The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.."... ...Eric Hoffer.

Commentary of the Day - February 21, 2003:  Got Duct Tape (A Tale of Eleven Highlighters)?  Guest commentary by Felice Prager.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,..."

In the world of balance and reason, there are some of us who stand on the outside, looking in, scratching our heads, and wondering, "Is it me, or has the rest of the world gone insane."  I go about my daily routine.  I make sure we have Oreos and frozen waffles.  I replace shoes when the holes become entrances for spiders and snails.  I listen to the news and patriotically prepare for national disasters.  I invest in duct tape, plastic sheeting, batteries, and bottled water.  I suggest the room we duct tape ourselves into in case of biological or chemical warfare should be my office because it has two phone lines, a computer, a year's worth of office supplies, gum, a mini refrigerator, and a pull out bed.  I endure my husband's comments about being neurotic.  I look up into the sky and wonder what might fall on me, rendering me incapable of balancing the world on my shoulders.  I try not to be disappointed when told the duct tape solution to biological and chemical warfare is just a hoax.  I try to make sense of it all, and when I can't, I add a dash of humor and a heaping teaspoon of sarcasm to help the world taste right.

" was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,..."

At the beginning of the school year, the English teacher asks parents to purchase four books at a book fair that the school district organized with the local Barnes and Noble.  The store arranges to have enough copies available, and the school gets a discount on future purchases.  It's an annual thing, and I always do my share by purchasing more books than those on the list.  A school can never have enough discounts on future purposes.

Among the books on this year's list is Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.  My husband sees the book and immediately tells our son how he refers to the book.  His version has the word "Cities" starting with a T.  He shares these delusional pearls with our son, and I inject, "Don't keep saying it or you might slip in class.  You know how the school is with its No Tolerance Policy."  The subject is dropped when I realize my husband has appealed to my son's Guy Joke Gene, and it just isn't worth the aggravation.  I pick my battles by ignoring those I cannot win.

The good news is that my son says he "sort of" likes the book.  That's a lot coming from him.  During my own freshman year in high school, our teacher assigned Great Expectations.  The teacher loved Dickens and made the book rise beyond the pages.  Although my son might disagree and although the teacher has some unusual teaching methods, I think my son's teacher may possess a similar gift.  I don't doubt that there is a benefit behind her unusual teaching techniques.

For instance, she is forcing the students to highlight as they read.  I have no problem with that since I read with a pencil in hand.  I underline, I make notes in margins, I put exclamation points next to great passages I wish I had written, and, on occasion, I correct typos.  My son's English teacher has a color-coded chart for highlighting.  The students need eleven different colored highlighters. The code is as follows:

red - conflict
yellow - symbols
three different shades of green - three female characters and traits
four different blues - male characters and traits
orange - foreshadowing
purple - historical reference

My first reaction to the highlighting is that the teacher is putting the words drudgery and tedium into the joy of reading, turning the book into a Crayola Wonderland.  To myself, I think the teacher has forgotten that "Reading is FUN-damental."  I'm also thinking she's probably as neurotic as I am; however, I don't require others to copy my neurotic idiosyncrasies.

However, watching my son read and highlight, I'm seeing him really concentrate on the text.  It's slowing the process but it's making the process more effective.  Although he hates doing it, I believe it's helping him focus on the characters and themes.  When the time comes to write a paper about the book, he'll have easy access to important details.

"... it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,…"

The news is on and the CIA or FBI guy (they all look the same to me in those gray suits) is explaining the need to be prepared in case of a terrorist attack.  My husband mutes the sound.  He is making his case for not over-reacting when I add my thoughts. "What would it hurt for us to have a place to meet.  What if Steven is out with friends?  What if Jeff's at school?  What if you're out of town on business?"

"I've got it," says my younger son.  "We'll all keep Grandma's phone number with us.  If we're all in different places, we'll use her as field coordinator.  We can call her and she can tell us where to meet."

"With your mother," my husband directs toward me, "she'll have us all flying back to New Jersey to visit her."

I have a strange picture of my aging mother wearing army fatigues with a gas mask and a walkie-talkie in her hand finally successfully manipulating my family back to her nest.

"…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,..."

My son tells me about a nightmare he had: There is an announcement that we have to protect ourselves by duct taping ourselves into a safe room in our home because of the release of biological agents into the atmosphere.  We're moving quickly, collecting our cats, hamsters, food, savings bonds, and water.  As directed, I turn off the central air and heat and put a note on our front door stating there are people taped inside.  My husband and son carefully tape over the  vents and windows in our chosen room.  We're safe.  We seal ourselves in.  We were prepared.  We will survive.  Then my son takes his paperback copy of A Tale of Two Cities from his back pocket to continue reading and realizes he forgot to bring his highlighters before we taped ourselves in.

"...we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way..."
©2003 Felice Prager
Note: All quoted passages are from A Tale of Two Cities.
Felice Prager is a freelance writer from Arizona.  She publishes the Write Funny pages.


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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.