Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Critical Mom Grades Final Exams

Did you know that Salome's beloved was named "Jonathan?"  They're probably out having sushi together right now.  Or that she had him "decapitulated?" And yes, that's a coinage that covers the process of screaming, "Back, daughter of Sodom!" and then having your head served up on a silver platter and your unwilling lips kissed by the frustrated teenager.  After grading a huge stack of first year English essays one year, I was rewarded by the following: "Although my opinion is based on the way I feel, that is what I think!"  Now that, in my considered opinion, is what twelve years of being educated by North Jersey nuns can do to a kid's mind.  I took for granted the Socratic approach when I was in a nun-free grade school.  Teachers were always bothering me:  "What do YOU think?"  I always told them.  And it never occurred to me at the time that many of my compatriots were growing up with "Memorize what I tell you to think or you'll be kneeling on a window pole for the next hour!"  (An acquaintance taught by "clerics" who endured said punishment became an orthopedic surgeon).  A friend told me that in her parochial school, down the block from where we played, the nuns liked to line up three girls, so they could slap them all across the face at the same time.  Nobody asked her to "think"--and she didn't know what they meant when they did--until she got to college.  And that's the kind of student whose exams so frequently come my way.  Another example:   passionately inveighing against animal abuse, one of my First Year English students wrote: "Animals are people, too!"  But my all-time favorite misunderstanding, when I was teaching Othello, occurred after I asked students to read the following passage:

And say besides that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcisèd dog,
And smote him, thus.

 Now, this was in the bad old days before "No Fear Shakespeare" or any Internet, and I had  explained in gory detail that Othello's telling them how he grabbed a Turkish soldier with whom he was fighting and slashed him across the throat--just as he's doing same to self.  I'd also explained that in the seventeenth century an awful lot of English people were Christian and thought of anyone who wasn't--the Turkish soldier is Muslim--as "infidels," a word I defined, along with "circumcision."   I wanted my students to be able to show that they understood the passage because my class was being observed on that day.  And I had them all prepped, had even given them lines, and so when I asked, "Well, Bob, can you tell us what these lines mean?" I had a sinking feeling as his face went blank.  He was sitting next to his also-prepped-by-me pal, to whom I turned in despair.  And the two of them looked at each other, clearly struggling to remember the right answer, the one I had given them in the previous class, and muttering and whispering together, they came up with: "Iago and Othello are circumcising a dog!"

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