26 February 2011

“There Were a Lot of Them and They Were All 10”

Earlier this month Prof. Carlo Rotella of Boston College wrote in the Boston Globe about doing an elementary-school visit:

Recently I visited Mr. Sugarman’s fourth grade class at the Runkle School in Brookline to talk about writing. They’re doing a unit on researching and organizing information into essays. I do that for a living, and one of my kids is a fourth-grader, but that doesn’t mean I was prepared for the experience. The students were eager and engaged, and their teacher expertly cultivated a tone of purposeful curiosity that balanced classroom order and open inquiry . . . but there were a lot of them and they were all 10 years old.

The potent chaos of their collective thought process would produce a naively incisive question — “If a story is too long, how do you make it shorter without stopping in the middle of a sentence?” — and then one so tenuously connected to our conversation that it caused my mind to lurch wildly as I tried to retrace the logic that had led to it. I think I know how we got from a discussion of working with an editor to “How come my brother is always bothering me?,” but it still threw me.

The kids kept good decorum, but rogue flows of energy twisted their seated bodies into crazy shapes, and a bewildering variety of expressions raced across their faces. One fellow who frequently raised his hand had a habit of shifting his hoodie around his torso so that the hood hung down under his chin, and then all the way around to its normal position. Every time I looked at him, his parts appeared to have rotated another turn or two. He also seemed to grow visibly taller.
For some reason Rotella’s essay reminds me of P. G. Wodehouse’s short story “Bertie Changes His Mind,” the only Bertie Wooster adventure narrated by Jeeves. That tale appears in Carry On, Jeeves. (An untested audio recording is here.)

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