Potency, Possibility, Possession: Your Imagination Belongs to You

by Colleen O’Brien

The world we live in—perhaps I should say the world I live in—seems sometimes so much dimmer than it could be. It may be too easy to say that this is because of television, technology, a materialist society so accustomed to marching it marches without music. Too easy because it’s so true? I worry about this.

When my seventh grade students write stories with titles like “The Playstation,” I feel vindicated in my despair. What’s already happening (has happened?) to these little imaginations? Their characters all wear skinny jeans, have “razor-cut bangs,” give themselves makeovers so the boys will “want” them, are the holographic kin of Lady Gaga and Jason Bourne. Their shared culture, their common language, is built largely of stones fallen from Disney, Cartoon Network, Facebook.

Am I an old lady crying, “Turn down that damn rock’n’roll?” Or is there something really wrong here?

As a SAL writer-in-residence, I try to see myself as—to be—a force for imagination. I walk into the classroom thinking, with utter poetic futility and madness: I stand taller than Lady Gaga. I am more powerful than Mark Zuckerberg. Listen to me—a penniless, bookless, over-thirty—because I can show you a way around.

I teach them the word potent. Potent means powerful. It comes from the Latin root posse, which, if they’ve ever seen or spoken Spanish, French, Italian, or Portuguese, they also see hidden in the words meaning “can,” as in “I can.” Potent is kin to possibility, to potentate and possession. To possess is to have power over.

Our words, carefully chosen, become potent. They are the drop of food coloring that turns the whole glass of water red. The compressed spring with all its potential energy—the shaken soda can before it’s opened. Our words are the sword-point that cuts through the cortices of thought and feeling, into the inner worlds where we are ourselves—individual. Where our imaginations belong to us.

“The world is dying,” a mysterious seafarer intimates, in a short story by Leo Shannon, TOPS 7A. “It’s up to you to save it.”

Leo’s young narrator, haunted by the specter of childhood tragedy, is not sure whether he is equal to the task. What if he fails? If he causes more harm than good?

What fearlessness, in this young mind. The world is dying—I can just feel it. What bravery to say so, and to move through one’s life believing, “It’s up to you to save it.”

In my own art and life, I certainly have not always been so brave. But I walk into my WITS classroom trying to be as brave as I can for these kids—to teach them, through free expression and disciplined craft, that they can defeat the anti-imaginative forces around them. That they are potent, powerful, possible—and as much as they choose to be, free.


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