Low Stakes Testing

LARGEIMAGE_301696 copyPangloss Academy is a non-profit independent school dedicated to providing affluent children with the self-confidence they’ll need to navigate an increasingly stressful world. Study after study has shown that self-confidence trumps intelligence in most everyday situations — like those fraternity and sorority rushes of college, the cocktail parties of young adulthood, and the parent/teacher conferences of middle age. Who’s more likely to get her way in an exclusive retirement facility, a wizened mathematician or confident, forceful Pangloss alum?

We believe that success breeds success. Our curriculum has been engineered to insure every one of our students graduates with a 4.0 GPA. While the children of your friends and neighbors are developing negative self-images as they struggle with high stakes Common Core exit tests, your sons and daughters will be accumulating confidence as they ace test after test.

For example, let’s take a peek at Pangloss’s exit exam for juniors.

* * *

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE DO NOT OPEN TEST BOOKLET UNTIL INSTRUCTED BY YOUR PROCTOR.

The following test we’ll determine how much common sense you possess, and you know and I know you’re going to ace this test because you’ve aced every single other test you’ve taken. This sequence of success is called a pattern, and being able to recognize patterns is what success is all about.

Although the test is short and sweet, you have up to four hours to complete it, and don’t forget that if for some unheard of reason you don’t make a 100, you can retake the test as many times as you like until you’ve mastered the material.

Each of you has been provided with a sharpened number 2 pencil with an excellent eraser. If you find that you do make a mistake and need to erase, please raise your hand, and one of the proctors will come by and erase it for you to insure that the answer sheet is not smudged and the Scantron picks up the correct bubble.

Okay, ready. Please open your booklet.

Like every single test you’ve taken at Pangloss, this test consists of multiple choice and short answer questions. Please darken the appropriate bubbles in the multiple-choice section and write your responses to the short-answer questions in the blue books with the smiley faces you’ve been given.

Okay, let’s try the practice question. Darken the bubble of the letter that best answers the following question.

What is the second letter of the alphabet?

A. A

B. B

C. C

D. D

Yes, B’s the correct answer.

When you complete the exam, raise your hand, and one of the proctors will take it up and give you a coupon for a free ice cream cone at Ben and Jerry’s.

Turn the page and begin.

Multiple Choice

1 -4. Place the following historical events in the correct chronology. Place the letter of the answer that occurred first for number one, the letter of the event that occurred second in number two etc.

A.  The 2016 presidential election

B.  The extinction of the dinosaurs

C.   World War II (2)

D.  The building of the Egyptian Pyramids

5.   Who wrote Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony?

A.  Amadeus Wolfgang Mozart

B.  The Mamas and the Papas

C.  Ludwig van Beethoven

D.  Johannes Kepler

6.  Beethoven wrote nine symphonies.  What symphony did he write after his Fifth?

A.  Sixth

B.  Second

C.  Ninth

D.  A Concerto for Violen

7.  Who is the main character of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Hamlet?

A. Hamlet

B.  Gertrude

C.  Clown (gravedigger)

D.  William Faulkner

8- 11  Place the following in ascending order from smallest to largest in relation to its size with the smallest going in number 7, the next larger in number 8, etc.

A.  an atom

B.  a swimming pool

C.  Lake Erie

D.  The Indian Ocean

You’ve now competed the multiple-choice section. Remember to write the answers for the following questions in the blue book with the smiley face on its cover. You don’t have to write in complete sentences, but if you want to, that’s okay, too.

Short Answer Questions

  1. Do you own a dog?
  1. What do you call either your grandmother or grandfather, you know, Paw Paw, Nana, etc. If you don’t have any grandparents, what do you call your mom and dad?
  1. This year you’ve studied American literature. Name one author you’ve studied. (If you draw a blank, see number seven of the multiple-choice section).
  1. In math we learned about pi, π, a mathematical constant, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. This ratio is commonly approximated as 3.14159.

Draw a circle.

