Month: June 2013

Literary Criticism

this little piggy

“This little piggie went to market,
This little piggie stayed at home,
This little piggie had roast-beef,
And this little piggie had none.
But this little piggie went wee wee wee, all the way home.”

Standing at the lecturn, the professor lowered his sheet of paper. Removing his glasses with one hand, he gestured to the paper now lying in front of him and raised his gaze to straffe the rows of students in front of him. Continuing his diatribe, he said, “For the majority of readers, this would be the end their literary experience of this nursery rhyme. A mere passing fancy, skimming the surface, enjoying nothing more than a trivial kick of cuteness.”

As he paced the front of the lecture theatre he hit his stride, gesticulating for emphasis as he made his points. “Some short-sighted adults even play amateur games with the toes of their children as they entertain them with the lyrics. Relishing the tactile stimulation. The interplay of images, pivoting on the visual similarity between chubby toes and baby pigs. An activity that is no doubt stimulating to the development of the young brain.”

Suddenly reaching a crescendo, he stopped and pivoted to face the students. “But you”, he continued, finger sweeping the room to include the gathered first years, “you are made of better stuff. To you falls the task of going beyond the surface. Past the mundane to the profound. To ask the questions that lead us into a deeper understanding of the purpose of the text. To understand what the author was truely intending to communciate, both to his original audience and now to us. And so, to gain an insight into the transcendent meaning of the text itself – the intimate, personal and unique bond that exists between reader and the read.”

The professor paused. Around the room the students sat motionless, awed by the theatrical performance in front of them. “Welcome to Literary Criticism 101”, he intoned.

“Come on now, let’s see what you are made of.” The professor clapped his hands and pointed to a student at random, “You there, what is the socio-political context in which this was written?” Obviously panicked by the sudden attention, the student fumbled for a response, but a hand shot up on the other side of the room. Snapping his attention to the new target, the professor pointed, “Yes!”

“A communist revolution?”, the volunteer ventured timidly. “Brilliant”, responded the professor, “and how can we ascertain this?”

Encouraged by the positive response, a few hands went up this time. Motioning for each to speak up in turn, various suggestions were offered.

“There’s an obvious socio-economic discrepancy between the pigs”, said one.
“Yeah, on the one hand there’s a pig sitting down to roast-beef while at the same time another is starving”, continued another.
“And the market/home juxtaposition is obviously an illusion to the contrast between a pig free to pursue a working career as opposed to another that is forced, through social pressures, to maintain a role based solely in the home. Clearly feminist overtones are at work in this piece.”
“Oh I agree”, nodded another student sagely.
“And let’s not forget the environmental imperative at work here too”, added yet another. “Who can possibly condone the pollution so blatantly enacted by the pig urinating all the way home.”

The professor nodded, encouraging the dialog as the observations and arguments ebbed and flowed among the class for a while. Ideas were proferred, ruminated on and assimilated into an ever growing conglomeration of ideology. The discussion and commentary was building to a head when finally the professor noticed one solitary hand raised at the back of the auditorium. Motioning to the class for quiet, he indicated that the student should ask her question.

“Forgive me if I’m wrong”, she began, “but it seems to me that it’s just a nursery rhyme. All this other stuff sounds like that’s just what you want it to mean.”

With that the professor cracked an enormous smile. Gesturing with his arm towards the lone student, he attended to the rest of the class. “And that class”, he laughed, “is your first lesson. People will try to twist words to imply whatever they wish, but if they do, don’t be afraid to call them on it.”

“Of course it’s just a nursery rhyme and just because I’m a professor and am implying that it’s not, doesn’t make it any different. Well done young lady, you’ve done a fine job of reinforcing my lesson for today. I look forward to seeing you in my classes in the future.”

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Fortune Kitty (finale)

It’s finally here – hot off the press. ¬†Links to previous installments are: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

My eyes snapped open and I lay staring at the ceiling for a minute as consciousness reclaimed me. Something important was going to happen today. What was it? Let’s see, I was dreaming about a … ummm … man dreams are hard to remember – oh yeah, that’s right. I was sitting at a school desk, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was using chalk to draw chemical symbols on my school bag while yelling motivational slogans. At the same time, I was trying to write on a piece of paper but every time I did it would get crossed out in red pen and little red paw prints would trot off the edge of my desk. Behind me, Damo, Jason and Tony were standing in a circle laughing. What!?!

