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Monday, April 23, 2012


So here we are.
There was a fascinating story the other day about a section of the New York State standardized English test, recently taken by area eighth graders, that left the students “baffled,” according to the New York Times. It was one of those “read this story and answer questions about it” sections, and the story was adapted for the test from a Daniel Pinkwater children’s book passage. I’d never heard the story before, but it goes something like this:

A pineapple challenges a hare to a race. All of the other animals are fascinated by this. They figure that the pineapple must have a trick up his sleeve, because who would challenge such a fast animal if he didn’t think he could win? So the animals, wanting to back a winner, cheer for the pineapple. But when the race starts, the hare speeds off, and the pineapple just stands there, motionless. The hare eventually wins, and the animals eat the pineapple. The moral of the story is: Pineapples don’t have sleeves.
I love this little tale. I think it’s hilarious, dark, twisted, and full of truth (more on that in the next paragraph). But the eighth graders were stymied at first, then angry because they didn’t understand the story, claiming that it was absurd and illogical, and therefore it was trickier to know what the right answers on the test would be. They raised such a social media hissy fit that the state education commissioner finally decreed that the questions in that section would be thrown out. 
I think it’s the kids who are absurd. Granted, I have a good many years on these youngsters, and so I have the advantage of perspective gained from having lived life, but to me, it’s easy to see the profound truth of the story. Apart from the talking animals and produce (more on that in another paragraph or two), think about it: society is always rooting for the underdog, desperate to be on the winning side. We create and cultivate unlikely heroes, but we don’t like to be fooled, so when our false idols fail us, they are immediately annihilated, destroyed... and, like the pineapple, devoured. 
Of course, we don’t literally eat them. And apparently that was the bigger issue: that a story on a standardized test would be so ridiculous. Talking animals? Talking pineapples? If the pineapple could speak, why couldn’t it run? And sleeves? What the hell was that about? It’s not logical, the young ones cried. It’s not fair
I don’t buy that, kiddos. Your generation is hardly ultra-logical. I should know. I’ve been part of your edu-tainment, filled with talking fruits and sheep and letters and numbers. They all talk on Sesame Street.
Back when these youngsters were wee ones, we did a Sesame episode where Zoe was feeling lonely, so she called upon the Jacket Fairy and asked him (yes, him) to make her jacket come to life. Zoe and her talking, singing jacket had a fun day together, until it got too cold, and the jacket decided that her job was to keep Zoe warm, and that it was more important for her to be Zoe’s jacket than her friend. So the Jacket Fairy turned her back into to a regular jacket. 
I am not on drugs, nor am I making up this tale of talking jackets and male jacket fairies brought to you by the number 20. I know this because I played that anthropomorphic jacket a decade or so ago.
This absurdist episode came about because we had recently done an Elmo’s World with this jacket puppet. It was an adorable thing, pink, with a furry hood for a mouth and eyes on top of it, and I had fun making it a really cute character. So, not wanting a cute puppet to rot away in a box and a cute character to go to waste, the writers came up with the cute and crazy Zoe’s jacket episode. 
This is just one example, but my point is that educational programs like Sesame Street are filled with fun, ridiculous concepts and characters, but I don’t know of any three year-olds who have ever written to the show to question the logic of how Slimey the Worm could have ever flown to the moon, or how a monster as young as Elmo could have such a firm grasp on language and vocabulary and run into so many celebrities, or why so many chickens, pigs, and penguins are hanging out in an urban setting (not to mention why they can sing). And name me a single kids’ special about nutrition that doesn’t feature talking food characters that want to be eaten. How does that make sense? How is that logical?
Answer: It doesn’t, and it isn’t. But that doesn’t matter either, because life isn’t logical or rational. It’s absurd. It may not be Ionesco, but it’s up there. 
And when novelists, playwrights and puppet shows have been exploring that for eons, I don’t see why eighth graders can’t handle a simple little talking pineapple that’s nothing more than a pineapple, flawed as we all are by yearnings of being greater than our capabilities allow, testing the limits of reality, and who is ultimately brought down by the reality that it has no sleeves in which to stuff tricks. 
Zoe’s jacket had sleeves. And a zipper. But in the end, it was just a jacket who had no choice but to be a jacket. Oh, and none of it was real.

Moral: If Twitter says the sky is green and the story in the standardized test says the sky is red and The Wizard of Oz says that the sky is sepia, you should be smart enough to know which bubble to fill in with your Number 2 pencil, even if you’re looking outside at a blue sky. 
Yes indeed. Welcome to me. 

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