  1. Pi has a homonym spelled p-i-e. Homonyms are words that sound alike but have different meanings. From the perspective of looking straight down from above, draw a picture of a pie. What do the two drawings you have made have in common? What is the approximate ratio of their circumference to their diameter. Carry the decimal point to five places. (See number 4).
  1. What reward to you get when you finish this test?

You’re done. Now raise your hand to receive that coupon for a free ice cream cone!

candidegarden-e1265986384504

 

“America’s Culture of Hyperachievement among the Affluent”

helicopter-parents 2I copped this post’s title from Julie Scelfo’s front-page Sunday NY Times article “Campus Suicide and the Pressure of Perfection.” Interestingly enough, on the same Sunday the Washington Post also ran a front-page article on the plight of over-stressed students, which is much more lurid than Ms Scelfo’s piece, and features, not only self-inflicted razor blade cuts, but forged transcripts and hit men. The Post copped their article from a piece in Toronto Life magazine entitled “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge: the inside story of a golden child, the killers she hired, and the parents she wanted dead.”

Less sensational but more typical, the Times story chronicles the psychic collapse of a Penn freshman named Kathryn DeWitt who “has understood since kindergarten that she was expected to attend an elite college” and whose mother checked “[e]very day at 5 p.m. test scores and updated grades” to monitor Kathryn’s progress.

Long article short, Kathryn gets into Penn, discovers her relative mediocrity, makes a 60 on a midterm calculus exam, and whips out razor blades and begins “cutting herself to ‘prepare’ for the pain” of suicide.

In fact, in a thirteen month stretch, six Penn students killed themselves, presumably like Kathryn, the victims of overweening parents and “carefully curated depictions” from social media, — you know, those Facebook pix of propped feet in Acapulco and those Gourmet Magazine cover shots of the meals your “friends” are devouring while you slowly turn the key of the metal container that houses the Spam you’re frying for supper.

Back to Kathryn: thanks to the intervention of her roommate, who found “pink rose-adorned” suicide notes stacked neatly on Kathryn’s desk, she ended up in a hospital, is now on the road to recovery, and has made it through her first year at Penn (with an A- in Calculus to boot). The revenge she’s exacting on her parents, portraying them as helicopter parents, is certainly less severe than Ms Pan’s of the Post story, but it can’t be fun to read about your daughter’s wearing a “lime green watch” that “covers up where she had cut herself.”

Cut (I know, I know) to this morning’s Post and Courier.  We have another helicopter parent, Melanie MacDonald, who with her daughter downloaded one of West Ashley’s freshman summer reading choices Some Girls Are “in hopes of tackling the summer reading assignment together.”

Although she assures us she’s “no prude,” Mrs. MacDonald considers the novel “smut” and has had it successfully yanked on August Eve from the summer reading list, which is not good enough for her because “she’s still waiting for ‘an explanation’ and “an apology.'”

Although I haven’t read the book, I can offer an explanation. The West Ashley English Department no doubt chose the book because they believe that it vivifies negative high school culture, especially the so-called mean-girl syndrome, which means its characters say “fuck” and give “blow jobs” but that the novel also demonstrates how hurtful bullying can be.

Here’s Jaime, the author of a blog called The Perpetual Page-Turner’s take:

It was such an interesting experience to watch [the protagonist] Regina fall from grace because you feel so conflicted. On the one hand, you can tell she is a mega biotch who has been a HUGE bully and so you kind of hate her from the start. But early on you have sympathy pangs for her because something terrible happens to her and it all gets twisted into an AWFUL rumor by someone in her group. But then you think, (about the rumor aspect… NOT about what happened to her), “pshh girl got what is coming to her with all HER nasty rumors she’s started.” But then as the bullying gets worse from everyone in school you feel for the girl. Having a heart…it’s a bitch sometimes! I can’t stand to see anyone get bullied and what happens to her is TERRIBLE and nobody deserves it. I felt really emotional and sick about it because it felt so real. I’ve never been bullied before but I’ve heard about terrible things and seen stories about kids being bullied to the point of suicide and it angers me. Courtney Summer made sure your heart would flip flop over whether to like/dislike Regina but you could agree she didn’t deserve THAT.

