I remember going through elementary school, and coming to greatly dislike certain phrases that my teachers seemed to enjoy repeating, whether in praise—"Wow, that's so creative!"—or admonishment—"Try to be more creative."
At that young age, I had already cynical/scornful tendencies of such banal forms of encouragement. I was looking around at my peers' work, and oftentimes couldn't, for the life of me, see how it represented anything that I hadn't seen done before. To quibble, the term used was 'creative', not 'original', but I'm sure the teacher had seen it all as well.
So what did it mean to be creative? And furthermore, how was one supposed to become creative?
We had plenty of time for art, "creative" writing, and other such activities, which appeared on the schedule once or twice a week. It seemed, however, that these activities were either too structured, or not structured enough. I recall from second grade, a project where we had to draw leaves using provided stencils, cut them out, and color them. As the teacher demonstrated the process, she colored her leaves yellow-green. We all took out our boxes of crayons. I saw my left and right neighbors taking different shades of green, but I decided I didn't want green leaves. Out of my box of twenty-four, I picked a deep red and a bright orange, mixing them on paper to create a beautiful, fiery-looking leaf.
While I was admiring the blending of the waxy hues, my right-side neighbor noticed, and elbowed me, saying "You're supposed to make the leaves green."
I looked around, and quailed, seeing that everybody else in the room was using green. It could be that I hadn't been paying attention, but I had assumed the leaves could be any color we liked. The teacher came around to tell me that the leaves should be green. Why did they have to be green? Because they all had to look alike.
My seven-year-old self was completely stumped. I couldn't turn the leaf over and color that side; it would be facing the wrong way. I didn't have any more paper to work with; we were given only one sheet, which I had already cut into pieces. I decided to try and cover the orange crayon with dark green. Suffice to say, it turned out badly.
At the end of the week, all of the leaves were hung up above the blackboard, including my orange-and-green mess. Only now do I wonder what would have happened to me if I had simply said "So what?" to my neighbor and let it be.
Next: What is Creativity?