“Ditto goes to school” (XXXIX)

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“Blah, blah, blah,” said the schoolmarm, “blah, blah, blah, blah.” Tomorrow is the last day of school, thought Ditto. I can’t believe it’s almost over. I would never have survived without Ms. Johnson. I wish Ms. Johnson was the regular teacher. I wonder if we could go on strike? If the people in a republic can choose their leader, why can’t the children in a school choose their teacher? We wouldn’t have to cut up the flag, or do all the tricky things the New Teacher does in The Children’s Story. I wonder if I could convince my classmates? Most of them seem content with the schoolmarm, repeating what she says. But they’ve never met Ms. Johnson. It’s hard to get people to like someone they’ve never met… or get people to change at all… but I’ll bet I could change them… yes, it might be tricky, but I’ll bet I could…

 

“Ditto goes to school” (XXXVIII)

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      “We should say a prayer now. In some schools that’s a custom too…. But let’s pray for something very good. What should we pray for?”
      “Bless Momma and Daddy,” Danny said immediately.
      “That’s a good idea, Danny. I have one. Let’s pray for candy. That’s a good idea, isn’t it?” They all nodded happily.
      So, following their New Teacher, they all closed their eyes and steepled their hands together, and they prayed with her for candy.
      The New Teacher opened her eyes and looked around disappointedly. “But where’s our candy? God is all-seeing and is every-where, and if we pray, He answers our prayers. Isn’t that true? Perhaps we’re using the wrong name.” She thought a moment and then said, “Instead of saying ‘God,’ let’s say ‘Our Leader.’ Let’s pray to Our Leader for candy. Let’s pray very hard and don’t open your eyes till I say.”
      So the children shut their eyes tightly and prayed very hard, and as they prayed, the New Teacher took out some candy from her pocket and quietly put a piece on each child’s desk. She did not notice Johnny—alone of all the children—watching her through his half-closed eyes.
      She went softly back to her desk and the prayer ended, and the children opened their eyes and they stared at the candy and they were overjoyed.
      “I’m going to pray to Our Leader every time,” Mary said excitedly.
      “Me too,” Hilda said….
      “I saw you put the candy on our desks!” Johnny burst out. “I saw you….”
      All the children, appalled, stared at him and then at their New Teacher. She stood at the front of the class and looked back at Johnny and then at all of them.

Why does the New Teacher, said Ms. Johnson, suggest they pray for candy? Because she has candy, said Virginia, and the students will like her if she gives them some. Can you get a person to like you, said Ms. Johnson, if you have something they want? Absolutely, said Ditto. How do you get them to want what you have? said Ms. Johnson. You make it look pretty, said Virginia, like on TV. What do you see on TV, said Ms. Johnson, that you want? Lots of things, said Virginia, food, clothes, cars. Cars? said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Virginia. What would you do with a car? I’d have it, said Virginia. But you can’t drive, said Ms. Johnson. No, said Virginia, but I’d still have it.

How about you, Ditto, what do you like on TV? I don’t have a TV, said Ditto. You don’t? said Ms. Johnson. No, said Ditto. Is there anything you want? Oh yes, said Ditto, many things. Like what? said Ms. Johnson. Like an afternoon by the lake, said Ditto, or a day painting with my mother, or a pumpkin pie made from scratch, or a bowl of popcorn at night, or the sound of chickadees in the morning. But those are things, said Ms. Johnson, that you already have. Don’t you want something you don’t have? Yes, said Ditto, I want a TV. A TV? said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Ditto, so I can see all the things that I don’t want.

Are the children praying for everyone to get candy, said Ms. Johnson, or candy for themselves? It doesn’t say, said Ditto. I think they’re praying for their own candy, said Virginia. Isn’t that selfish? said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Ditto. But Danny prayed to bless his mother and father, said Virginia. Why did he do that? said Ms. Johnson. Because he wants them to be happy, said Virginia. Why does he want them to be happy? said Ms. Johnson. Because he loves them, said Virginia, and if they’re happy, he’ll be happy.

