I stopped eating Cheerios somewhere around middle school. This was because somewhere around this time, Post Foods released their Selects line of cereals, which included products with alliterative names like Cranberry Almond Crunch and Blueberry Morning. These cereals were chock-full of nuts and dried fruit and appealed to me much more than a mono-color cereal stuck on a single letter of the alphabet. However, last week, I found myself standing in an aisle at Karns in Lemoyne with a glossy box of Honey Nut Cheerios in front of me. At 21 ounces, it was the size of a small wall, the kind I used to hide behind when building cereal-box forts at the breakfast table, and it was a box that I hadn’t taken note of in years. I threw the box triumphantly into my cart and marched toward the check-out counter.
Who knew that Cheerios float on the top of your milk instead of sinking to the bottom like granola? I do. I used to pretend that Cheerios were little inner tubes, thrown into a milk pool for a colony of children who lived in my cereal bowl. As a five-year-old, I ate the Cheerios in layers, from the powdery dry Cheerios on the top of the mound, unspoiled by milk, to the moist rings beneath that held up the weight of the others. These Cheerios sopped up milk like sponges and clung to the bowl’s edges until you broke them apart with a spoon. Once I had eaten the Cheerios down to a single layer, I’d marvel at the difficulty of separating one Cheerio from the others, for in my milk colony, one Cheerio needed to stand solo on Sunday mornings because he was preaching. I’d eat all the O’s around the preacher and then note how the last remaining O would scoot naturally to the edge of the bowl, driven by hidden milk currents or loneliness; then I’d eat him with a certain definitiveness before drinking the remainder of the milk and wiggling out of my chair to play.
Cheerios has recently dedicated a portion of their website to explain why children still love Cheerios, citing that the cereal is, among other things, a comfort food, a food to play with, and a family tradition. I loved breakfast cereal, Cheerios included, because of imagination. In my world, the big biscuits of Post Original Shredded Wheat that my Grandma Charles flaked apart and drizzled with honey were actually bales of hay. (The cows on the family farm had packaged them up for us to eat as a sign of secret rebellion, and I was the only one who was noticed.) Sifting flour over Chocolate Whacky Cake — one of the first Mennonite-inspired items I learned how to bake — I created a landscape of falling snow flecked with cocoa powder dirt that I then flooded with oil, vanilla, and vinegar, drowning all those who lived within. Even after cleaning out paintbrushes into a glass of water that turned an odd shade of purple, I would carefully pour the liquid into the kitchen sink and wonder if the people who lived in my drain (they were imprisoned) would drink the water because they thought it was grape juice and die of poisoning. (They would have deserved it.)
But where has this imagination gone? As a high school teacher, I push myself to be in touch with the way I used to feel as a child — the curiosities, the misunderstands, the aggravations — in order to better relate with my students, and I’m realizing my imaginative timeline in a way that I hadn’t sensed before: the me I’m trying to tap into (the one of hay forts and secret clubs) changed drastically around the time of lockers and junior high lunch. Due to peer pressure, the need to become critical and logical, and the different commitments of a teenage life, it seems like a child’s active imagination shifts to something more internal, perhaps, or for some, disappears entirely — although I do vaguely remember pretending that my life was a movie up until high school.
“A Child’s Creative Mind,” a blog post written by Pamala Kinnaird, explains that imagination is a very important tool — it aids children in exploring their relationship with themselves and the world around them, allowing them to better understand their own likes and dislikes on a hypothetical level. Through imagination, the mind’s ability to create something out of nothing seems to me to be deeply connected to an individual’s later ability to think outside the box, develop new solutions to old problems, and push boundaries.
But how do we, as adults, as teachers, tap into this? Michelle, author of the blog “Scraps of My Geek Life,” presents one solution. “Where does our imagination go?” she writes. “Do we lose our imagination as adults or are we just afraid to let it soar? I hope we are just afraid to let it soar because that means if I let myself think freely, all that great imagination I had as a kid will come flowing back to me.”
She taps into the idea that losing our childhood imagination is connected to fear. We all need to see the world as attainable and to be able to distinguish fact from fiction.
But I still want to see Cheerios as inner tubes and Shredded Wheat as bales of hay. If imagination can’t start at breakfast, where will it?