By Alan Davison

Alan Davison is a professor of literature and language at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

“Blurtso listens to the birds” (I)

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The birds are nice, said Blurtso, they sound very happy. Yes, said Bonny, Pablo can identify all of them by their songs. Really, said Blurtso, what was that one? That was a chickadee, said Pablo. And that one? said Blurtso. That was another chickadee. How about that one? said Blurtso. That was the same chickadee you heard the first time, said Pablo. Wow, said Blurtso, that’s amazing.

“Ditto goes to school” (XXV)

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I don’t like Johnny, said Virginia. Why not? said Ms. Johnson. Because, said Virginia, he’s filled with hate. Is hate a bad thing? said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Virginia, very bad. But his hatred, said Ms. Johnson, makes him strong… is strength a bad thing? No, said Virginia, it’s a good thing. So a bad thing, said Ms. Johnson, can create a good thing? That doesn’t make sense, said Virginia. Maybe, said Ditto, there is good in bad things, and bad in good things. That makes even less sense, said Virginia. Why? said Ms. Johnson. Because bad is bad, said Virginia, and good is good.

Is a tiger bad? said Ms. Johnson. No, said Virginia, I love tigers! What if one of those tigers ate Ditto? That would be a bad tiger! said Virginia. But it’s the same tiger, said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Virginia. So good things can become bad, said Ms. Johnson, in certain situations? And bad things can become good, said Ditto, like Johnny’s hatred.

Hmm, said Virginia, how come we never have discussions like this in our regular class? Because, said Ms. Johnson, your regular class is scripted. Scripted? said Virginia. Yes, said Ms. Johnson, what the schoolmarm says is prepared by the department of education, and she reads the script they tell her to read. Why don’t they give her a good script? said Virginia. Because they think it is a good script. But it isn’t, said Virginia, it’s a bad script. I think it’s a good script, said Ditto. Why? said Ms. Johnson. Because, said Ditto, if it weren’t such a bad script, I wouldn’t have failed my test and been put in this class, and this is a very good class with a very good script.

“Ditto goes to school” (XXIV)

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Hello, said Ms. Johnson, my name is Ms. Johnson. Hello, said Virginia, my name is Virginia. Now that Virginia is with us, said Ms. Johnson, we’ll go back to the beginning and start our book again. Is that o.k., Ditto? Of course, said Ditto, I loved the beginning. Very well, said Ms. Johnson, the first page of The Children’s Story says:

The teacher was afraid. And the children were afraid. All except Johnny. He watched the classroom door with hate. He felt the hatred deep within his stomach. It gave him strength. It was two minutes to nine.

That’s a strange beginning, said Virginia, it doesn’t even say “once upon a time.” No, it doesn’t, said Ms. Johnson. Why not? said Virginia. Because the story, said Ms. Johnson, doesn’t begin at the beginning. Why not? said Virginia. That’s a good question, said Ms. Johnson, what do you think? I don’t know, said Virginia. I think, said Ditto, that the author doesn’t want us to know the beginning. Why not? Because, said Ditto, if he doesn’t tell us the beginning we have to guess, and to guess we have to pay attention to the middle. Very good! said Ms. Johnson.

Like a riddle? said Virginia. Yes, said Ms. Johnson. Or a game of twenty questions? said Virginia. Yes, said Ms. Johnson, except that we’re never sure of the answer. Why not? said Virginia. Because, said Ms. Johnson, the author never tells us the beginning, even when the story is over. So how can we be sure of anything? said Virginia. We can’t, said Ms. Johnson. I don’t like that, said Virginia. Why not? said Ms. Johnson. Because, said Virginia, I like to be sure.

