People Who Don’t Trust Kids
Fiddle with a Smart-Ass Book
Years ago, then-New York Times metro reporter par excellence Michael Winerip wrote a piece(1) about people paying top dollar for professional organizers to fix up their closets. Winerip got a look at one professional organizer’s own closet and reported that for every piece of clothing, this woman kept a notecard of matching accessories: With her green suit, she always wears her green shoes, amber pin, and beige pocketbook. “I never have to think about anything, it’s great,” she said.
I used to pull out this clipping when speaking at conferences, to make the point that we teachers have to clean our own closets, arrange our own curriculum. Teaching is about making choices.
Nonetheless, so many teachers kept asking me for the address of the Association of Professional Organizers that I finally stopped telling the Winerip story.
In 1834, Harvard dropout Richard Henry Dana Jr. sailed to California as a common seaman and wrote Two years Before the Mast, a remarkable, riveting account of his voyage. More remarkably, Harper and Brothers included the book in their Harper’s School District Library series, a series that came about because 1838 state law mandated that all New York school districts of a certain size must possess a library. (2) This high-mindedness later devolved into the New York State Department of Education busying itself with a website offering sample passages and questions designed to align with a Common Core curriculum chosen by politicos and paid operatives of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This “literacy instruction for next-generation learning” meant that fifth graders got a Close Reading of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ninth graders were told to plug into Plato’s Apology.
In 2014, Broadway books (a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC) published a Classroom Edition of Andy Weir’s phenomenally popular The Martian. A promo piece for this edition is effusive in enthusiasm for the book, quoting a senior research scientist at Education Development Center who declares that The Martian “should be required reading for all middle and high school students.” The Wall Street Journal is over-the-top in its enthusiasm, calling (3) the book “Brilliant…a celebration of human ingenuity (and) the purest example of real-science sci-fi for many years…utterly compelling…” But wait: tacked onto that praise is this phrase–“complete with “classroom appropriate language.”
Classroom appropriate language?
Those wondering what that means will get the answer in the novel’s opening sentence: I’m pretty much fucked.
Of course, a sentence that will grab kids, reluctant readers and all, will also grab book banners. As it happens, Andy Weir uses “fuck” as a stylistic device throughout the text, putting classroom appropriate language fiddlers into overdrive.
I’m pretty much fucked
profound desire to just fucking die
So yeah, I’m fucked.
I’m fucked, and I’m gonna die.
I’m really fucking sick of being in this rover.
What the fuck is wrong with you?
heavy mother fuckers
What the fuck
Go fuck yourself.
Fuck me raw
I’m pretty much screwed.
profound desire to just die
So yeah, I’m screwed.
That would be a bad idea.
I’m screwed, and I’m gonna die.
I’m really really sick of being in this rover.
What is wrong with you?
What the hell
Warning: Putting all these F-Words in a list presents a misleading view of the Weir text. Yes, this word appears throughout the text, but it is sporadic, not incessant. Of interest, is the number of variations editors come up with to avoid “the word.” The F-Word isn’t the only word mashed up by editorial fiddling. The Martian offers a lot more work for text sanitizers. Here’s a sample of other text changes.
rig up a primitive distillery to boil piss
bags of shit
I am one lucky son of a bitch
My crewmates and I tried not to shit ourselves.
And holy hell, it worked!
I dragged my ass out of bed.
the magnitude of shitstorm
those damn reporters
We’d look like assholes.
You learn how to shit in a bag.
Jesus Christ, I’d give anything…
You’re hanging him out to dry, you chickenshit
son of a bitch
pushy little shit
God damn Airlock1
Clever son of a bitch
Tell that asshole
to boil pee
bags of poop
I am just lucky
tried not to puke
And holy crap, it worked!
I dragged my butt out of bed.
the magnitude of media circus
We’d look like jackasses.
you learn how to crap in a bag.
Man, I’d give anything..
You’re hanging him out to dry.
pushy little brat
Grumble…stupid Airlock 1
Tell that jackass
The editorial change from piss to pee and from “mix in the shit” to “mix in the manure” brings to mind the story of Bess Truman being asked to get the President to say fertilizer instead of manure. She replied, “You have no idea how long it took me to get him to say manure.” (4)
A much more important consideration for anyone interested in what kids read is the fact Weir’s very deliberate and direct language brings an immediacy to a quite serious, close-up look at science in action, employing science for survival. As the hero reflects in his log, “I might die, but damn it, someone will know what I had to say.” Editorially shriveled to “I might die, but someone will know what I had to say.