Isn’t that selfish, said Ms. Johnson, to pray for the well-being of others so that you’ll be well? But our well-being depends on the well-being of others, said Virginia. What others? said Ms. Johnson. My uncle, said Virginia, because I don’t have parents, and my friends. Does the well-being of those people depend on the well-being of others? said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Virginia. So your well-being, said Ms. Johnson, depends on the well-being of the others of others? Yes, said Virginia. Where does it end? said Ms. Johnson. It doesn’t end, said Ditto. Why not? Because, said Ditto, my well-being depends on the well-being of the others of others of others of others, until it includes all others. So, said Ms. Johnson, your well-being depends on the well-being of everyone else? Yes, said Ditto, just like Francis Bellamy said. Is that what prayer is for, said Ms. Johnson, to recognize the importance of others? Yes, said Virginia, I think so. That, said Ditto, is what it should be for.

     “Yes, Johnny, you’re quite right. You’re a very, very wise boy. Children, I put the candy on your desks. So you know that it doesn’t matter whom you ask, whom you shut your eyes and ‘pray’ to—to God or anyone, even Our Leader—no one will give you anything. Only another human being can give you things.”

Why does the New Teacher, said Ms. Johnson, have the children pray to Our Leader instead of God? Because God didn’t give them candy, said Virginia. Did Our Leader give them candy? No, said Virginia, but they thought He did until Johnny said he saw the Teacher do it. Do you think the New Teacher would have told the children the truth if Johnny had not seen her? No, said Ditto. Why not? said Ms. Johnson. Because the New Teacher, said Ditto, wants them to believe in Our Leader instead of God. Why? said Ms. Johnson. I don’t know, said Ditto, I suppose the New Teacher believes in Our Leader but doesn’t believe in God.

Why does the New Teacher want the children to believe what she believes? Because everyone, said Virginia, wants others to believe what they believe. Why? said Ms. Johnson. Because then, said Virginia, they have more friends and they can conquer the people who don’t believe what they believe. Do you agree, Ditto? Yes, said Ditto, I agree it makes it easier to conquer others, but I don’t see the difference between believing in God or believing in Our Leader. God and Our Leader, said Ms. Johnson, may have different ideas of right and wrong. Yes, said Ditto, but the story doesn’t say that, in fact it doesn’t say which god the New Teacher is talking about. Which god? said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Ditto, aren’t there many gods? Yes, said Ms. Johnson, but “God” in the pledge of allegiance refers to the Christian God. Old Testament, said Ditto, or New Testament? What’s the difference? said Ms. Johnson. The Old Testament God, said Ditto, is the God of revenge, the New Testament is the God of love. Have you read the Bible? said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Ditto, but only the good parts. Let’s say, said Ms. Johnson, that it’s the God of the New Testament. I think, said Ditto, that as far as the children are concerned, believing in God or believing in Our Leader is the same thing, it’s just believing in someone who can give you what you want.

But the New Teacher, said Ms. Johnson, goes on to say that only human beings can give you things. I like that part, said Virginia. Why? said Ms. Johnson. Because, said Virginia, that’s how it is in my life. What do you mean? said Ms. Johnson. Everything I have, said Virginia, was given to me by a person. You don’t believe, said Ms. Johnson, that there is someone who, like the story says, is “all-seeing and everywhere”? I hope not, said Virginia. Why not? said Ms. Johnson. Because I do lots of things I don’t want others to see. Like what? said Ms. Johnson. If I told you, said Virginia, then it would be like you could see them, so I won’t tell you. That’s fine, said Ms. Johnson, how about you, Ditto, what do you think? I think, said Ditto, that if I were “all-seeing and everywhere,” I would not be very interested in a donkey like me.

“Blurtso is happy to be of help”

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I want to help, said Blurtso, but I’ve got to be honest about my abilities. Let me see, he said, I know that I’m not very good at carrying heavy objects, I tire easily and I recuperate slowly. I don’t read and I don’t write, and my hoofs are good for little more than standing on, which I prefer to avoid, if there is a patch of grass nearby. Hmmmm…. my nose is quite good for sniffing, and my ears are quite good for hearing, so I can usually hear when someone is asking someone to give them a hand with something, but of course I don’t have hands and my hoofs are good for little more than standing on, which usually isn’t much help. I’m pretty good company, I guess, if you’re someone who doesn’t move around a lot, or you just need someone to nap with. I’m quite good at that, I believe, taking naps that is. I can take a nap at almost any time and almost any place. And I must be good at other things too, but I can’t remember what they are, because I don’t have a very good memory. But I know I am happy to be of help. I’m quite sure of that. I’m very happy to be of help.

“Ditto goes to school” (XXXVII)

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We only have a few more pages in our story, said Ms. Johnson. Good! said Virginia, I want to see how everything ends happily ever after!

