The Night the Stars Fell
The most precious gift you can give a child is to spark their flame of curiosity
One summer night in a seaside cottage, a small boy felt himself lifted from bed. Dazed with sleep, he heard his mother murmur about the lateness of the hour, heard his father laugh. Then, with the swiftness of a dream, he was borne in his father’s arms down the porch steps and out on to the beach.
Overhead the sky blazed with stars. “Watch!” Incredibly, as his father spoke, one of the stars moved. In a streak of golden fire it flashed across the astonished heavens. And before the wonder of this could fade, another star leapt from its place, then another, plunging towards the restless sea.
“What is it?” the child whispered.
“Shooting stars. They come every year on a certain night in August. I thought you would like to see the show.”
That was all: just an unexpected glimpse of something haunting and mysterious and beautiful. But, back in bed, the child stared for a long time into the dark, rapt with the knowledge that all around the quiet house, the night was full of the silent music of the falling stars.
Decades have passed, but I remember that night still, because I was the fortunate seven-year-old boy whose father believed that a new experience was more important for a small boy than an unbroken night’s sleep.
No doubt I had the usual quota of childhood playthings, but these are forgotten now. What I remember is the night the stars fell. And the day we rode in a caboose [back car of a train], the time we tried to skin the alligator, the telegraph we made that really worked. I remember the ‘trophy table’ in the hall where we children were encouraged to exhibit things we had found—snake skins, seashells, flowers, arrowheads, anything unusual or beautiful.
I remember the books left by my bed that pushed back my horizons and sometimes actually changed my life. Once my father gave me Zuleika Dobson, Max Beerbohm’s classic story of undergraduate life at Oxford. I liked it, and told him so.
“Why don’t you think about going there yourself?” he said casually. A few years later, with luck and a scholarship, I did. My father had, to a marvellous degree, the gift of opening doors for his children, of leading them into areas of splendid newness. This subtle art of adding dimensions to a child’s world doesn’t necessarily require a great deal of time. It simply involves doing things more often with our children instead of for them or to them.
One woman I know keeps a ‘Why not?’ notebook, and in it she scribbles all sorts of offbeat and fascinating proposals: ‘Why not take kids to police headquarters and get them fingerprinted?’ ‘Why not visit a farm and attempt to milk a cow?’ ‘Why not arrange a ride on a tugboat?’ ‘Why not follow a river dredge and hunt for fossilized shark’s teeth?’ And so they do.
I asked her where she got her ideas. “Oh,” she said, “I don’t know. But when I was a child, I had this wonderful old ne’er-do-well uncle who ...” Who used to open doors for her, just as she is opening them now for her own children.
Aside from our father, we had a remarkable aunt who was a genius at suggesting spur-of-the-moment plots to blow away the dust of daily drudgeries.
“Can you stand on your head?” she would ask us children. “I can!” And, tucking her skirt between her knees, she would do so. “What shall we do this afternoon?” she would cry, and answer her own question instantly: “Let’s go pawn something!” Or, “There’s a palm-reader on the edge of town. Let’s have our fortunes told!” Always a new dimension, always a magic door opening, an experience to be shared. That’s the key word: we shared.
The easiest door to open for a child, usually, is one that leads to something you love yourself. All good teachers know this. And they know the ultimate reward: the marvellous moment when the spark you are breathing on bursts into a flame that henceforth will burn brightly on its own.
At a United States Golf Association tournament a few years ago, a pigtailed 10 year old played creditably in the junior girls’ championship.
“How long have you been interested in golf?” someone asked.
“I got it for my ninth birthday,” she said.
“You mean your father gave you a set of clubs?”
“No,” she said patiently, “he gave me golf.”
The possessor of a wonderful realm had wanted his child to share the magic kingdom. No doubt it took some time and effort, some patience, some mystical transference of enthusiasm. But what a reward for both of them! And it might equally well have been music or astronomy or chemistry or collecting butterflies—any world at all.
Children are naturally inquisitive and love to try new things. But someone must offer them the choices. Years ago, when the Quiz Kids were astonishing American radio audiences with their brilliance, a writer set out to discover what common denominators there were in the backgrounds of these extraordinary children. He found that some were from poor families, some from rich, some had been to superior schools, some had not. But in every case investigated there was at least one parent who shared enthusiasms with the child, who watched for areas of interest, who gave encouragement and praise for achievement, who made a game of searching out the answers to questions, who went out of his way to supply the tools of learning.
No doubt the capacity for outstanding performance was already there, but it took the love and interest and companionship of a parent to bring it out. I have a friend, a psychiatrist, who says that basically there are two types of human beings: those who think of life as a privilege and those who think of it as a problem. The first type is enthusiastic, energetic, resistant to shock, responsive to challenge. The other type is suspicious, hesitant, withholding, self-centred. To the first group, life is hopeful, exciting. To the second, it’s a potential ambush. And, he adds, “Tell me what sort of childhood you had and I can tell you which type you are likely to be.
The real purpose, then, of trying to open doors for children is not to divert them or amuse ourselves; it is to build eager outgoing attitudes towards the demanding and complicated business of living. This, surely, is the most valuable legacy we can pass on to the next generation: not money, not houses or heirlooms, but a capacity for wonder and gratitude, a sense of aliveness and joy. And for those of us who care what becomes of our children, the challenge is always there. None of us meets it fully, but the opportunities come again and again.
Many years have passed since that night in my life when the stars fell. But the Earth still turns, the sun still sets, night still sweeps over the changeless sea. And next year, when August comes with its shooting stars, my son will be seven.