Sometimes I couldn’t believe how weird my dreams were. My sheets were all tangled and sweaty, knotted into crumpled pretzel of cotton that I wouldn’t be able to remove the creases from no matter how well I made the bed later. After a little effort, I managed to extricate my legs from the worst of the tangle and lay back exhausted. I must have tossed and turned all night – it was going to be a long day. I was just about to drift off again when a little niggle erupted from the back of my brain. Damo, Jason, Tony … Charlie! We’re going to have a test today! I launched myself out of bed.

Mum’s eyes reminded me of the rat creature from Ice Age always chasing the nut when I arrived in the kitchen thirty seconds later. It would have been the first time since halfway through Grade 5 that I’d gotten up on a school day without her hounding me. “Patrick, what’s wrong?” she asked me as I skidded to a halt. My heart rate must have been about 250, I’m sure my chest was heaving visibly and my palms seemed to have found the spring of mineral water from Mt Franklin. I just stood there for a moment trying to gather my thoughts and I finally managed to blurt out, “Where’s Charlie?”.

“He went out the back door after I fed him. As usual!”, Mum answered, her voice fading as I bolted out the back door. Pausing in the middle of the back yard I spotted Charlie curled up under a bush. He made to run away from the sudden commotion I’d caused before he realised that I was actually his friend and managed to keep his flight instinct in check, pausing mid-spring. Panic draining from him with feline slowness, his posture gradually relaxed and he let out a tentative “Meow”, pausing to see if it would be reciprocated. What was I expecting to see? Charlie wasn’t going to tell me anything. Any communication about the possible exam today only happened via notes in his vomit, not by talking directly. This was something I was going to have to handle myself.

“Don’t worry Charlie, go back to sleep”, I called as I turned and walked back inside.

Breakfast passed in a bit of a blur. I couldn’t keep my thoughts straight on any one thing. They kept flitting from the exam, to Charlie, to the questions we’d reconstructed last night and to a general feeling of unease. Above all, I just kept thinking that something fishy was going on and I was caught smack bang in the middle of it. My cornflakes has turned to mush long before I got around to eating them and I decided I could do without breakfast after all. Edging slowly towards the bin so as not to draw Mum’s attention, I was about to dump them when she asked, “Are you OK Pat?”.

“Uh, yeah”, I shrugged.

“You’re not your usual perky morning self”, she teased sarcastically, a wry smile on her lips. “Seriously though, you are even quieter than normal today.”

“Yeah, I’m fine”, I protested. What was I going to say, that my psychic vomiting cat had me freaked out? “I’ll just go get my bag ready.”

“OK, we’re close to running late”, she answered. As I ran off down the hall I could swear I heard her mutter under her breath, “again”.

>—<

I escaped from our car in a burst of flailing arms and legs and ran towards the gang’s usual meeting spot. Mum had tried a couple of times during the trip to school to ask what was up and I’d managed to stonewall her with brief responses. I didn’t want to talk to her about this, if nothing happened then I’d just look stupid. As I rounded the corner, I could see a couple of the gang. Jason was sitting on the ground, a look of intense concentration on his face as he poured over one of our school books. Tony on the other hand was hanging off the monkey bars. When he saw me he called, “Hey Pat, check this out.” He then flipped himself upside down, bringing his legs inside his arms and ending up hanging the way he originally faced but with his shoulders rotated. He then let out an almighty groan as he tried to pull himself back up the way he came and for a moment I thought he might make it. But as his legs lifted, he lost his strength and collapsed head first into the dirt. Completely unperturbed he picked himself up and, dusting himself down, ran over to us with a massive grin on his face.

“So close that time”, he beamed, “I swear I’ll get it any day.”

Jason looked up from his book and muttered, “Idiot”, before turning back.

I rolled my eyes at Jason and turned to ask Tony, “You seen Damo anywhere?”. If there was one guy I could talk to about this it would be Damo.

“No not yet”, said Tony and we both shrugged at each other. Damo was always the first of us to get to school, I think both of his parents had to get to work early and so, by extension, did Damo. We were both stumped about where he could be. Or rather I thought we were, but suddenly my pants were around my ankles and Damo came capering around me from behind laughing. Struggling to find some dignity, I fumbled in my haste to pull my pants back up and it took me a couple of tries. Tony joined in the laughter and even Jason thought this was a sufficient cause to let him be distracted from his study.

“Oh guys”, I whined. “Cut it out. Seriously. Dacking someone’s so last term”, I yelled. But from the mirth on their faces, I could see they thought it was just as hilarious as ever. I stewed red faced in silence for a few moments while they calmed themselves down, but they just kept on going. Turning to leave, I picked up my bag and finally Damo relented a little.