In other words, the novel fosters empathy.

Anyway, parents, back off. There are a slew of books coming out about the damage you’re causing. What I find with helicopter parents is that they destroy the joy of learning, that Hamlet is reduced to “data’ to be mastered for “the test.”

School is reduced to a job and with it childhood is tossed.

helicopter-helicopter

Smug Sounding But Sincere Philosophical Advice on Dealing with Peripheral T-Cell Lymphoma NOS

mansfield 1365 days later we find ourselves all alone at a picnic area near the summit of Mt. Mansfield, the highest mountain in Vermont. We’re on the south side looking down at 180 degrees of spectacular scenery, and behind us clouds rush over the summit, revealing a patch of blue sky. A waterfall of light pours through the opening and cascades down the side of the summit, progressively devouring shadows. Or perhaps the light’s more like lava because a waterfall is always there pouring forth, and this light is creeping, shimmering its way down, illuminating boulders and green growth.

judy-walkingI point it out to Judy, whose short, wavy hair ripples in the strong wind. She’s never seen anything like this lava flow of light either. It sure beats last July when we were perched on the balcony on the fifth floor of Roper Hospital, Judy tethered to a chemo dispenser. This light overcoming shadows in the mountains is an apt analogy of how we feel now one year later after six 96-hour sessions of chemo, a stem cell transplant, and radiation. I say we, but it’s Judy who has undergone all of this, Judy who makes Ernest Hemingway look like Woody Allen when it comes to stoicism.

* * *

No one wants to get cancer, but you certainly don’t want to get Non-Hodgkin’s Peripheral T-Cell Lymphoma, Not Other Specified. Its very name sounds as if the doctors don’t know exactly what it is, and they don’t. Googling its prognosis is literally life negating. Here’s the first sentence from an article on the disease from a medical journal called Blood: “Peripheral T-cell lymphomas (PTCLs) are a heterogeneous group of clinically aggressive diseases associated with poor outcome.” (sic)

The five-year survival rate is about 32%. When I mentioned these percentages to Judy’s oncologist, he said, “There are only two numbers, 0 and 100. It’s either going to kill you or it isn’t. It’s curable. Stay off the Internet.”

But I didn’t. I kept searching for success stories, but they were hard to find in the haystack of scientific studies, cancer treatment advertisements, information websites, etc., so I decided to write this piece to offer hope to anyone out there who has been recently diagnosed, and believe me, I know that Judy’s cancer might come back. The odds that it is cured are 50% to 81%, depending on what study you look at. But the ultimate scoop is that anyone can die anytime, and we all should start practicing the Buddhist habit of living in the moment because as my pal Hamlet says

If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be

now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.

* * *

Okay, let me get down to business to offering hope.

All of those stats on PTCL-NOS are based in the past, sometimes several years in the past, and based on therapies that have been abandoned or modified. 32% of patients have survived, even with those obsolescent treatments.

Furthermore, percentages are abstractions, and you are not.

For example, 85% of non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas are the easier cured B-cell variety, whose success rate is more like 90%, so going by percentages, you should have the B, not T cell variety. But you don’t. Your projected statistical five-year survival rate is twice that of the chances of having T-Cell lymphoma in the first place, so our oncologist is right. You are you, not an abstraction.

As far as treatments go, read this article. How I Treat PTCL-NOS.

If your physician has you on the CHOP regimen of chemo, ask him why not CHEOPS? Tell him you’ve read that it may offer a better outcome, especially the 96-hour continuous infusion delivery system. In Judy’s case, the chemo was not nearly as bad as we had feared. (The stem cell transplant chemo is another story, but then, at least the end of the tunnel is illuminated). Sure, chemo drains you, affects your palate and appetite, and you lose your hair, but losing hair is a good thing. Hair cells divide quickly, like cancer cells. Losing your hair is a sign that the chemo’s doing its job. New drugs have been developed to help deal with nausea.  I liken the 96-hour infusion to sipping a gallon of rotgut whiskey rather than chugging it. Anyway, read the article, and discuss it with your physician.