Why do you like to be sure? said Ms. Johnson. Because, said Virginia, if I’m sure of something I can tell if it’s right or wrong. How much information do you need, said Ms. Johnson, to be sure? All of it, said Virginia. All of it? said Ms. Johnson, is that possible? No, said Ditto, it’s impossible to know everything. So how can we be sure? said Ms. Johnson. We can’t, said Ditto, not completely. But we make judgments every day, said Ms. Johnson, and act on those judgments. Yes, said Ditto, but we can’t be sure those judgments are right. But lots of people, said Virginia, are sure they’re right. Yes they are, said Ms. Johnson. Maybe, said Ditto, they should read this book. Yes, said Ms. Johnson, maybe they should.

“Ditto goes to school” (XXIII)

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I like your house, said Virginia. Thank you, said Ditto. How is the intervention class? I love it, said Ditto, we’re reading a book by James Clavell. James Clavell? said Virginia. Yes, said Ditto, and Ms. Johnson asks all kinds of interesting questions, and she lets me answer any way I choose. Really? said Virginia. Really, said Ditto. It’s not like our regular class? said Virginia. No, said Ditto, we talk about whatever the story brings to mind. That’s great, said Virginia. Yes it is, said Ditto, you should try to get in. To intervention? said Virginia. Yes, said Ditto. How? said Virginia. What was your Benchmark score? said Ditto. I was a yellow light, said Virginia. Maybe if you failed your weekly tests, said Ditto, you could become a red light. Do you think? said Virginia. I don’t know, said Ditto, it’s worth a try.

“Blurtso plays chess”

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Have you ever played chess? said Alex. No, said Blurtso, I don’t even know the pieces. That’s alright, said Alex, I can teach you… this is the king, and the queen, and the bishop, and the horse, and the castle. Oh, said Blurtso, and the little ones are the donkeys?

“Ditto goes to school” (XXII)

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I spoke to the schoolmarm, said Ms. Johnson, about your difficulty with the Benchmark. What did she say? said Ditto. She said that it doesn’t matter why you failed the test, you’ll have to remain in intervention until the next test at the end of May. That’s fine with me, said Ditto. Good, said Ms. Johnson, I thought we might do a “read aloud.” I brought a book called, The Children’s Story, by a writer named James Clavell. James Clavell? said Ditto, the author of Shogun? Yes, said Ms. Johnson, have you seen the movie? No, said Ditto, but I read the novel.

“Ditto goes to school” (XXI)

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Hello, said Ms. Johnson, I’m Ms. Johnson. Hello, said Ditto, I’m Ditto. Nice to meet you, Ditto. Nice to meet you, Ms. Johnson. I understand, said Ms. Johnson, that you had some trouble with the Dibels test. Yes, said Ditto, the words didn’t make any sense. Didn’t the schoolmarm explain, said Ms. Johnson, that the words were make-believe words? Yes, said Ditto, but even make-believe words have meaning. I don’t understand, said Ms. Johnson. Aren’t all words, said Ditto, make-believe words? All words? said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Ditto, the word “tree” has no ontological relationship to the thing we call a tree. We might invent any word and make believe it refers to a tree. In fact, that’s what we’ve done since the beginning of language—the word for tree is different in every language that exists—all the different words are simply make-believe words that we’ve agreed upon to refer to trees.

You’re exactly right, said Ms. Johnson. And if someone is asked to read a group of make-believe words, said Ditto, how do they know that the words don’t have make-believe pronunciations? They don’t know, said Ms. Johnson, because the group of make-believe words might constitute a make-believe language, with its own grammar, syntax, and pronunciation. Exactly, said Ditto, that’s why I had trouble with the test. Would it have helped, said Ms. Johnson, if the schoolmarm had said the words were “meaningless”? Meaningless? said Ditto. How could they be called meaningless if they’ve determined where I have to spend my lunch hour? Yes, said Ms. Johnson, the two of us are going to get along very, very well.

“Blurtso loses himself in the breeze”

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Somewhere beyond the city, maybe up north, in Maine, the warmth is thickening on the breeze, the mud is hardening underhoof, and voices are swelling on the branches. And a donkey with no place to go is losing himself, in the fragrance of needles and pine.