning signs of madness.

It – that entire volume of the Childcraft Encyclopedia, really – may well have been the beginning of my fascination with poetry. I remember many lines of the poems I read as I grew older and, to this day, I can close my eyes and see the illustrations for each poem – from "Hiawatha" and "The Highway Man" to "Paul Revere's Ride" and the usual nursery rhymes.

Perhaps it's just coincidence that this dream, which left me thinking about those poems for days, occurred about the time kids went back to school after summer vacation Monday. That was a day I always dreaded.

Part of my rumination about the poems from the Childcraft has to do with the fact that we owned the encyclopedia at all. It was – and still is – published by the same people who give us the World Book Encyclopedia. The Childcraft was for younger kids and included other volumes besides poetry and fairy tales, but those are the only two I recall at all.

When I got older I harassed my mother to buy the World Book. Everyone I knew had a set, but she refused to buy one. I felt underprivileged. Given an assignment to research a topic, my classmates would go home and dutifully copy something out of the World Book. I, on the other hand, had to go to the library.

That, of course, was my mother's plan. She was never without a book in her hand, usually from the public library, and she explained to me that I needed to learn how to use a library instead of relying on a single encyclopedia that, she also said, went out of date rapidly and that I would soon outgrow, anyway.

She was right. It's one of those things a mother does that you hate at the time but later realize was a gift. I learned a lot more than I would have by relying on the World Book. The library didn't just impart information; it also stimulated my curiosity. I usually checked out the maximum number of books allowed.

Despite the question of universal access, I assume that the Internet changes all of this in many respects. It provides most everything a library does and literacy itself is being redefined, as I wrote last week. Still, I wonder about poetry. One of the differences in it and basic information is that it's meant to be read over and over. With each reading, its imagery seems to change and deepen. (Literal illustrations are fleeting portraits, catching the image in one moment only. They are a starting place, not a destination.)

In my dreams and reverie about those poems in the Childcraft, I wonder why it is that I remember them much more clearly than the concrete narrative of my life then. I have sense memories: smells, the slick feel of the pages, the emotional tenor I brought to reading. It seems that what is impressed upon the imagination endures with a power that simple factual narrative does not.

I hope the importance of that is still respected in the schools.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For his blog and information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.

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