* * *

Everyone says to be positive, and it’s hard, but now at least you know what you got, and it’s going to be treated, and scientists are working their asses off to find better treatments.

Your life probably seems more meaningful now because you know all too well how ephemeral it is. Your plight offers an opportunity to exhibit grace under pressure, so take every breath and every step with the assurance that it is now, and now is all anyone ever has or ever has had.

And good luck!

The Havisham Syndrome: Why Children Haters Become Teachers

art  by Steve Messa

art by Steve Messa

Don’t know about you, but whenever I see a colon in a title, I think, okay, this essay’s not likely to be all that whiz-bang exciting, but it’s probably well researched and well developed. If I’m interested in the subject matter — e.g., the elopement of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, vintage Bengalese pornography, or the psychology behind wives of professional golfers wearing skinny jeans with factory-installed rips — I’ll check it out. What I expect from a title with a colon is serious, academic exegesis.

In the case of this essay, however, despite the title’s colon, my conclusions of what factors impel child-haters to enter the teaching profession relies on intuition, not research, so, strictly speaking, it’s about as scientific as a Discovery Channel documentary on the search for Noah’s ark. Nevertheless, intuition is a powerful mental force, a subconscious storehouse of forgotten events. Intuition is like a precocious child tugging at the sleeve of your consciousness, trying to get your attention to point out something important you’re too tall to notice.

One more caveat: the following theory is based only on one incredibly callous individual who made two years of my childhood the educational equivalent of the Bataan Death March. But I suspect that if my theory is true for her, it must be true for others as well. So bear with me as unveil my explanation of a phenomenon I have dubbed “the Havisham Syndrome,” which answers the question: why would a child hater choose to spend the working years of her life surrounded by children.

Choosing the Teaching Profession

Perhaps because I considered each school day a prison sentence and spent as much time glancing up at clocks as I did down at my work, I always shake my head in wonderment when someone tells me she knew she wanted to be a teacher for as long as she can remember, so obviously, for some, certain aspects of the profession override its promise of poor pay, tons of take home work, and low social status.

Many teachers, for example, go into teaching because they love children. They find very young human beings adorable, so they don’t mind spending their days herding miniature but toweringly egocentric bipeds to and from art class or to the dining hall where the teachers’ lunches go cold while they clean up spills, break up arguments, or try to cajole the students to take at least one bite of something nutritious.

Some teachers, believe it or not, love middle school students. They find seventh and eighth graders endearing and early adolescence ripe — and I don’t mean ripe in the olfactory sense — I mean ripe as in propitious, a time conducive for instilling life-long habits that will produce solid citizens.

Others are drawn to teaching because they love their subject matter and think it’s important, that a knowledge of history, math, or art is life enriching.

Still others, like me, stumble into teaching through a combination of happenstance and incompetence.

More than you might think choose teaching because it’s an undemanding major with fairly good job prospects (i.e., if you don’t mind teaching in an impoverished school district with sub-Saharan murder rates). Whatever the case, the motivations of most teachers are neutral at worst and very positive in most cases.

However, in my career both as a student and as a teacher, I’ve encountered hateful, sometimes cruel people[1] who seem to have been drawn to the classroom to make young people’s lives miserable. There’s a sadistic streak in some teachers, teachers who make out multiple-choice questions like this:

Which of the following doesn’t fit?

A. mobsters                       B. gangsters

C. hipsters                         D. bankers

I bet you chose D, right? You idiot. The answer is C. Hipsters aren’t obsessed with money.

Even if these teachers are obviously wrong, they can’t admit a mistake. They have favorites, usually popular, brilliant, or rich kids, but treat the average or slow student with undisguised contempt.

Take my 7th and 8th grade English teacher, for example.

