The low point of my teaching career–one of the low points, anyway–occurred at a literary festival hosted by Texas Lutheran University.
I’d accompanied several of my high school students, who had submitted pieces of writing to TLU weeks before. The morning of the festival, we were assigned to small groups, each comprising about a dozen secondary students from several high schools in the area and a teacher or two. A TLU professor and an English major led discussions of student submissions.
Somehow, talk turned to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, the essay in which Swift appears to suggest that the poor of Ireland might benefit from selling their infants as food for the rich. My seniors had read the essay a month or two before.
In the middle of the ensuing talk about tone, irony, distance between meaning and text, Pat, one of my brightest students, turned to me and said in a voice audible to all, “I thought he was serious about eating Irish babies.”
“It’s satire,” I hissed, sliding under the sofa.
That’s what I get, I thought, for not polling the class at the end of the lesson. I imagine more than one of my students, considering their penchant for distraction, graduated thinking Swift approved of cannibalism. I should post a clarification on FaceBook.
But that was years ago. If I were teaching now I wouldn’t fear exposing my students to literary fests. If I were teaching now, I’d simply tell students to take their pencils and lightly mark Swift’s Proposal with an emoticon: a little smiley face that signifies, “Didn’t mean it. Just being amusing.”
I’d have them put one on Huckleberry Finn, too. In fact, I’d buy a box of them for Huck. We’d go page by page, sticking a little yellow smiley beside every paragraph likely to upset the terminally literal.
While I was at it, I’d stick on on me, too. I need an emoticon.
In a piece I wrote for Whiskertips, another blog for which I’m responsible, I issued guidelines for grocery shopping. I got the idea from Pat Hoglund’s Have I Got a Story from You. Hoglund writes about her dislike of shopping for groceries. I took the topic a step further, offering a codified version of the rules according to me. Θ*
*Didn’t mean it. Just being amusing.
Or, in the cases of Swift and Twain, scathing.
I didn’t mean people shouldn’t choose fruits and vegetables with care. I didn’t mean, “Get out of my way or I’ll run over you with my cart.” Or your children. I didn’t mean anything I said.
Well, I meant some of it. Men really do move through the checkout line faster than women, especially women with children. And when people look straight at me while talking on cell phones, I do jump into their conversations. And I think people should line up behind older people and not complain when they take a long time to get out their money. As I said, we’re all going to get to that point, if we’re lucky.
But I wrote the piece as if I meant everything I said–literally. And therein lies the problem. I’m aware some of my readers might have taken me literally. It’s happened before. Like in my post asking why men always end up with the remote control. That was meant to be lighthearted, ironic, neither a serious question nor a criticism of the social order.
If I had an emoticon, I could prevent misunderstanding. Unfortunately, this program doesn’t give me that option. The symbol Θ, marked with the asterisk, above, is theta, the closest symbol to an emoticon I could find.
I refuse to insert Θs when I mean something else.
So, dear readers, please muddle along with me, taking on faith that I am a well-meaning person without a malicious bone in my body, a writer whose one compulsion lies in a satirical, hyperbolic, amusing, flippant, frivolous, blithe, playful, sprightly, fanciful, dry, wry, droll, aslant, farcical, irreverent,** ironic but entirely non-sarcastic take on life that will burst forth no matter how I try to keep a lid on it.
** Thesaurus.com is a fine resource.