Curiously, when Watney writes, “I expected to be cold, but Jesus Christ!” the editorial committee leaves it as is. Other mentions of “Jesus” produce such substitutions as “Wow” and “Sheesh.” But when Watney and the crew discuss a severe storm, “Jesus, we’re gonna end up in Oz” stays in the student edition.
I will not editorialize on why this e-mail from Watney to NASA remains in the student edition: “Also, please tell them that each and every one of their mothers is a prostitute. P.S. Their sisters, too.
When he learns that the probe NASAA is sending is named for Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow , Watney replies, “Gay probe coming to save me. Got it.” This is changed to “Pride parade probe coming to save me.”
Of course, on reading this summary, plenty of people will want any edition of Andy Weir’s The Martian banned forever from every bookshelf, nook, and cranny in their schools. Ban it from all buildings within six blocks of the school. Assigning kids to read Plato’s Apology sounds a whole lot safer. Or maybe substitute Johnny Tremain.
But teachers who know they must make choices might be interested in the fact that pychologists at Kelle University have offered far more proof (5) of the power of the F-word than any evidence that any Phonics Existentialiast or Standardisto Solutionist has provided about the power of decoding skills to excite kids.
In the Q & A in the Classroom Edition of The Martian, Andy Weir is asked if he has “anything in common with your wise-cracking hero Mark Watney.” Weir replies, “I’m the same level of smart-ass as he is. It was a really easy book to write. I just had him say what I would say.”
And thus, the word “smart-ass” appears on page 377 of a book that relentlessly excised “ass” from the preceding 26 chapters, where the hero has to get his “butt” out of bed, not his “ass”; “my half-assed handiwork” becomes “incompetent handiwork,” and on and on.
In Weir’s text, Annie, NASA director of media relations, also has something of a blue mouth. She complains, “The press is crawling down my throat for this. And up my ass. Both directions. They’re gonna meet in the middle.” The editors cut everything after “crawling down my throat.”
There is no little irony in the fact that this Classroom Edition is a Penguin Book. The Penguin Dictionary (1965) was the first general dictionary in modern times to include the F-Word. Houghton Mifflin followed in The American Heritage Dictionary (1969) but quickly published a “clean green” or “Texas edition” for the school market. (6) My school’s unexpurgated version of the American Heritage provoked considerable faculty disagreement but the librarian stood firm in her belief that words matter and our principal backed her. When my 7th and 8th graders reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings argued over just what a bastard was, we went to the library and looked it up. I remember Sylvia’s relieved “Is that all?” Emotions defused by definition.
Do I think that Andy Weir examined the history of the use of the F-word since the middle ages and decided to write in the tradition of James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer, and George Carlin? Of course not. He told us why he did it. He’s a smart-ass. He self-published a book using his own language and then was lucky enough to find an enthusiastic audience–before publishers found it.
Finally, I would point out to nervous parents that they can be relieved to know that the hero is alone on Mars. Despite all that fucking around terminology, there is no sex in this book.
It comes as no surprise that the discussion Questions and Activities following the text are far worse than the editing, issuing commands that turn a riveting story into homework. Here’s a sample.
*Examine calculations that Watney uses to determine the amount of resources it will take in order for him to survive. Do you agree with his calculations? Explain your answer.
*Research the various sources of energy Watney uses over the course of the novel…What are the risks and benefits…?
*Research the engineering of EVA suits.
*Explain the laws of physics…
And more. As always, editorial departments that produce such claptrap are playing to corporate-politico agendas, ignoring the realities of kids. They fuck it up every time.
I asked my physicist husband (author of physics textbooks noted for posing real-world problems to get students involved) who reported “enjoying the book a lot” if he recognized the accuracy of Weir’s calculations, if he sat and thought about the science of the matter, or if he just kept reading. He deadpanned, “Well, I don’t know that much about potatoes.” (Those who have read the book will get the joke here.)
Of course the editorial fiddling in the Weir book travels in a long line in making texts acceptable. I discussed editorial fiddlling with classic texts in a 1987 piece about basals for The Atlantic. (7) Some replacements were based on so-called scientific readability formula: When “Cook spaghetti!” becomes “Cook pancakes!” of course it’s because that extra syllable in spaghetti skews the readability level we’re supposed to hold sacred. And to force Kipling’s “How the Camel Got His Hump” fit the scientific (sic) grade level hierarchy, great big lolloping humph becomes a great big humph.