A Case Study

ted's tattooEven though the chances of this woman’s still being alive or her one daughter’s running across this post are about as remote as Ted Cruz’s opting for a Che Guevara tattoo next time he gets shit-faced in a South Texas Barrio, for the sake of discretion, I’m going to refer to her as Mrs. Choakumchild, after M’Choakumchild[2] from Charles Dickens’ biting satire on Utilitarianism, Hard Times.)

It’s my belief that Mrs. Choakumchild entered teaching because of deeply rooted psychological problems, problems arising from her own experiences as child in the classroom. Let’s face it, children have an inherent pack mentality that prompts them to single out weird, unattractive, and/or socially clueless kids and turn them into the class pariah. Young Mrs. Choakumchild – let’s say her maiden name was Gradgrind — no doubt hit the hat trick here.

Of course, when I had her as a seventh and eighth grader, I couldn’t have told you how old she was. She did have a daughter a year older than I (who was actually the class pariah of her grade). In any case, Mrs. Choakumchild was significantly overweight, had stringy, poorly dyed orange hair and a withered right arm that dangled at her side. Her sharpening a pencil in the wall-mounted pencil sharpener was a terrifying experience. She would claw-like grasp the pencil in her right hand, cross over with her left hand, and vigorously crank the handle as if grinding meat.

She had absolutely no friends. Ate her lunches alone in her room. I never remember her smiling once during the two years I had her. Nor do I remember her ever saying something positive about my work. I was in the advanced class, and she once announced to me in front of the entire class that I was “an error in classification,” that is I didn’t belong in the class. Later, in my senior year, when I had won a school wide award for a piece of fiction, my mother, who was a substitute teacher, showed it to Mrs. Choakumchild, perhaps wanting to show her how well she had taught me. After reading it, her only comment was, “He still can’t spell ‘government.’”

My Theory

Obviously, Mrs. Choakumchild was not a people person, nor did she seem at all fond of children. So we can rule that out as a motivation for her becoming a teacher. She may have during college developed a great love for sentence diagraming (it seems that’s what we mostly did), but part of that love for a subject entails wanting to share it with students, not cram it down their mental feeding tubes. On the other hand, it is possible she went into teaching for the reason that women had much fewer job opportunities in those days, and I can’t rule that out.

I think, however, that it’s possible that she went into teaching for the same reason Miss Havisham adopted Estella in Great Expectations, to exact revenge. You’ll recall that being jilted at the altar, Miss Havisham decided all men were evil and reared Estella to be cruel so she could punish boys who fell in love with her. Likewise, Mrs. Choakumchild came to the conclusion that all children are inherently cruel, so decided to gain control over groups of them and to get her revenge. Of course, if true, this behavior would fall under the category of sadomasochism, because it she hated children, being around them couldn’t be pleasurable.

Could this be true of other teachers as well?

Of course not. The theory is preposterous. (Note the post is classified under satire). However, teachers do possess an enormous amount of power, and they need to be extremely careful in what they say. Obviously, I remember all too well Choakumchild’s comments on my intelligence, and she really did make me think I was stupid. Also, I know that over the years that I certainly have said things to hurt students’ feelings, and the thought of that makes me sick.

[1] Once my seventh grade PE teacher yelled out as at obese boy was running the hundred yard dash, “Hold your arms up, Layne, so I can tell if you’re running or rolling.”

[2] I will say, however, that her surname was of Welsh origin and shared with the eponymous pirate you find grinning on the label of a certain rum produced from the alcohol conglomerate Diageo.

What a Dump!

 

kitchen-design-altrinchamaltrincham-road-wilmslow-northern-design-awards---friday-22nd-m4pgid2jI’ve lived in some spectacular dumps in my life, especially during my days as an undergraduate and graduate student.

For example, my bedroom in my first off-campus apartment was more or less the kitchen, the bed separated from WW2 vintage appliances by a breakfast bar. My housemate Stan had found the two-room apartment in late August in a subdivided two-story house on Henderson Street just up the hill from the Nursing Building that was under construction.

