Jim Hopkins: Keep those bright eyes to see a wonderful world

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Author Margaret Mahy. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Author Margaret Mahy. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Once upon a time, many years ago, when the world was a younger place and no one had cellphones and Elvis was still alive and we hadn't even had the'81 Springbok tour, I went to work at Avalon.

It was a great, oafish tower, more like a bean factory than a television centre, designed by people determined to prove imagination had no place in architecture and dropped, for no good reason whatsoever, in a paddock on the outskirts of Lower Hutt.

But despite those handicaps, it was buzzing then, a humming bunker full of people making programmes, nearly all forgotten now; Close to Home, The Governor, Dateline Monday, Today at One, Edwards on Saturday plus a few that survive - Fair Go, Country Calendar, One News.

Film, real celluloid, was still a vital tool then, 400-foot rolls carefully loaded into the two Mickey Mouse ears on top of the camera, then cut and glued by editors who worked in little booths and always wore white gloves.

We were in such a booth one day, cutting some story, I've no idea what, when the phone rang.

"Where are you?" said the caller, clearly stressed. She was a teacher from a local primary school, fortunately just a few minutes away, and everyone was waiting. For me.

I'd completely forgotten I'd agreed to be there, at the big weekly assembly, to offer some uncultured pearls of wisdom to the captive pupils.

Cut to school, minutes later, and a figure sprinting down the corridor, unshaven, teeth not cleaned, the Mad Hatter's famous line filling his head - "I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date."

Fortunately, not too late, and the principal was forgiving and the assembly began and I said whatever I said, some silly things and some other things. But one thing I do still remember clearly, especially this week.

In that school on that day, the children sang a song together, before my wandering waffle. It was Bright Eyes, the Art Garfunkel hit, and as they sang it, their high, sweet voices filled, not just the sunny room we were in, but the whole world:

Bright eyes,
Burning like fire.
Bright eyes,
How can you close and fail?
How can the eyes that burned so brightly
Suddenly burn so pale?

And it struck me, as they sang, that they were the song because they all still had bright eyes, alive and sparkling, full of fire and promise and the wild possibilities of every imagining.

And I remember the masked start of tears in my eyes and that I told them, though I knew they wouldn't understand, that all children, when they're young, before the world has had its way with them, have got bright eyes and that they should try to keep theirs as bright as they could for as long as they could because things would be better if they did and life would be a lot more fun.

But most of us don't keep our eyes bright. Most of us don't want to. When the time comes and the first stirrings of our adult selves begin, most of us can't wait to grow up and put our childish lives aside.

We don't want to be little kids any more. We've tasted the apple - or it's tasted us. And we trade imagination for experience and willingly leave that first fresh world of infinite possibility. And the spark fades and the brightness in our eyes dims and they become dull and adult things.

We don't talk about heffalumps any more, or Dowlers who look like human beings except they've got hooves instead of feet and we don't believe big, hairy people when they tell us we've suddenly turned green.

Because only kids believe that stuff and we're not kids, we're adults and we're grown up and we talk about important things like asset sales or who'll be the next president or if he really did kill those babies.

Then we read Harry Potter or Doctor Seuss or The Big Friendly Giant or Winnie the Pooh or Where the Wild Things Are or Hairy Maclary or The Lion in the Meadow and all our old imaginings and wonders come back, rediscovered in the story we're telling our own children.

We see the brightness that was in our eyes now shining in theirs and we want to keep them shining for as long as we can.

Margaret Mahy understood that. It was clear whenever you met her, whether she was judging IHC Art Awards or being a penguin at a school or just at home, in a room full of books. She had bright eyes. They never faded, and all through her life she made bright eyes brighter.

In her very first book, The Lion in the Meadow, imagination (and childhood) win. There is a lion in the meadow. And so there should be. We all need a lion in our meadow. Because the best grown-ups are the ones who're still children.

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