Every spring semester the last couple of years, my dear friend, who teaches ninth-grade English, asks me to help her grade papers. I have a key to work from and while there are questions that require paragraph or narrative answers, my responsibility is to only check the fill in the blank and multiple choice questions.
Freshman English. Does that say anything obvious to anybody? Like Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey?” Yeah. I was sort of horrified, because until the very moment I sat down that first year with a very tall stack of papers, I could hardly remember anything about those lesson-laden epic poems – except that I’d been less than enamored with them when I was a school girl some 50 years ago.
Going through the papers, a few things became abundantly clear to me. One, some students listen in class and read the assignments. Two, as many as half do not. And three, some bystander could have said the same two things about the Sanderson High School freshman class of 1966.
Those things, though weren’t nearly as bothersome, as the fact I had no real memory of reading the poems or of applying the lessons and logic the pieces provided. I “googled” them and realized I did sort of remember.
A few basics at least. Achilles died after an arrow was shot through his heel – hence, the term Achilles’ heel? And, of course, the Trojan horse. My memories of the “Odyssey” were completely vague until, in my review, I read the synopsis of Odysseus’ 10-year effort to return home. Did I imagine I heard the voice of my own long-ago English teacher pointing out that the trip home took as long as the Trojan War had lasted? I know I nodded my head in agreement realizing the lessons we were to glean were examples of hospitality, loyalty, perseverance, vengeance, appearance versus reality and spiritual growth – all things we would need or face in our lives.
In all honesty, that first paper-grading effort made – for some reason – the words of the first verse to Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” play in my head.
“When I think back / on all the crap I learned in high school / It’s a wonder / I can think at all / and though my lack of education / hasn’t hurt me none / I can read the writing on the wall.”
OK, for the record. I don’t use the word “crap” in my every-day vernacular. My mama won’t read this, but I would want her – and good people who share her standards – to know that. And more importantly, it needs to be made abundantly clear in case I get another English paper-grading gig, the grammatical error in the verse isn’t lost on me.
But it’s funny. And ironic. And I appreciate the effort to make the meter work.
There’s a point to all of this, and I’m not sure I can make it. Maybe it’s the truth we’ve long known, that about half of what is taught in schools will be irrelevant in 10 or 20 years, but it’s impossible to know which half. Who among us can’t give testimony on how things change? Who thought 20 years ago, we’d be carrying smart phones around with us that with a brush of a finger or a prompt to Siri would reveal the answer to any question we might have – unless the question has to do with – say – hospitality, loyalty, perseverance, vengeance, appearance versus reality and spiritual growth.
The things we really truly need to know and will have to face or practice in life don’t impress us as being important when we’re sitting in a high school English class wishing we were anywhere else but there. The hope we have to hope that whether it’s by hook, osmosis, pure accident or true miracle the knowledge we need to have when we need it the most will be there at our ready.
Here’s a funny thing. I knew the opening verse of “Kodachrome” by heart, and probably have since its debut in 1973. But I checked myself with a Google search, and found out Paul Simon originally thought he would name the song, “Going Home.” I guess “Odyssey” was already taken.
It’s sort of the mayonnaise-jar-lid wisdom I’ve quoted before, usually about high-school graduation time. Perhaps the best advice for life is written on the jar-lid rim. “Keep cool. Do not freeze.”
Some things can’t just be taught. They have to be learned, and, to a point, understood.
Editor’s note: Candace Cooksey Fulton, formerly of Brownwood, is a freelance writer now living in San Angelo. She writes weekly columns for the Brownwood Bulletin and the San Angelo Standard-Times, each unique to the particular paper. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.