      “Is the war over now?” Danny said.
      “Yes, Danny,” said the New Teacher, “isn’t that wonderful! Now all your daddies will be home soon.
      “Did we win or did we lose?” Mary asked.
      “We—that’s you and I and all of us—we won.”
      The children sat back happily.
      Then Johnny’s hatred burst. “Where’s my dad? What’ve you done to my dad? Where’s my dad?”

Is that the war of the conquerors over the conquered? said Virginia, the war that “they” won? Yes, said Ms. Johnson.

       The New Teacher got up from her seat and walked the length of the room and the children’s eyes followed her, and Johnny stood, knees of jelly. She sat down on his seat and put her hands on his shoulders, and his shoulders were shaking like his knees…
      “Your daddy just has to go back to school a little. He had some strange thoughts, and he wanted other grown-ups to believe them. It’s not right to want others to believe wrong thoughts, is it?”
      “Well, no, I suppose not. But my dad never thought nothing bad.”
      “Of course, Johnny. I said wrong thoughts—not bad thoughts. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s right to show grown-ups right thoughts when they’re wrong, isn’t it?”
      “Well, yes.” said Johnny…
      “Perhaps sometime when you wanted to talk about something very important to your dad, perhaps he said, ‘Not now, Johnny, I’m busy,’ or ‘We’ll talk about that tomorrow.’ That’s a bad thought—not to give you time when it’s important. Isn’t it?”
      “Sure. But that’s what all grown-ups do.”
      “My momma says that all the time,” Mary said.
      And the other children nodded, and they wondered if all their parents should go back to school and unlearn bad thoughts.

The New Teacher, said Ditto, is being tricky again. How? said Ms. Johnson. She says Johnny’s father had “wrong” thoughts, not “bad” thoughts, then she says, “that’s a bad thought” a minute later. Yes, she does, said Ms. Johnson, why do you think she does that? She’s trying to convince Johnny to think like she does, said Ditto.

What other words, said Ms. Johnson, does she change? She mixes “right” and “wrong,” said Ditto. How does she mix them? said Ms. Johnson. First, said Ditto, she says it’s “not right” to believe “wrong” thoughts—which is the same as saying it’s “wrong” to believe “wrong” thoughts—then she says there’s “nothing wrong” with saying “wrong” thoughts instead of “bad” thoughts—which is the same as saying it’s “right” to say “wrong” thoughts—then she says it’s “right” to show grown-ups “right” thoughts when they’re “wrong,” then she says Johnny’s father had a “bad” thought instead of saying it was a “wrong” thought.

That’s very confusing, said Virginia. Yes, it is, said Ms. Johnson, what’s the difference between saying “not right” instead of “wrong”? It’s like saying, said Ditto, that wrong is the absence of right. Is the absence of something, said Ms. Johnson, the same as the opposite of something? Not exactly, said Ditto, because if someone tells me something is “not right,” I have to actively conclude that it is “wrong,” and I am involved in determining it is “wrong,” but if someone tells me something is “wrong,” I don’t have to actively conclude anything, I just accept it’s wrong. Good, said Ms. Johnson. And, said Ditto, if I actively conclude something is “wrong” it leaves a stronger impression than if I simply accept something is “wrong.” So, said Ms. Johnson, getting someone to “actively” believe something is more powerful than simply “telling” them to believe it? Yes, said Ditto. Wow, said Virginia, that Teacher really is tricky! I know a song about right and wrong and absence, said Ditto. A song? said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Ditto, a song my father sings when he’s playing guitar. Let’s hear it! said Virginia. It’s a song by Roger Miller, said Ditto, it goes:

“Silence is simply the absence of sound,
darkness the absence of light,
my life is made up of silence and darkness,
since the absence of you from my sight.

We became birds of a different feather
encountering storms we could neither one weather.
I defy anyone to define me a way
my heart can go on this-a-way.

Nearness is simply the absence of absence,
wrong is the absence of right,
my life is made up of the absence of nearness
since the absence of you from my sight.

We became birds of a different feather,
encountering storms we could neither one weather.
I defy anyone to define me a way
my heart can go on this-a-way.”