Actually, I had the premier sleeping spot because Stan’s bedroom was also the “living room,” the room you stepped into when you entered the apartment. Stan was the bassist in a band called Buddy Roe, and his post gig “friendships” offered me many opportunities to catch him and a companion in flagrante delicto as I returned from classes at the unholy hour of nine, ten, or eleven a.m., not to mention noon, or one, two, or three p.m.

I don’t know why we never figured out a sign on the door might have prevented my intrusions. Then again, a sign that read “Do Not Disturb” would more or less proclaim to the other occupants what was going on, but that still seems preferable to having your coitus interrupted.

Gas stoves, one in each room, provided the heat, and lighting those suckers for the first time proved a real adventure. One night I inadvertently destroyed Stan’s 300-plus LP collection. Need I mention that there were no sprinklers or fire escapes, that the wood was rotting, that the entire mold-ridden structure smelled like a cross between the River Styx and a long-enclosed attic?

where the Henderson Street house once stood

where the Henderson Street house once stood

Two years later, bulldozers would raze our Henderson Street house for a new university parking lot.

That year in my Milton class I met my next-to-be housemate, who enjoyed much nicer digs on Confederate Avenue. Mike not only was an excellent scholar, but he also owned furniture that looked downright bourgeois, so at the end of the spring semester, I returned to Summerville and put him in charge of finding us a place, which he did, seven miles from campus in a sturdy two-bedroom cottage nestled squeezed between two convenience stores on Fairfield Road, a four-lane highway.

Although the “space” was nice, as they say, getting to and from school meant riding city buses, and when the buses quit running at eleven, that meant hitchhiking or stumbling seven miles on foot through one sketchy urban area after another.

Praise Darwin, I survived.

Warren back in the day

Warren back in the day

That December, Mike left school suddenly after the first semester, so I teamed up with former sophomore roommate Warren Moise, and we moved into a miniscule mill house up North Main, even further away from school than Fairfield Road. The bad news was that the neighbors hated our long-haired asses. Once, in the wee hours when I was alone, someone banged meancingly on a side door of my bedroom that led outside.  I went out to investigate and heard someone whistling a tune. The Night of the Hunter meets Animal House. A couple of weeks later, a crew burglarized us, poured our food out onto the kitchen floor, and as a final, sociopathic touch, shat thereupon.*

We got the message.

Coincidentally, my former next-door neighbor from Henderson Street, Jim, was recruiting people for a great house he had found just off campus, so Warren and I went in with six others and rented 1879 Green Street, a veritable mansion compared to my previous domiciles. (It was a good bit seedier than it appears in the photo below courtesy of Google maps). Of course, only three were supposed to live there, but we never got caught. The house did get busted in a citywide drug sweep our second night there, but I wasn’t at home so could save my pre-trial intervention card for a later date. I will say, however, the officers from SLED left the joint looking a lot like the burglars had the mill house.

The very best news was that in my third year on Greene Street, I met Judy Birdsong, who, of course, lived in a nice apartment on Deerwood Drive, so my days of dire poverty were coming to a fruitful end.

The good news is that living in dumps is sort of romantic when you’re young and don’t know any better — and as long as you’re the only vermin living there.

*Forgive me; I’ve been abridging and editing Chaucer

 

1867 Greene Street

1867 Greene Street

Coprophilia

04ae716c6996c460216f5229c0061626Coprophilia is a lovely sounding word, like mortician, cuspidor, fellatio, but, alas, denotes what most finger-wagging moralists would denounce as deviation, pathology, perversion.

Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, defines coprophilia matter-of-factly as “marked interest in excrement.” “Wolfman” Mozart and Jonathan Swift are two notables with whom we associate the word. If you’ve never read Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” by all means do so. Click here.

I bring up this seldom used word because this afternoon as I was relaxing at Folly Beach’s most interesting outdoor square footage, Chico Feo, a lithe, attractive witty woman in her twenties upon exiting what Chaucer called a “privy” announced, “I like to describe my poop with movie titles.”