If the loss of lolloping doesn’t enrage you, what would it take?
Elsewhere in the basal, some changes, like those in the Weir book, involve a whole lot more than syllable count. Think about what is involved when basal reader editors change “Wily swindlers, crafty rogues” to “weavers.” And when “The sea is our enemy” is changed to “The sea is not our friend.”
The changes here are profound. As we are experiencing right now, all sorts of agendas nose their way into school committee decisions. Like Bartleby the Scrivener, too many people are pressuring schools to be “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn.” Schools need to be places with room for what kids want to read, what will encourage them to read more. If we care about schools, we must demand lots of room for such reading.
And let the smart-ass author keep his voice.
(1) Winerip, Michael (1989) “Our Towns: A Neat Woman Finds Her Calling in Creating Order.” New York Times. March 14.
(2) Exman, Eugene (1967) The House of Harper: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Publishing. Harper and Row.
(3) Shippley, Tom (2014) Book Review, Wall Street Journal. Feb. 7.
(4) Pinker, Steven (1997) Stuff of Thought, Viking Penguin.
(5) Stephens, Richard; Atkins, John; Kingston, Andrew, “Swearing as a response to pain,” Neuroreport. 20(12): 1056-60, August 5, 2009.
(6) Rawson, Hugh (1989) Words. Crown.
(7) Ohanian, Susan (1987) “Ruffles and Flourishes.” The Atlantic. September.
(8) Ridley, Matt (201 5 Book Notes: New York Times Sunday Book Review. Oct. 15.
Note: All the ongoing hoopla about “failing schools” has caused me to think about Charles and what we mean about success. Charles was mainstreamed into my third grade classroom for one short year–and into my heart forever. Note: This took place in a school that rigorously grouped kids, so in our three third grade classroms mixed groups met in homeroom but then went to high, medium, and low reading class for half the day. They were also segregated for math class for an hour and met at odd times in homeroom for science and social studies.
Charles was supposed to come to me out of his special ed class for a bit of reading but ended up spending most of the day. At the end of the year he tried to convince me to let him repeat 3rd grade, noting, “I know where things are on your desk.” Thinking of all the progress he had made, I was tempted, but when his mother called and asked us to give him a talk on sex ed, I realized we had to let him move on.
This article appeared in Learning Magazine.
Okay to Be Different
“Charles can be a little strange,” his special education teacher warned me. Charles was being mainstreamed into my third-grade reading group for the morning. In the afternoon he would return to his special education class.
At age eleven, Charles was three years older than the average third grader. Conferences with his social worker, psychologist, and mother revealed a history of abuse, emotional upheaval, and retarded development. But we hoped he would find a place in my group of “low” readers.
For the first week, Charles was on his best behavior. He was so determined to be “normal,” to fit into a regular class, that he sat like a statue. Each day started with a fifteen-minute silent reading period, and during that time Charles’ eyes remained frozen on his book. Whenever I asked him about his book,he assured me it was “very, very interesting.”
The child who insists he likes all books usually likes none but can’t admit it. As long as Charles played the role of model student, I couldn’t discover his interests and help him become involved in books. But after about two weeks of watching the other children talk and tease and complain, Charles began to loosen up. I considered it a triumph the day he muttered that he hated reading, too.
Charles also told me what was wrong with my book collection: “No dinosaur books.” The next day I brought in a large dinosaur book. I hoped the colorful illustrations would help him get through some of the difficult text while I searched for an easier, more suitable book.
Charles stuck with the large book. He would page through easy-reading dinosaur books that I found, but he always returned to the more difficult volume. He insisted it was a “real” book. As our silent reading period increased to half an hour, then to forty-five minutes, I urged Charles to try other books. He would obligingly glance at fairy tales, riddle books, mysteries, adventures. But he didn’t read them. Instead he would return to his dinosaur book.
Charles hated for me to read aloud. Whenever I sat down with a new book, the other children happily crowded around, taking turns snuggling up close. Not Charles. He would sit far off in another corner, scowling and twisting his body into strange shapes. To make doubly sure that I understood his discontent, he would make strange chirping noises as I read.
One day Charles Vomited. After the mess was cleaned up, he started crying and moaned, “I’m a weirdo and a retard. I never can do anything right.”