“Pat … Pat”, he gasped, “… wait, it’s cool.” His laughter subsiding, he caught his breath again and said, “Look relax, there were no girls around”.

I decided to stay, but sulked, “It was funny at first, but I’m just over it, that’s all.”

“Sure sorry”, he said. “Look we got more important things to talk about, like what’s going to happen today with this test?”

That got me back on side, I did need to talk this through with the guys. “Do you think it’s really going to come true?” I asked.

“Well it did last time”, offered Tony like it was a statement of irrefutable proof.

“Doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen again”, countered Damo.

“So what’s the point of it if it’s not true?” asked Tony.

“I don’t know, does there have to be a point? Maybe it just is.”

The three of us were standing in a close circle trying to nut it out, when a voice invaded our conclave saying, “Guys your missing the important thing here”. Jason looked up from his books and said matter-of-factly, “It’s either going to happen or it won’t. I don’t know why, but if it does happen and you haven’t taken advantage of it, won’t you feel a bit stupid?” With that he turned back to his books as if nothing had happened.

“That is true”, Damo said.

I was unconvinced. “We don’t study even when we know there’s an exam coming up. Why is this any different?” I asked.

“Because the effort to reward ratio is really high. We know the questions for this one … well probably. But anyway, we don’t have to just study everything, only those questions”, he explained.

I thought from the look on his face that Tony was convinced and he nodded enthusiastically confirming my suspicion. Acknowledging the allegiance, Damo gave a quick nod and they both turned to look at me to see what I’d say. I still felt uneasy because I wanted to know why this was happening, but Jason made a good point. There really was only one thing for it, the day was coming whether I was prepared or not, so I might as well be prepared. “Sure I’m in”, I agreed.

“Cool, well we’ve got 15 minutes before assembly”, said Damo, our unofficial gang Sergeant. “Yo, egg-head. Jason! Since you had such a good idea, run us through the questions quickly”, he demanded.

We knuckled down and spent the remaining time preparing. It was like we were going to war.

>—<

Class started and Mr Patterson appeared to be acting exactly like he usually did. If the test was going to be repeated then he was giving nothing away. Roll call, spelling and a little morning maths, the perfect catalysts to bring on insomnia. I watched as the classroom clock performed its usual feat of magic, slowing to a crawl, the second hand moving while the minute and hour stayed still. I swear, one day I’m going to get two synchronised watches and leave one in my bag outside while I bring the other into class. I’d put money on the fact that by lunch time, the one in my bag would be at least an hour ahead.

I hear that Albert Einstein came up with a theory of relativity where time can be slowed by heavy objects – my classroom must be massive! Perhaps I should write to him and ask him about it sometime.

“Dear Mr Einstein, I’m currently in Grade 6 at school and have noticed how slow time goes when my teacher is trying to teach me boring things. Having discovered the Theory of Relativity, I was wondering if you could …”

From the edge of my peripheral hearing, Mr Patterson’s words wafted into my stream of thought, “… books away, we’re going to have a quiz”. Jolted out of my mental letter writing, I quickly looked around at the guys who confirmed that I’d heard it right. We all smiled knowingly at each other, this was going to be great. An ace in the bag if ever there was one.

“Eyes front please Patrick”, Mr Patterson said.

“OK class, you just need a sheet of paper and your pencil. No Catherine, you cannot go to the bathroom, you can wait until morning tea. It’s only 10 minutes.”

The class composed itself to some degree and Mr Patterson started. True to its word, the prophesy was correct about the exam, it was an exact repeat of the previous one. This time I listened properly, but more importantly, this time I was prepared. The cubed root of 27 was actually not that hard now that I’d thought about it in advance. What’s more, I think I now understood what a cubed root actually was!

As the clock ticked down the last 10 minutes before morning tea, marking our progress, I felt exultant at the answers I could give. This time I was actually going to do OK. Soon enough the last question was delivered and finished. Turning in my paper, I grinned at Damo who gave me a little nod in return. Man time had flown during that test, evidently this theory of relativity could cut both ways. I was elated and when the bell rang, I rose with the rest of the class to head out to play.

“Ah Patrick, before you go I’d like a quick word with you about cat vomit”, said Mr Patterson as we headed for the door. Heads turned to look at him because of the strange request, but four snapped around faster than the rest. Looking around the room at the four astonished faces he continued, “… and Damien, Anthony and Jason, you might as well join me too by the looks of it.”

A couple of our class mates sniggered as they vacated the room, but soon we were left alone with the teacher.

