Recently, a friend of mine was telling me about the essay her son wrote for school. It seems that his essay read something like this: “In ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ Scout and Jem lose their innocence when an incident occurs that causes them to lose their innocence. This incident occurred the summer they lost their innocence.” Not too surprisingly, my friend made her son 1) actually read the book, and 2) rewrite the essay so that it didn’t reek quite so much of BS. Her argument to him (of course he argued) was that, one day, when the time comes for him to make his way in the real world, the world of jobs and paychecks, people will be much less forgiving of someone trying to get away with such blatant ignorance, and he should probably start preparing for that now.
It was a good argument, I thought. A valid one. And then I happened to be glancing through the classifieds here in “the real world,” and I saw an ad that read as follows: “Wanted. Assistant Manager. The Assistant Manager assists the Manager in managing,” and I realized that BS Essay Boy actually had the right idea after all, and that the painful truth of the matter was that his mother (and by my support, I) were the ones who were guilty of not living in the “real world.” Not only that, but we were also guilty of telling our children yet another big, fat, whopping lie concerning that world.
The lies started in elementary school, when we told them that it was important that they learn to add and subtract without a calculator. “In the real world,” we said (there’s those magic words again), “people are expected to be able to do simple sums in their heads.” Of course it wasn’t long after that that I had to stand by in total agony as my kids watched a cashier’s brow furrow up like an unmade bed when I handed her a ten and a quarter for a purchase totaling $5.19. (I considered covering their eyes to shield them from the horror of it, but I only have two hands, meaning that I could have shielded either one whole child or half of each. It would have been pointless, anyway: there was no way I could have possibly shielded them from the puzzled humming sound coming from her pursed lips as well.)
Then there was the science fair project where we insisted they use their real data, even though it didn’t support their hypothesis, because “that’s how the scientific method works,” and “people who don’t understand the scientific method can be tricked into anything—even voting Republican.” The next day we opened up the paper to find that yet another school district had decided to adopt a set of science books that included a section on “intelligent design.” (Next up: geography books that question the existence of Delaware on the grounds that “no one we know has ever actually been there.”)
This was followed by a stern lecture against playground fighting on the grounds that “violence never solved anything,” only to hear the news that we are getting into yet another war in the Middle East. (Although perhaps the playground lecture should have been “violence never solves anything—especially if you lose all of the time.”)
Perhaps we’re just going about all of this in the wrong way. If we were honest (with ourselves as well as them), we would probably admit to them that what we call “the real world” is actually just a code name for “the world we really want.” But even so: I still believe that in both versions it’s a good idea to actually read “To Kill A Mockingbird.”