I was devastated, not knowing how to comfort this child who was indeed a bit odd. His classmates–who’d never really warmed up to him but never bothered him either–came to the rescue. “Everybody vomits sometimes,” they reassured Charles. Then each had a vomit story to tell as proof that Charles was behaving normally. Finally I began to feel queasy and announced, “Enough sharing.” But as I pushed ahead with the lesson, the children worried over Charles and continued to sneak to his desk with another whispered “My Most Embarrassing Vomit.”
Charles stopped sobbing but he kept his head down on his folded arms. I couldn’t tell whether his classmates’ messages were getting through to him. But the next day he came to class carrying a bright yellow sign. “Would you put this up on the bulletin board?” he asked me.
It was a note to the class, listing each child’s name and concluding with “I love this class very much.” Opposite the message was a large smiling face that I recognized as myself–the bright red hair was the giveaway. Charles’ special education teacher later said he had told her the names of all the children; he asked her to help him spell them correctly, insisting that it was very important to get them “just right.”
Charles wasn’t the only child who had problems other than difficulty with reading. The group included a deaf child, a severe stutterer, an asthmatic, and a child who was alternately hyperactive and zonked out by medication. Several children had failed a grade, some couldn’t make their letters to in the right direction, and one excellent reader couldn’t make letters at all. For all that, these children were normal third graders; they laughed, they pestered, they complained, they rejoiced, and they cried. But when someone had a personal crisis, they gathered round as one and offered consolation.
Of Compassion and Cocoons
Because of the school’s emphasis on reading, these kids were with me for half the day, and I grew to know them well. I was impressed by their sensitivity to each other’s needs and, as it turned out, to my needs as well.
Cathy was energetic, sociable, enthusiastic, cheerful, and loved to share jokes and stories. But she was a stutterer. Seldom could she utter a sentence without halting, repeating, struggling to get the right sounds out. No one ever commented about her difficulty or expressed impatience that we had to wait so long for the punch lines.
One day the usually ebullient Cathy seemed strangely reserved, and her friend mentioned that someone in the cafeteria had teased her about her stutter. Before I could say a thing, the class was up in arms, making speeches about how no one is perfect, how everyone has problems. “Besides,” said Joe, “Cathy doesn’t stutter that much.” “And she tells good stories,” added Jennifer. “Some people are ignorant,” offered Bobby as he patted Cathy’s arm. “Just ignore them.”
Leslie was in public school for the first time, having spent her early schooling in a special class for the deaf. She wore an elaborate microphone set so she could hear much of what was said, but her speech was hard to understand at first.
The children formed a cocoon around her, treating her like a china doll, bringing her presents like new pencils and erasers. If teachers couldn’t make out what Leslie was saying, she had a score of ever-ready interpreters hovering around. When we needed a heroine for a class play, the children chose Leslie; when she didn’t understand knock-knock jokes, kids took turns reading them with her, patiently explaining and helping her ‘hear’ the pun. When she cried, they comforted her; when she was selfish or obnoxious, they pretended not to notice. Leslie was allowed and even encouraged to be queen of our class for about three months.
Then, as she settled into routines, the class decided by some unspoken consensus that it was time for Leslie to begin learning to be a regular student. They made her wait for her turn. She was no longer always first in line; and if she pushed, she got pushed back. The first time they let her cry, pretending to go on with their work, they were obviously nervous. But nobody gave in. I followed the kids’ lead, ignoring Leslie’s tears, fighting back the same urge the kids were fighting. Together, we helped Leslie toughen up, helped her become a normal third grader.
I had my own moments of consolation from these children. I’d been going through a rough period; work was piling up and administrative directives were coming down–nothing unusual. But I let it get to me, and one day I yelled at somebody for a minor infraction. It was a real bellow. It was also sort of funny because we all froze after I did it. I broke the stunned silence with an apology: “I’m sorry. What you did was wrong, but it wasn’t worth all that. I feel bad when I yell at you.”
The kids crowded around, assuring me, “You don’t yell. Not really.” They wanted to give me explicit stories about real yelling that they had known in classrooms. I was touched that they responded to my vulnerability so quickly, so compassionately.
Fat Cats to Flies
Charles kept chirping when I read aloud. This behavior went on for months. One of the children asked me, “Why does he do that?” I could only reply, “I don’t know.” Charles was the only child I had ever encountered who could resist Teacher read-aloud time. The first breakthrough came when I read The 300-Pound Cat. The children were enthusiastic about the outrageous humor and the wonderful illustrations. Charles, of course, was too far away to see the pictures. He maintained his scowl, accompanied by weird body contortions. But he began inching his chair across the room. By the time I had finished the story, Charles was behind me, whispering in my ear, “That’s like The Fat Cat.“
“What’s that?” I asked him. How would Charles know? I thought. He only looks at that dinosaur book.
