Creativity: The Case of Emmett Schanfarber

Photo by Lucretia Schanfarber

In my last article I implied that human beings are born creative, then either stay that way or grow less so through socialization.  From very early in our lives, we live in a space of possibility that expands largely through our own imagination.  Often in the course of living, we use that ability to create and take advantage of possibilities.  Unless we learn NOT to use it, and unfortunately, many of us do.

 Consider a simple example.  Nobody tells small children that to say they want more than one strawberry in English, they simply add an ‘s’ sound to the end of the noun.  Although there are strong arguments that humans are programmed genetically to learn this kind of thing easily, it is also true that each individual child, in every language group in the world, discovers these things just in the process of living socially.  Children who are learning language have even been characterized as young scientists who attend to patterns of expression in their linguistic environments, try things out experimentally, and invent grammatical and other rules, such as the ‘s’ rule for plurality in English, to account for and control the patterns.

 Several aspects of this process are fascinating.  By far the most interesting, to my way of thinking, is what happens when a child begins to use rules to express plurality, tense, or any of about five broad categories of grammatical competence.  At first, they learn new cases individually and correctly (i.e. as adults in the environment speak them).  Each new example is a special case learned individually, and these accumulate slowly in the vocabulary.

 Then, literally overnight, two things happen.  Suddenly, the rate of learning new plurals skyrockets upward, as if the child wakes one morning thinking “Oh!  All I have to do is tack an ‘s’ sound onto the ends of nouns.  It’s easy.  Now I can express the plural of anything”.   At the same time, the irregular cases they had been speaking correctly the day before are suddenly incorrect.  ‘Men’ is now ‘mens’, ‘women’ is ‘womans’, ‘sheep’ ‘sheeps’, etc.  Taken together, those two pieces of evidence argue strongly for the idea that the child actually invents a powerful rule, and the vastly expanded linguistic competence that rule affords is worth the hassle of being wrong about irregular forms and having to invent other rules, later, to compensate. 

 To my mind, the fact that every human child goes through this process completely without instruction is profound.  Among other implications, it encourages us to recognize the creative spark in people around us whatever their age, and be on the lookout for examples when they arise.

 Here I want to expand on these ideas, beginning with a couple of stories about the entrepreneurial spirit of children.  In this article, I’ll tell you about two young businessmen, both of Primary School age.  The first is a story about our grandson Emmett Schanfarber, from the last two summers.  The second is a story about my younger brother Gerald, from about 50 years ago.  That will be my next article.

 Emmett lives on Cortes Island part of the time and in Vancouver part of the time.  At the beginning of the summer a year ago, when we were setting up the

Lee Gass Gallery in the building where Emmett lives in Vancouver, he had a wild idea and implemented it all on his own. 

 Emmett found a small folding metal TV tray and set it up outside the tall wooden fence along the sidewalk.  He placed a bowl full of small rocks on the tray, with water in the bowl to enhance the rocks’ colours, and taped a sign on the fence that said  “ROCKS FOR SALE. Pay whatever you want.  Put money here (with an arrow pointing to a space between two fence boards).” Behind the fence, he arranged a way to funnel coins that came through the slot into a can.  He checked the can, the tray, and the sign several times a day, maintaining his operation as an effective marketing device and improving it in various ways.

 We were amazed! 

 Inside the gallery, we would be charging thousands of dollars apiece for rocks and selling them only occasionally.  Outside, Emmett was charging whatever people wanted to pay for rocks and sold many of them each day.  People walking down the sidewalk noticed his setup, stopped to read the sign, smiled, and bought a rock.  Not everyone, but enough that Emmett recognized his enterprise as a steady and independent source of income; a from his perspective it was a gold mine.  The whole phenomenon was something to behold.

 People who noticed me watching them asked things like: “Is it a boy or a girl? How old?  Where did he get the idea?  Where did he get the rocks?  Is he going to have other kinds of rocks? I’ve been buying at least one rock every day for a while, and I love the ones I have so far.  Some of my friends want to come.”  To me, this would be exciting even if Emmett was not my grandson and he was not 6 years old when he had the idea. 

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