“Poop” was the word she used.

“For example,” she continued, “that was Children of Corn.”

I’m not making this up.

Tyler, the bartender said, “A River Runs through It.”

A bearded cat with a handlebar mustache: “Splash.”

The original woman: “The Nutty Professor.”

I would be proud for her to be the mother of my grandchildren.

"Chico Feo in the Morning" a collage by Wesley Moore

“Chico Feo in the Morning” a collage by Wesley Moore

Atticus Finch versus Atticus Finch

BOOKLEE1-master180I’m not at all shocked that Atticus Finch, the “saintly” father of the narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird, ends up a racist in its just published sequel Go Set a Watchman.

As a matter of fact, Atticus is a racist in Mockingbird as well, albeit a benign racist who won’t allow his children to use the n-word but who does nothing to change the status quo of segregation in the tiny Alabama town where the novel is set.

In fact, I dare say that it would be very difficult to find a native Southerner born around 1900 who was not in some degree a racist.*  Although I was born half-a-century later, the doctor offices of my hometown had both “white” and “colored” waiting rooms. I never heard a soul complain, yet our townspeople weren’t monsters, merely benighted.

Being a racist didn’t necessarily mean you were overtly cruel or weren’t compassionate but that you held blacks to be inherently inferior and believed that the races should be segregated.

No one better exemplified the paradox of compassionate racism than my father.


*Perhaps we could make this charge to the nation in general.  Though no Southerner, Ernest Hemingway was certainly a racist, as his letters make abundantly clear.


image_07_01_040_coloredwaiting

* * *

One Easter Sunday as we pulled up to my grandmother’s house after church, a ten-year-old black boy approached our car and asked for some money to buy a pair of shoes because he had none to wear to his brother’s funeral. My father not only gave the boy, whose name was John-L, the money but also a ride home, and when Daddy discovered the utter squalor John-L lived in and that both his mother and her lover were “drunk as skunks,” he took John-L home with us where he lived for the next two weeks. However, despite this act of compassion, which made us very unpopular with our neighbors and me the target of racial taunts, my parents didn’t allow John-L to bathe in our tub.

It’s mind-boggling but true.

* * *

An admission: I’ve never been a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, probably because I didn’t first read it as child but as a 32-year-old preparing to teach it to Reagan Era 9th graders.

It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying [To Kill a Mockingbird] don’t know they are buying a children’s book.

Flannery O’Connor

Although the novel effectively portrays the day-to-day lives of Depression-era smalltown Alabamans, the plot is episodic and the characters one-dimensional. For example, Mockingbird’s antagonist Robert E Lee “Bob” Ewell makes Simon Legree of Uncle Tom’s Cabin look like a saint in comparison. On the plus side, as Michiko Kakutani points out in her front page New York Times review of the new novel, in Mockingbird Lee masterfully manipulates Scout’s point-of-view, “managing the stereoscopic feat of capturing both the point of view of a forthright, wicked-smart girl (who is almost 6 when “Mockingbird” begins) and the retrospective wisdom of an adult.” This rendering of life through the eyes of a six-year-old no doubt influences the reader’s assessment of Atticus and somewhat masks his racism (and also explains why no one in the entire town seems to engage in sexual intercourse).

Coincidentally, yesterday Kakutani’s review shared space with a story about the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina’s State House grounds. Perhaps Shakespeare’s Marc Anthony’s observation that “The evil that men do lives after them;/The good is often interred with their bones” holds true. At least Atticus got to enjoy 55 years of being considered “wise, honorable, an avatar of integrity,” words that very well might in some ways describe Bob Ewell’s namesake, the slave owner Robert E Lee.

The situation in the South was and is more complicated than the unsubtle strokes of black and white that Lee depicted in Mockingbird; it sounds as if her “new” novel reflects a more complex world, but then again, maybe not. Perhaps in Watchman Atticus is all-ogre all the time.

I guess I’ll have to read the book to find out.