“Fat Cat is like that 300-pound cat,” Charles explained patiently. “Fat Cat eats a lot. He gets bigger and bigger.” Charles got up and went to the table, quickly unearthing the small paperback, a Danish folktale. Following Charles’ lead, I read the book to the children. Then we all read it together, each child taking a page. Charles indicated he wanted a turn too. That was the first time he’d read aloud in front of the group.
When we finished the book, Charles said, “It’s like the boy in Mother, Mother I Feel Sick, Send for the Doctor Quick Quick Quick and the old woman who swallowed a fly in I Know an Old Lady.“
I was stunned. Not only was Charles reading, he was making connections.
After that, hardly a day went by that Charles didn’t make some connection between books or between books and events in his own life. He discovered Clown of God and The Last Leaf on his own and began to write stories about the death of his father, intermingling them with observations from the books.
Charles had come a long way from those early days when he wouldn’t say a word in class or read aloud or take part in any group activity for fear of sounding weird. Now he took another step: Charles volunteered to be narrator for a class puppet production of The Frog Prince that would be presented to all 70 third graders. The puppeteers were concealed behind a screen, but the narrator–Charles–had to stand out in front all by himself, the only member of the troupe visible to the audience. Charles was so enthusiastic about his performance that he suggested presenting the play on the auditorium stage for the entire school.
Charles taught me a lot about not underestimating kids. Although I saw him making great strides in social interaction and came to know that he was reading and appreciating many books, I still worried about the dinosaur book. I wondered how I could justify the fact that Charles spent an hour or two a day poring over a book that I was convinced he couldn’t understand. I worried, but I held my peace. I reminded myself that kids want to be regular; when they persist for days and months at what looks like an irregular activity, they aren’t doing “nothing,” they’re not “wasting time.” They’re responding to needs that the teacher isn’t able to recognize at the moment. Charles kept on with the dinosaur book.
In March, the homeroom science class began working on projects for the science fair. Fred, a top-notch student, decided to make a dinosaur diorama. Charles offered to lend his book. He also offered some advice. “Everybody knows about Tyrannosaurus rex,” he said. “Why don’t you make some of the others?” He leafed through the book. “Like this one. He’s called Therizinosaurus. He has arms eight feet long with great big claws.” Charles continued turning pages rapidly as two or three other students came over. “Or this one–Cetiosaurus. He swallows stones to help him digest his food.”
And so it went. Charles could pronounce the long names; he could also offer specific information about how one dinosaur differed from another. His repertoire of dinosaur facts was truly stunning. (Still, he had basic misconceptions. One day while slowly turning the globe, he commented, “I guess dinosaurs never will come back. Some of them were thirty feet long, so they would never fit. Look, here’s Africa.” He spread his palm over the continent.)
That spring we faced the regularly schedule standardized tests, an event that made everyone nervous. What could be worse than isolated questions about structure, and comprehension questions about ugly paragraphs? On the first day, Charles had marked all four of the possible answers for the first three questions before I caught him. I made him erase it all and then pleaded, “Try, Charles, Please try! I know you’re nervous, but I also know you can do it. Just think of all the books you’ve read this year. Okay, so this test isn’t nice to read, but how about showing the people who made this test that you can read?” Try he did and he showed those people that he could read on what they call a 3.8 grade level.
After the tests, I read the kids a story and urged them to relax, mess around, and unwind Charles started talking to Sam, the brightly colored papier-mache parrot that hung over the book table. He showed Sam all the pictures in a book, then started reading to him. The he began chanting, “Fly, Sam, fly! I know you can do it. Please try, Sam! You may be nervous, but you can fly.” Then he whispered, “Would you teach me to fly, Sam?”
During the last week of school I asked the children to choose their favorite book of the year and to do a project about it. Charles was immediately enthusiastic. “I know which one I want!” he exclaimed. I thought to myself, “Yep, I know too.”
But Charles surprised me. He didn’t reach for the omnipresent dinosaur book but went to the bookcase and dug out a book he had hidden behind several others. It was The Ugly Duckling.
Charles, who had never written more than six sentence about any topic all year, wrote nine pages. This was the first sentence: “The ugly duckling found out it is okay to be different.”