That’s very interesting, said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Ditto, it’s like a syllogism, or a series of syllogisms in which everything becomes its opposite. What’s a sillyjism? said Virginia. A syllogism, said Ms. Johnson, is a series of general statements that lead to a specific conclusion. For example, “Ditto is a donkey. Donkeys have hooves. Therefore, Ditto has hooves.” It’s like a mathematical equation, said Ditto, that follows the pattern: if a=b and b=c, then a=c. I’m not good at math, said Virginia. That’s alright, said Ms. Johnson, a syllogism is expressed with words. And this song, said Virginia, is a sillyjism? It’s a bunch of syllogisms, said Ditto, that create a bigger syllogism. How does it do that? said Virginia. It’s easy, said Ditto, but you’ve got to understand the smaller syllogisms before you can understand the big one. Alright, said Virginia, tell me about the small ones.

The first verse, said Ditto, says: silence = the absence of sound, and darkness = the absence of light. So “my life” = silence (the absence of sound) and darkness (the absence of light) since the absence of you. Which is the same as saying “my life = the absence of sound and the absence of light since the absence of you.” That’s a lot of absence, said Virginia. Yes it is, said Ditto, but we’re just getting started.

The second verse says: nearness = the absence of absence, and wrong = the absence of right. So “my life” = the absence of nearness (the absence of absence) since the absence of you. In other words, “my life = the absence of the absence of absence (which is the absence of right) since the absence of you.” Wow, said Virginia, that’s a great sillyjism! Now, said Ditto, since both the first and second verses are definitions of “my life,” the song is saying that “my life = the absence of sound and the absence of light and the absence of right and the absence of the absence of absence since the absence of you.”

What about the other parts of the song? said Virginia. The chorus, said Ditto, creates more absence by using more opposites. How? said Virginia. The first line of the chorus, said Ditto, “we became birds of a different feather,” is an altered form of the saying, “birds of a feather flock together.” I’ve heard that before! said Virginia. So when it says, “different feather,” it is saying the opposite, or “absence” of “together,” which is “alone,” or “together not together.” The next line does the same thing with “weather.” How? said Virginia. “Weather,” said Ditto, can be a noun or a verb. As a noun it means “storms,” as when people say, “We’ve had a lot of weather lately.” Yes, said Virginia, and then they say, “looks like a nor’easter!” As a verb, said Ditto, it means “to survive,” so when the song says, “storms we could neither one weather,” it’s saying, “storms we can’t survive” or “weather we can’t weather.” So the first two lines of the chorus are saying, “together not together” and “weather not weather.”

What about the rest of the chorus? said Virginia. The third line, said Ditto, “I defy anyone to define me a way,” is like saying, “there is no way,” which, combined with the fourth line, “my heart can go on this-a way,” is like saying, “there is no way to go this way,” which combined with the first two lines gives us, “together not together, weather not weather, way not way.” Is that all? said Virginia. No, said Ditto, there’s also, “neither one” and “defy anyone,” which is like “not one, no one.” So the entire chorus, expressed in its collection of opposites is, “together not together, weather not weather, way not way, not one, no one.”

So what’s the answer? said Virginia. The answer? said Ditto. Yes, said Virginia, the answer to the sillyjism? The answer, said Ditto, is death. Death? said Virginia. Yes, said Ditto, and it can be found by describing what life “is,” or what life “isn’t.” If we describe what life “is,” the song says: my life = silence, darkness, “farness” (absence of nearness), wrong, “blindness” (absence from sight), storms, “alone” (not together), “impossible” (no way), no one (defy anyone). If we describe what life “isn’t” the song says: my life = absence of sound, absence of light, absence of sight, absence of right, absence of absence of absence, together not together, weather not weather, way not way, not one, no one. So “my life” is not “life,” but rather “death,” which is its opposite, or the absence of life. Of course, it’s not “dead” death, but a “living death,” because the loved one “isn’t” (is not here), but I “am” (is here).

Living death, said Virginia, sounds strange. It’s an oxymoron, said Ms. Johnson. An oxenwhat? said Virginia. An oxymoron, said Ms. Johnson, a combination of two words that have “opposite” meanings, like “pointedly dull” or “burning cold,” which create an idea that is not one nor the other, but something new made from the combination of two opposites. Oh, said Virginia, like when we say that the New Teacher in our story is both “good” and “bad”? Yes! said Ms. Johnson, exactly like that!

 

“Ditto goes to school” (XXXVI)

blurtso4193

What do you think the New Teacher will do next? said Ms. Johnson. I don’t know, said Ditto, but I’m sure it’ll be tricky.

