Monday, April 25, 2011

How a Teacher's Brain is Wired

We Interrupt Theater Production to Talk About English: 

Someone asked me recently: Just how is a teacher's brain wired?

Scary even to contemplate.

When I, former teacher Miss O', moved to New York nearly 8 years ago, I had to let my brain unfreeze. I bummed around for a while, did some assistant directing, costume running-crew stuff, experimental theater, acting classes, and a lot of walking, when I finally landed a job as an editor of text books. (Thanks, Hugh!)

The first year I worked there the scene you are about to read unfolded, and I have dramatized it in the epic style I believe it deserves. THIS, my readers, is how a teacher's brain is wired. It's the wiring of an artist, a scientist, a craftsman. (And a drunkard's, you know the way it's so hard to get an idea you can't let go of it for fear of falling off the earth? Only positive.) Much of the dialogue is verbatim, at least in my head.

I hope it brings you...if not joy, then a little smile, either of relating or of relief that you could never relate.
(It's one scene of several in a cycle called Extinctions.)

On the Hunt: A Myth
for Morris, Allison, Ira, Richard, Bobby, and all the other C.E.’s I’ve known

[Sounds of quills dipped in ink, scratching parchment, becoming a clatter of typewriter keys. Many typewriters, manual to electric, transition to keyboards, and then printers printing pages, pages, pages. Projection of a book, bound and ready for cracking open and consumption. It looks delicious.]

NARRATOR: The scene is an Ekta Table in a Publishing house at the very beginning of the 21st Century. Note: “Ekta” refers to the once-miraculous process of printing proof pages, involving the now extinct Ektachrome film, but the area for proofing such pages retains the name, much as we still call all small grocery stores in New York “Delis” when in fact many are no longer delicatessens that sell pastrami or knishes, and almost none are owned by German-speaking people. So we are at the Ekta table, where such rudimentary tools as “a table,” “paper,” and “pens” still exist, as well as “institutional knowledge” not accessible via Internet. Two “copy editors” are sitting at the table, faced with stacks of 11” x 17” documents, which contain “printed” copy that must be “proofread” and “corrected” for “errors.” It’s worth noting here that late in the 21st century’s first decade, humans learned that the very act of stating something in language , via any medium, made the statement “factual,” whereas in the centuries prior to this, in fact--there, I said it--all the way back through recorded time, to use language in a “factual” way meant demonstrating that a description, proposition, theory, or action was a “fact” and “true” using scientific method, or at least having a couple of guys with lab coats and college degrees to say, “That’s right.”

 [Such is the setting and time of the now extinct Morty and Stella, the Copyeditors, above mentioned. As the scene opens, they are lost in reading. They make marks with green pens, blue pencil is also fine, as long as the colors are consistent and are not red, because red is used by the Content Editorial team--the people who wrote the page content. Nor is black acceptable, for as we all know black blends too easily with black type to be seen by the compositors who will reprint the corrected proofs. Is everybody following?]

[MORTY and STELLA are chained to the table with oversized paper clip chains, linked around their necks from the starting point of, say, a stack of pages or a table leg. The pages shimmer. The pens are of impressive size and luminosity, like wands. Each scratch of their pens , each rattle of the paper clip chains, and each shuffle of any page, should be miked to booming. Projections of editorial marks, as found in The Chicago Manual of Style, might be projected behind them, presented as hieroglyphics. The lights should indicate epic struggle such as cavemen encountered when facing mastadons. Query: Did Neanderthal or homoerectus live at the time of the mastadons?]

MORTY: Listen to this. [Stella stops her own editing and listens, for an error of fascinating dimensions must have been discovered for one editor to interrupt a fellow editor’s train of corrective mark-making. Reading:] “The native people of these regions lived on such vegetables as beans, corn, and squash.” [STELLA gasps, a little.] OH my GOD! I don’t even know where to begin!

STELLA: “Native people”? With no “s”? What regions are we talking about? Were there a variety of tribes or groups? Might there be a need for an “s”?

MORTY: Well, earlier the text mentions the Iroquois, which as we know was comprised of a confederacy of the Five Nations of the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca peoples, and the Powhatan people of Eastern Virginia, so I will allow for the “s” on “people.” [Places an “s”.] At least [smirks] they didn’t say, “Indians,” as if all the Native Americans were one group.

STELLA [nods; thinking]: Read the sentence again.

MORTY [with relish; he is Sherlock Holmes, he is Fate]: “The native peoples of these regions lived on such vegetables as beans, corn, and squash.”

STELLA [sees, as Cassandra might; accusatorily]: Beans aren’t vegetables...

MORTY: They are legumes! LEGUMES!

STELLA: Do people today consider beans to be vegetables? Did something change when we weren’t looking?

MORTY: Even if someone changed it, it’s wrong! A legume is not a vegetable. It will never be a vegetable. Beans are, and will ever be, legumes!

STELLA: To what grade level is this information being presented?

MORTY: Grade 3.

STELLA: Have the children studied the classifications of food groups and items contained in those groups?

MORTY: If not now, then when?

STELLA: You’re right. You, Morty, Senior Copy Editor, are absolutely right.

MORTY [writing, as in blood]: “Query: Beans s-slash-b legumes question mark.” [Projected behind, is “s/b= should be”. If the whole line can be written, delightful.]

STELLA: Morty! With all due respect, there is no “should be” about it, and yet I admire your deference to the Social Studies Content Editorial team. Please God they follow up on the query.

