A version of this essay also appears today in the Gray Matters section of The Houston Chronicle, 5 February 2015. You can read it here:
This essay was also published on 23 December 2013 in The Imaginative Conservative.
I have a friend, let’s call her Tancy, since that is her name, and she has a child attending school in Magnolia, Texas. Now I cannot think of a more idyllic name for a Texas town, and it is absolutely beautiful and tree laden, but apparently small towns have their problems too.
They have rejected Rousseau and have public schools.
Anyway, her child has the following assignment: she can either carry a fake baby around for a few weeks, thus experiencing the perils of parenthood (it is hard to replicate the joys of parenthood with a fake baby), or, she can write a three page paper about a similar topic.
I kid you not.
Anyway, there was a flurry of talk on her facebook posting about this situation, and just as I am the voice in the wilderness concerning English museums definitely keeping Greek artifacts, I was in the minority thinking it would be a great idea to write a paper in school. I am pretty sure you can leave that fake baby in a hot Houston car with the windows rolled up and nothing will happen to you except a little eye rolling, since in this situation you are only thirteen, doing a fake assignment with a fake baby.
In a fit of genius, the teachers found another way to make writing a paper an option instead of a requirement, as if carrying around a baby is almost the exact same thing as writing. I get this–grading papers is a thankless task, no one is ever happy with his or her paper unless it is an “A”, students think effort equals excellence, and so on. (If effort equals excellence, then I would sing like Celine Dion. Let’s just say I am frequently asked to step back on my efforts.) They have also made the paper the punitive assignment, and the social experiment, which the students will take seriously for approximately 37 hours, the fun assignment. What a great precedent. No one ever got the memo that with the right training, writing can be fun too–just like singing, and carrying a fake baby around.
But it is school, and so it would be nice to do some reading, writing, and arithmetic. I hate it when play-acting is counted in an academic class that is not called Theater Arts.
Tancy’s child wanted to ditch the paper. I posted: “Tancy, try math: 2-3 hours of your life=writing a paper; 2-3 weeks of your life=carrying a fake baby around for a stupid class.”
Not everything has to be “experiential.”
When I was thinking about the purpose of this assignment, which obviously is not to get junior high girls all pepped up about being a parent anytime soon, and in fact, may be a tacit way to deter them from falling into the statistical group known on television and People Magazine covers as “Teen Moms,” I couldn’t help but wonder: What ever happened to just reading The Scarlet Letter? Wouldn’t that do the trick?
Now I know that Hester Prynne is no silly teen, but it would be hard to read about her intense suffering in Puritan New England after having her child with the local minister out of wedlock without thinking twice about going down that path. She suffers public humiliation at the scaffold, she has to wear that scarlet letter (“A” for adultery and a bunch of other stuff once you get through it all), she covers up for that weak, weak, deadbeat dad, Arthur Dimmesdale. He does seem a little dim. And there is the whole issue about whether or not Hester is actually even sorry. As Hawthorne tells us: “The scarlet letter had not done its office.” In other words, she wasn’t that sorry, and her child Pearl is a pistol who illuminates a lot about the shortsightedness of the Puritan judicial system, so there is a lot of good that comes out of little Pearl being on this earth. Plus she is a fascinating child who is difficult–a much more interesting thing to consider other than a fake baby in a backpack. One feels for Hester and her lot, she bears a lot of judgment and pain, but she comes out better in the end. She is no Anna Karenina–she does not throw herself in front of a train. She falls, but she does not fall like a house of cards. She opens a small business and continues the Puritan work ethic, which I am sure she could only do by writing a lot of papers in school–those Puritans really did value reading and writing.
But then I remembered, oh right, they can’t assign The Scarlet Letter. That would require reading a whole book. What a drag. And, as one of my freshmen asked when I mentioned Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet in class, “What’s a Puritan again?” I know, it’s hard to remember.
I even taught The Scarlet Letter for the zillionth time this term to my American literature class. I used to try to keep things lively, you know, just to get their attention, by starting class with “The Scarlet Letter: The Tale of a Tart.” But then I just got all sick of the inevitable student asking, “Hey, Dr. Wilson. What is a ‘tart’?” ( You would not believe the money I have saved on Botox. I maintain that super-surprised look just by going to work and hearing questions like this one.) And just when I thought, “Wow. I just don’t think I can teach this book one more time. I just cannot care about the difference between a novel and a romance anymore. I just cannot be all mad at Hester and that creep Chillingworth. I can only muster it up for Dimmesdale,” a miracle occurred like lightning across a New England sky. My friend from graduate school and former Elon University colleague Kathy Pories, who is now a superstar editor at Algonquin Press, sends me the most fascinating gloss on Hawthorne’s well known book: When She Woke, a novel by Hillary Jordan.
When She Woke traces the story of Hannah (read 21st century Hester) who has been “chromed” (instead of wearing a scarlet letter, it is much worse. Her skin is turned completely red for her crime of murdering her unborn child that was conceived with the married local minister from her Ignited Word church. His name, I think, is “Aidan,” which is a million times cooler than “Arthur.”). This dystopian novel is set in Plano, Texas, a pretty ritzy suburb of Dallas. I have been to Plano, Texas, and let me tell you, you could pick worse places to stand in for modern day Bible Belt suburban conformity. Hannah, like Hester, suffers, and this is why the novel is so moving. Regardless of your political or religious persuasion, you feel her pain. Deeply. Jordan is a gifted writer: as Hannah looks at her blood-red hands for the first time, “They floated above her, as starkly alien as starfish.” There is a lot of poetry in Ms. Jordan’s prose.
