Tuesday, July 7, 2009
I was ten or so years of age; the class was studying a story for English Comprehension, and I was thoroughly uneasy on that Friday afternoon as the school day was winding down.
The piece was one of numerous formulaic entries in a collection of tales designed to encourage morals in children and keep the latter occupied for months on end.
The particular story featured a plucky girl who had received a shiny cassette recorder for her birthday- a popular gift in that era. She stayed home to experiment with the gadget while the family went out; one would hope it was just for milk and potatoes, and not for anything celebratory in the girl's absence.
Burglars shortly thereafter found their way into the house. They tied the child to a chair and set about ransacking the home. Ah, but never fear: our resourceful young heroine had a plan. She pressed a couple of buttons on the machine and deftly committed the robbers' voices to cassette.
Later that day the local police applauded her bravery.
"Well done, Miss," they boomed in adventure-story fashion. "We recognised the voices and have been trying to catch those rascals for months. They'll be in jail for a long time now."
As I recall, some reward or other was dispensed to the girl for her quick thinking.
My difficulty lay not in the implausibility of the crooks being captured on the vague basis of their voices, but in another area entirely. I could not let the matter go.
I had never in my life raised a hand in class to pose an unsolicited question; indeed, I had enough trouble lifting my hand to answer one. On that occasion I was bothered enough that I propelled a trembling set of digits into the air.
"Excuse me," I squeaked. Everybody swivelled in their chairs at the unfamiliar voice.
"Why didn't the robbers take the recorder too?"
A leaf dropped from a tree in the yard outside, and I heard it brush the ground. I thought it to be a perfectly reasonable question, hardly deserving of such a stony silence, and I had been certain that my teacher would offer an answer: an educational textbook could not be structured so flimsily that a child might tear it asunder with a gentle query.
My teacher cleared her throat.
"Well," she said slowly and very carefully, "here's what you can do. You can all write a few ideas on why you think the recorder wasn't stolen by the burglars. Do it over the weekend. I hadn't given you any homework but that's one for you to do. There you go- you can thank The Elementary!"
Her teeth flashed a triumphant grin. The mention of homework implied, by her tone, tears and punishment and frustration.
The bell rang then, and we were off and away. I heard grumbling voices; I heard my name mentioned in sour measures; I felt furious eyes all around; and I still had no answer to my question.
I made up my mind then and there: the whole painful business of speaking up in class, of asking questions, of challenging the bothersome bones of a text- I had my fill of such matters. I had tested the water, and I found it lacking in any sort of reward. I resolved to keep my thoughts, novel or otherwise, all to myself over the course of my school life.
I kept my word.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 4:49 PM