     Johnny put up his hand, “It’s our flag…”
      “Yes,” the New Teacher said. “It is a very pretty one.” She looked at it a moment and then said, “I wish I could have a piece of it. If it’s so important, I think we should all have a piece of it. Don’t you?”
      Then Danny said, “If we had some scissors we could cut a little piece off.”
      “There’s some in Miss Worden’s desk,” Brian said.
      The New Teacher found the scissors and they had to decide who would be allowed to cut a little piece off, and the New Teacher said that because today was
      Mary’s birthday (How did you know that? Mary asked herself, awed) Mary should be allowed to cut the piece off.

I told you she knew more than their names! said Ditto.

     And then they decided it would be very nice if they all had a piece. So the flag was cut up by the children and they were very proud that they each had a piece. But now the flagpole was bare and strange. And useless.
The children pondered what to do with it, and the idea that pleased them most was to push it out of the window. They watched excitedly as the New Teacher opened the window and allowed them to throw it into the playground. They shrieked with excitement as they saw it bounce on the ground and lie there. They began to love this strange New Teacher.

I don’t like that at all, said Ditto. What? said Ms. Johnson. Cutting the flag to pieces, said Ditto. Why? said Ms. Johnson. Because, said Ditto, it’s selfish. Selfish? said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Ditto, because now no one else can see the flag, in fact, it’s not a flag anymore, because it’s been divided up, it’s like Mr. Bellamy says in the pledge of allegiance. “I pledge allegiance,” said Virginia, “to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” What do you mean? said Ms. Johnson. A flag, said Ditto, is like a republic, it’s indivisible, it can’t be divided up and continue to be what it was. What do you think, Virginia? A piece, said Virginia, isn’t as pretty as a whole flag, but it’d be nice to have in your pocket. Why? said Ms. Johnson. Because, said Virginia, you could take it out and look at it, even when you’re at home. I think, said Ditto, it’s like the capitalist greed Mr. Bellamy talked about. But isn’t it fair, said Ms. Johnson, if everyone gets a piece? No, said Ditto, because the people outside the room didn’t get a piece.

Do you think, said Ms. Johnson, “they” will replace the old flag with a new flag, the same way “they” replaced Miss Worden with the New Teacher? Probably, said Ditto, the same way the old flag replaced the flag that was there before. The flag that was there before? said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Ditto, the flag, or symbol, of the people the United States conquered. The Indians! said Virginia. Yes, said Ditto, the Native Americans.

What do you know about the Native Americans? said Ms. Johnson. Not much, said Ditto. Pocahontas was very beautiful! said Virginia. How do you know? said Ms. Johnson. I saw the movie, said Virginia. The people who made the movie, said Ms. Johnson, didn’t know what she looked liked, they were just guessing. We don’t know a lot about the Native Americans, said Ditto, because the conquerors don’t like to talk about the conquered. Why not? said Ms. Johnson. Because, said Ditto, the conquerors want us to believe they have always been here and there was no one here before them. Why? said Ms. Johnson. Because, said Ditto, if there were old conquerors before them, there might be new conquerors after them.

I liked the part, said Virginia, where they threw the flag out the window. You mean the flagpole, said Ms. Johnson. So did I, said Ditto. Why? said Ms. Johnson. Because, said Ditto, I’ve never seen a flagpole fly through the air. Neither have I, said Virginia. But now it’s useless, said Ms. Johnson. No it isn’t, said Virginia. Why not? said Ms. Johnson. Because you can carry it back to the room, said Virginia, and throw it out again. Yes, said Ditto, and make a game of it. A game? said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Ditto, to see who can throw it farthest. Or, said Virginia, make it land on something in the yard! Or, said Ditto, make it land standing up! Or, said Virginia, make it stick in the ground! Yes, said Ditto, like a javelin! What’s a javelin? said Virginia. A javelin, said Ditto, is a spear people used to throw in a town called Olympia, and whoever threw it the farthest won a medal.

I want a medal! said Virginia. Maybe, said Ditto, the children could throw all the poles out the window, and everyone could win a medal! Yes!! said Virginia. What about the flags, said Ms. Johnson, that were on those poles? They could take them off first, said Ditto, and put them away. Can we throw something out the window? said Virginia. Like what? said Ms. Johnson. I know! said Ditto, let’s throw out the schoolmarm’s desk!