There are a lot of surprises and twists in this tale, and this is not a review or a spoiler, but as I was reading this novel, I realized I had so much more to say about Hawthorne, because Jordan’s novel was helping me to remember what was so compelling and relevant about Hawthorne’s tale of woe. Both works ask us to face the tough questions: What do we do with people who don’t follow the rules? Where does love fit in if it is so powerful? Why do women cover up for disappointing men, even if they seem really terrific, at least for a glimmering moment? Why is Puritan New England not so far removed from a futuristic Plano, Texas, and what is both terrifying and comforting about that?
If you want students to think about how hard and complicated life is, why not stick these two books in their backpacks, and dispense with the fake baby business? Won’t that assignment just make them think having a baby is just one big joke? I can hardly even wrap my mind around it, it just seems so wrong on so many levels. I have already told my son Christopher if he ever gets this assignment, go ahead and start that outline, because he will be writing a paper, no matter if he chooses to carry around a cabbage patch doll around for the entire year. That will be his business, but he will string some sentences together, because that is how we separate ourselves from animals. (Yes, I use that reason a lot.)
I know we have tons of problems. I know schools are just trying to cope. But when has social engineering in the classroom ever worked? My money is on “hardly ever.” You can have all the drug free zones you want, but there will still be potheads. You can shout from the rooftops that your school is “No Place for Hate,” but there will still be bullies. The difference is those bullies will not know the quadratic equation because there was a school wide assembly explaining how bad bullying is instead of math.
Plus, those very same students in a Texas public school, if they did have a real baby, would probably have a bus to take them to their alternative degree plan, where they would have awesome babysitters and free lunches, and people falling all over them for having the courage to finish school while having a baby as a teen. How brave do you have to be when you have a state-sponsored bus, bistro, and babysitting system? If you want to see brave, read about Hester Prynne–she had none of that. Her fictional world is closer to what more women would really have to, or had to face, while real life in high school seems more like a joke, in which parenthood is trivialized in the swirl of trendy experiential assignments, and reading and writing become extra credit assignments for students who, weirdly, would like to think about things and express themselves with clarity. I bet Hillary Jordan did a lot of reading and writing before she wrote her highly acclaimed novel. Otherwise, she would have written a really mediocre nonfiction book about the educational malpractice suit she had to file for getting criminally dopey assignments in junior high which derailed her stellar writing trajectory. Listen up, lawyers: this will happen.
If I were more organized, I would stage a read-in outside the campuses of Magnolia Independent Schools, and I would get a gang together to accost students on their way out of class. We would have to identify the students who picked the dopey babysitting assignment by looking for the fake babies.
Our mission would be to go up to these poor kids and say, “Pssst….I have a book here. There is this scene where this woman named Hester Prynne takes off her Puritan head cover IN THE WOODS WHEN NO ONE IS WATCHING and she tells this guy Arthur, “Hey, I know I have fabulous hair–I was keeping it a secret. Do you want to leave Puritan New England and run off to Paris?” I can give you this book if you want to read more, but you have to hand over the baby. Just try it once. Don’t worry. You won’t get hooked reading it just once. And maybe you won’t want to read Hillary Jordan’s book When She Woke, which is set near Dallas. You know all about Dallas, don’t you? Hawthorne does not lead to harder books. That. Is. Such. A. Lie.”
I don’t know how many takers I would get, and I don’t know how assigning papers became The Scarlet Letter of Assignments in the teaching profession. But I don’t want my son’s teachers, who have zero training as social engineers, to do that when they are teaching. I just want them to say “Hey, we are reading some books and writing some papers.” Or, “Hey, this is math class, so we will be doing math.”
I know that everything now has to be a “project.” Christopher himself just finished making a medieval instrument entirely out of brown felt and modeling clay because he had to play the part of a minstrel at the medieval feast which capped off his month-long social studies unit. I had to give up my super-cute Ann Taylor tunic so he had something to wear, and I got hoarse saying over and over, “Can’t you just wander around playing your real violin and call it a mandolin?” Christopher looked at me like I was insane. He said it had to be “authentically fake,” and that he had to do it “himself.” I went to Texas Art Supply three times before we figured out that we needed a glue gun and enough felt for Montana in order to get this thing done. At the feast he learned really profound things, like minstrels really played music, and that, just like us in the 21st century, medieval people ate chicken wings. The caterer even said so. I sure hope he does not forget these essential elements of the medieval era. Experiencing that will make all the difference, I am sure.
I tell Christopher, as he glue guns another fact that he has typed out on Microsoft word to his instrument–something about the Crusades, I think–that a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, I went to school, and I did not have to buy felt and glue guns in order to achieve the “authentically fake.” I just read novels–books that are fake, but seem to ring true.
And I didn’t even have to look after a fake baby. Back then, I really did go to other people’s houses and look after their children. We called it “babysitting.” I did it after school, and sometimes, if the children were napping, I would read.