Monday, April 4, 2011

Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing (Shakespearean Sense)

Let’s suppose this morning's post about the runcible spoon wasn't my first interaction with Edward Lear. And let’s suppose that the spoon dug out a nearly forgotten memory of childhood mortification resulting from a certain owl's whimsical adventure with a certain pussycat in a certain pea-green boat.

Okay, you've got an elementary school. Two things to know about it: First, it holds an annual poetry recitation contest. Second, one class in particular has a scapegoat. If you don’t know what I mean, then you may well have been this kid — the one who took the blame for everything and who was denied any social mercy by his classmates, mostly on grounds that allying themselves with him would put them in the running to become the new scapegoat. For the sake of this story, let’s call this kid Aldo. Now, I’m not condoning how the class in question treated Aldo; being a grown-up, I realize see how pointlessly cruel it seems. On the other hand, I can remember the of-that-age fear of stepping away from the crowd and then having them suddenly see you as the new other. It was a legitimate concern. I mean, look what happened to Aldo.

Excuse the tangent. I meant to be discussing the recitation contest. Students, let’s say, were allotted a certain amount of time during which they could select their poems. If a kid failed to pick something — or if he insisted on “Always Sprinkle Pepper” in a classroom ruled by a woman who had heard too much Shel Silverstein — the poem would be selected for him. And this is what happened to Aldo, who had failed to turn in anything presentable and, likely, truth be known, didn’t turn in anything at all. Perhaps as punishment, the teach assigned him “The Owl and the Pussycat,” forcing him to recite it before the class several times a week leading up to the day on which he and everyone else would be graded on their projection, poise, memorization and overall grasp of the text.

If you’ve never read the poem, you won’t understand how awful it would be to recite anywhere, anytime, much less to a group of peers who already decided that they had it out for you.

The first verse:
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”
Yep. Aldo wasn’t catching any breaks on this one. In the case of classmates who didn’t already know what pussy can mean, the ones who had learned early explained, with as much depth as kids this age are capable of, why it was funny that Aldo had to stand at the front of the room and announce his love for a beautiful pussy. When Aldo stumbled, he had to start over, thus necessitating the pussy pledge again, Aldo’s classmates laughed more. Outside of class, the kids recited it to Aldo. (It was, for everyone else, a fairly easy poem to learn.) It never stopped being funny because the class decided it shouldn’t stop being funny. God, fourth-graders can be cruel, but Edward Lear certainly didn’t help.

And this is the terrible little story I have about “The Owl and the Pussycat.”

Well, I guess there’s an epilogue. Let’s say these kids continued growing up, and let’s say that Aldo left the school a year or two after the teacher made him repeatedly tell everyone how much he loved beautiful pussy. Much later, at a bar, at a time when he could legally be at a bar, Aldo walked up to place an order and realized that he was standing exactly beside one of his former classmates. They clearly recognized each other. And while the classmate, more than a little drunk, struggled to think of something to say and the words of the Edward Lear poem prepared to spring out of his mouth like some party favor that had been kept under a lid, under pressure for, oh, let’s say fourteen years, Aldo rolled his eyes and walked back into the crowd — over it, annoyed, better than all of that.

Considering the circumstances, I like this ending better than an interspecies couple-that-should-not-be dancing by the light of the moon.

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