MORTY: Stella, if you would, listen again: “...such vegetables as beans, corn, and squash.” [Both  MORTY and STELLA stare out, music intones, questions are raised.] I’m not happy with corn and squash, either. I have to think!

[A silence. They resume editing. NORMAN enters, an outsized paper clip chain around his neck.  He searches the table looking for his stack. A couple of beats.]

NORMAN: Has anyone seen Grade 2?

[MORTY and STELLA automatically look around to help search.]

STELLA: I think...oh, sorry, I’m editing right on top of it. [Lifts her pages.] I should have been paying more attention.

NORMAN [taking his stack, looking about; conspiratorially] Let’s see how the Social Studies group has chosen to further destroy the literacy of midwestern youth this morning! [An EDITORIAL ASSISTANT stealthily emerges, lifts NORMAN’s paper clip chain, still around his neck, and attaches the free end to a stack of pages, or to the table leg. The ASSISTANT, accompanied by a droning sound, disappears. NORMAN arranges his space, lifts his pen, and begins reading. Sighs. Marks. Reads. Scratches scrape. Queries boom.]

NARRATOR: ALL are Reading, as only Copy Editors can read: by page area, by margin, by line, by word and phrase, through punctuation and into content, around the page! There is something wrong on each page. There must be. [Several beats. MORTY is still on the same sentence. He looks up.]

MORTY: And isn’t squash a gourd?

NORMAN:  Sorry?

MORTY: Squash isn’t a vegetable. It’s a gourd.

NORMAN: I believe that’s correct.

[STELLA is interested but has no response. Thinks. Resumes her own task. Sighs. Edits. Her own pen blasts as...]

MORTY: Well, this is ridiculous. I don’t see how we can allow these untruths into an elementary social studies textbook. You might as well say tomatoes are vegetables.

[All three editors sigh and shake their heads, hands flying to the heavens.]

NORMAN: Is there room on the page to explain the distinction?

MORTY: Of course not! When is there ever room for distinctions like this? Look how big the illustration is! [All peer over. The illustration is huge. They react accordingly.] And it’s wrong! This is a pumpkin, and where in the copy is the word pumpkin? I’ll tell you where it is: Nowhere! That’s where!!

[Morty  is on the verge of a stroke. All three resume editing. MORTY is stuck on the same sentence. Several moments, a minute. At least two EDITORIAL ASSISTANTS, wearing red-tape shackles and giant scotch-tape rolls for handcuffs (with a long enough chain to reach with) enter and pick up completed stacks, which they sling onto their backs like bales, and add pages to the existing stacks, carefully checking.]

ASSISTANTS [with bales, looking at editors, muttering a reminder in a drone]: Deadlines.

MORTY [flashes]: No, it’s got to be gourd. I cannot in good conscience call squash a vegetable.

STELLA: Is a pumpkin a gourd?

NORMAN: Certainly. Morty, read me the whole passage.

MORTY:  “The native peoples of these regions. . .”

NORMAN: “People.”

MORTY: The Five Nations of the Iroquois, and the Powahatan.

NORMAN: Retract.

MORTY: “. . .lived on such vegetables as beans, corn, and squash.” Now, beans are legumes! Squash is a gourd!

NORMAN: Corn is a grain.

MORTY: [exploding, or collapsing, whichever] I don’t know where to start [. or !] Not one of these items is a vegetable! I don’t know how to begin to solve this!

[All three consider. Gradually, STELLA returns to her stack. NORMAN resumes marking on his stack. MORTY is in agony. STELLA looks up.]

STELLA: Morty, forgive me, but can you change “vegetables” to “foods”?

MORTY: “. . . such foods as. . .” Yes! NoOOO! “Vegetables” is highlighted in yellow. It is a content vocabulary word!! [Hair-tearing ensues. Sighs crescendo. Beats. Morty looks beaten.]

NORMAN and STELLA [who have been thinking, look up, in a shared eureka moment]: Morty!

STELLA: “. . .ate vegetables...

STELLA and NORMAN: ...and..

NORMAN: ...such foods as. . .” [MORTY looks at the copy.]

STELLA [heavenward]: Can there be copy fit?

MORTY [counting spaces, making bold edits] If I eliminate this article in line two [scratch!], I can pull up the word peoples, [does this, scratch!] which would pull up the next line [pulls up!]; and I transpose the “such” and add the “and” and “foods”...[scratch, scratch, scratch; counts characters] yes...yes. WE HAVE COPY FIT.  [Thunder in the form of a rolling cart, a flash of fluorescent bulb.]

NARRATOR: The universe is altered. A future book’s content has just been corrected, and thus made right! What greater power exists? I ask you.

[The EDITORS sigh. Satisfied, as if fed. Sure. Their heads in unison dip back to their respective pages, their pens in unison poised for the next attack.]

MORTY [Significantly turning a page, reading, going in for the kill. Beat. Looks up, wild.]: Now listen to this: “They ate fruits such as. . . .”

STELLA: Oh my God.

MORTY: "...apples, berries, and..."

STELLA: Don’t say “pumpkins.”

NORMAN: Please God tell me it doesn’t say “pumpkins”!

MORTY [smiling a demented smile]: “...PUMPKINS.”

[Scene . Say, Editorial Assistants as Greek Chorus, or a musical number in which the Copyeditors Unclip.]

Copyright 2009 by Lisa O'Hara


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