“Blah, blah, blah,” said the schoolmarm, “blah, blah, blah, blah.” This lesson is so boring, thought Ditto. I wonder what the schoolmarm is saying? It’s hard to focus with that little piece of corn between her teeth. I wonder if she knows it’s there? I wonder what else she had for lunch? There’s a spot on the sleeve of her blouse… maybe she had a Salisbury steak with gravy… or a donut with chocolate icing… or maybe it’s blood… maybe she smashed a mosquito with her elbow… or leaned against a freshly painted barn… the spot matches the color of her shoes… I wonder if she ties her laces with a single loop or bunny ears through the rabbit hole… one of the laces is loose… and an ear has come undone… I haven’t seen many bunnies this spring… maybe I’ll see one on the way home… if I’m lucky… maybe I’ll see a bunny… or a turtle… or a giraffe…
“Blah, blah, blah,” said the schoolmarm, “blah, blah, blah, blah.” This lesson is so boring, thought Ditto. I wonder how the schoolmarm gets her hair like that? It’s almost like a block of clay… or a wasps’ nest… or a bunch of cowpies stacked on top of each other and glued with construction paste… I like the smell of construction paste… but I don’t like the taste… I prefer the taste of alfalfa… that’s an interesting word… alfalfa.. three a’s… two l’s… and two f’s… hmm… it’s almost a palindrome… aflafla… I wonder if it tastes just as good when it’s spelled backwards… or when you eat it upside down…
Do you think we’re dumb? said Virginia. Dumb? said Ditto. Yes, said Virginia, because we’re in the class for failures. But you failed on purpose, said Ditto. Yes, said Virginia, but maybe I’m too dumb to find the regular class interesting. I’m not dumb, said Ditto, and I don’t find the regular class interesting. Then why did you fail the Benchmark? My mother, said Ditto, says I failed because donkeys have a different way of understanding. A different way? said Virginia. Yes, said Ditto, we’re donkeycentric. Donkeycentric? said Virginia. Yes, said Ditto, we understand things based on our experience as donkeys.
Is Ms. Johnson donkeycentric? said Virginia. Partly, said Ditto, she’s multicentric. Multicentric? said Virginia. Yes, said Ditto, she understands things from multiple perspectives. How can she do that? said Virginia. She’s not bound by any limits, said Ditto, and her center is everywhere.
I’m going to say two words, said the schoolmarm, tell me which begins with “eh.” Listen carefully: egg, pan. Which word begins with “eh”? Egg begins with “eh.” Now, I’m going to say two more words. Tell me which begins with “h”… I wonder, thought Virginia, what Ditto is thinking? It looks like he’s paying attention. I never realized how boring this class was until I got put in intervention. We never say what we think. We just repeat. I wonder if the schoolmarm likes what she does? I guess grown-ups don’t get bored as easy as kids.
Shall we read page three of The Children’s Story? said Ms. Johnson. Oh yes, said Virginia, I want to know why the teacher and children are afraid. Very well, said Ms. Johnson, page three says:
The children rustled, watching the teacher, wondering what possessed her… Johnny looked away from the door and watched with the other children. He did not understand anything except that the teacher was afraid, and because she was afraid she was making them all worse and he wanted to shout that there was no need to fear. “Just because they’ve conquered us there’s no need for panic-fear,” Dad had said. “Don’t be afraid, Johnny. If you fear too much, you’ll be dead even though you’re alive.”
We still don’t know why they’re afraid, said Virginia. No, we don’t, said Ms. Johnson. I don’t like to be afraid, said Virginia. Neither do I, said Ditto. Maybe that’s why Johnny has so much hate, said Virginia. Why? said Ms. Johnson. Because he doesn’t like to be afraid, and he’s angry at the person who’s making him afraid. Are we sure it’s a person? said Ms. Johnson. It says “they” conquered, said Virginia.
Who are they? said Ms. Johnson. I don’t know, said Virginia, but they must be bad if they conquered. Is conquering bad? said Ms. Johnson. That depends if you’re a conquer or a conquered, said Virginia. A “conqueror,” said Ms. Johnson. “They” could be another kind of animal, said Ditto. Like what? said Ms. Johnson. Any kind of animal that’s different from them, said Ditto, like a herd of rhinoceri. “Rhinoceroses,” said Ms. Johnson. Or a swarm of bees, said Ditto, or a school of piranhas. What’s a piranha? said Virginia. A piranha, said Ms. Johnson, is a freshwater fish with an insatiable appetite for meat. Insatiable? said Virginia. Impossible to satisfy, said Ms. Johnson. Oh, said Virginia.
Why don’t you like to be afraid? said Ms. Johnson. Because, said Virginia, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But something good might happen, said Ms. Johnson. But it might not, said Virginia. We fear the unknown, said Ditto, like Hamlet. Hamlet? said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Ditto, my parents and their friend Blurtso staged a play called “Hamlet” last year. What does Hamlet say? said Ms. Johnson. He says, said Ditto, that he would rather stay with something familiar that doesn’t make him happy than take his chances with something unfamiliar. Something unfamiliar? said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Ditto. Like what? said Ms. Johnson. Like death, said Ditto. Are you afraid of death? said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Ditto. And you, Virginia? Yes, said Virginia.
Do you think Johnny is afraid of death in the story? said Ms. Johnson. Yes, said Ditto, or something worse. What’s worse than death? said Ms. Johnson. No one can say, said Ditto, until they know what death is. So it might not be bad? said Ms. Johnson. It might not, said Ditto, but we don’t know, so we create nightmares to fill the unknown. Is that what Johnny’s dad is telling us, said Ms. Johnson, when he says, “If you fear too much, you’ll be dead even though you’re alive”? Yes, said Ditto.
Have you ever heard of Franklin Delano Roosevelt? said Ms. Johnson. No, said Ditto. He was a president of the United States who said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” What does that mean? said Virginia. It means, said Ditto, that the worst thing to do is be afraid. Why? said Virginia. Because when you’re afraid, said Ditto, you’ll do anything to stop being afraid. Do you think it’s easy, said Ms. Johnson, to frighten people into doing what you want them to do? Yes, said Ditto, all you have to do is convince them something unknown will happen if they don’t.
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.
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.
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.
An abject failiure? said Virginia. Yes, said Ditto, that’s what the teacher called me. I’ve never heard the word “abject”, said Virginia. “Abject”, said Ditto, refers to someone cast down in spirit, someone reduced to hopelessness and surrender. Really? said Virginia. Yes, said Ditto, at least that’s the way Thoreau uses it. Thoreau? said Virginia. Henry David Thoreau, said Ditto, a man who wrote a book called Walden—my parents have a copy and they let me read it. Was Thoreau abject? said Virginia. No, said Ditto, but near the end of the book when he’s talking about the importance of protecting your thoughts he says, “Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts… if I were confined to a corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts… from an army of three divisions one can take away its general, and put it in disorder, but from the man the most abject and vulgar one cannot take away his thought.” How come you can read Walden, said Virginia, but can’t pass the Dibels? I don’t know, said Ditto, I guess Walden is a different kind of reading, or maybe Thoreau has been outlawed.