He perched himself on the corner of his desk and gave us what he probably thought of as a penetrating stare. “Anything unusual been happening lately guys?”, he asked. We just sat there like stunned mullets, waiting to see what he’d say. When it was obvious we weren’t going to answer he continued, “Anything perhaps about the little test we just had?”. He was greeted with nothing but silence.

“Something perhaps about your cat Charlie?”, he tried again, a little desperation creeping into his voice.

I cracked first. “What did you do to him?”, I demanded. “He’d better be OK!”

“He’s fine”, Mr Patterson said, a massive grin splitting his face from ear to ear. “Just a little something I picked up from monks in the Himalayas.” Four completely dumb-founded faces stared back at him and he realised that his joke hadn’t found its mark. “Kidding, kidding”, he conceded, hands raised in a conciliatory gesture. “Look Patrick, I’ve been concerned about your attention here in class and I wanted to find a way to get your attention”, he said. “You’re a smart kid, but you don’t apply yourself. Just before that test, what were you day-dreaming about?”

“Um, well, I was thinking about writing a letter to Albert Einstein asking why time goes slowly in class”, I replied. This time it was my turn to be the focus of four dumb-founded stares. “Well you know”, I continued “because of his Theory of Relativity where he worked out that time gets slowed down by gravity and travelling fast and stuff.”

Mr Patterson beamed. “See this is just what I’m talking about Pat”, he said. “That’s not quite the point of his theory, but I’ve never taught you anything like that at school and yet you’ve learnt it yourself. You have the capability to learn. What is it about school that’s different to these things you teach yourself?”

“Easy”, I said, “school’s just boring but these things are cool. If the stuff we learned in school was interesting I’d be fine.”

Mr Patterson paused for a moment, narrowed his eyes and asked, “Interesting like a message in your cat’s vomit?” He paused for a moment to let that sink in. “How did you go on the test today?” he asked. I didn’t answer him. “I’m willing to bet”, he continued as he reached over to his pile of answers and found mine, “that you did quite well today. Your Mum certainly seems to think you four did some preparing yesterday.”

What the heck was going on? How did Mum fit into the equation here I wondered.

Scanning the sheet he nodded to himself. “If I’m not mistaken, you’ve only made one small mistake just here”, he said, showing us the sheet and indicating a line I didn’t really care to make out. “Quite an improvement from last week, I’d say.”

The gears in my head finally worked out how to engage my mouth and I managed to blurt out, “Hang on a sec, what are you talking about?”

Laying down the paper on the desk beside him, Mr Patterson continued, “Look, at the recent parent teacher interviews, your Mother and I agreed that we needed to try to engage you more at school. So we cooked up this plan to sneak a few notes into your cat’s vomit that would make it all seem more interesting and grab your attention. Your Mum’s been the putting those notes in Charlie’s vomit.”

I so wish I’d had a camera to take a picture of our faces at that moment, it must have been priceless. For my part, I was trying to imagine my Mum rolling up the pieces of paper and inserting them into piles of puke. I let out a little chuckle, lost in my fantasy and was summoned back to the moment by Mr Patterson continuing, “… and it seems to have worked.”

“But that’s not fair”, Jason broke in.

“How so?” Mr Patterson countered. Jason didn’t seem to have much response. “Look I’m supposed to be teaching you guys”, he continued. “I know that school isn’t always fascinating, I was a kid once too, but it is important to get some foundations to build on. Do you know much else about the story of Albert Einstein?” We all just shrugged in the non-committal way of youth everywhere.

“Well Einstein, the brilliant guy that he was, didn’t much like school. He said, ‘It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education’. The key to remember, is that school isn’t for its own benefit but to unlock your potential. As a teacher my favourite quote of his is, ‘It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge’.”

“I have tried to do that with these little notes to you guys. It’s fired your imagination hasn’t it and look you’ve done really well? But I’m not always going to be your teacher and, to be honest, some of the ones you’ll probably have are going to suck. You need to learn to keep yourself interested otherwise your imagination will be held back by a lack of knowledge.”

He paused for a moment to let that sink in and then continued, “So no more notes boys, the ball’s in your court. You know you can do it, it’s up to you whether you want to. I’ll see you after morning tea.”

Uncertainly we got up from our chairs and started to file towards the door. I was still a bit blind-sided and this was going to take some thinking about. He probably had a point though, it wasn’t that bad what we were learning. Just before we got to the door, Mr Patterson called after us.

“You know, on second thoughts Pat, maybe your understanding of Relativity isn’t too far off the mark. After all Einstein did tell his secretary to explain it to the press like this: ‘When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.'”

Eww girls, I’d rather have the stove!