Old Roads, New Stories: Social Studies by Rob Carney
A Literary Series
My kid is 12, and he’s reading Frankenstein, and he’s down to the final ten pages, the part where Victor’s giving a speech to Captain Walton’s crew—“You cowards!”—because they want to turn south when the ice breaks, and Quentin groans, “Oh come on, Frankenstein, all you care about is getting to go after your beast.” He can read the guy like an X-ray.
Could I have done that when I was 12? I don’t know. I was a reader myself, but nothing like this book. In fact, my own clearest memory of seventh grade (at least its homework and teacher parts) doesn’t have to do with literature at all. It’s Mrs. Beulah Felhoffer: Social Studies and Current Events.
The jump in expectations from sixth grade to junior high wasn’t the issue. I was diligent and grade-scared. Ambitious (competitive) too. Plus, my dad taught high school Civics, History, Psychology/Sociology, Contemporary World Problems, and so on, so I had a ringer in my corner if I needed one. And this was May 19, 1980, the day after Mt. St. Helen’s erupted: ash burying all of eastern Washington; the Cowlitz River strangled by wiped-out forests and mud (I wonder what the salmon thought… if there was time to think at all); and a man named Harry Truman entombed in his cabin on the shores of Spirit Lake; and even my hometown, Puyallup, which sat north of the ash plume and away from the path of the jet stream, was everywhere dusted in volcano color. Incredible. I brought in the whole damn News Tribune and figured it was a slam-dunk A.
I got an F.
My dad was never one of those clan-centric parents, primed to skirmish with anyone who failed to appreciate his flawless offspring. But this time he did ask to meet with my teacher, and he came home knowing that the woman was insane. Apparently she’d told him an acceptable current event was “something important. Like a story on the moon landing.” That’s a strange definition of “current” at a minimum.
Around this same time, I took an I.Q. test, something my dad was using with his college-prep seniors. A professor, I guess, had put it together, intending to give disinterested people a jolt. I’d always liked this sort of quizzing, probably because I scored well enough to feel good. Or maybe I’m just weird and think that stuff is fun. Take Lucky Lager, for instance: If your parents chose Lucky in bottles over cans of Oly or Rainier, it meant you got to solve these puzzles on the inside of the caps; very cool. Anyway, the test had ten or so questions sort of like this:
Duke Ellington is to piano, as . . .
Billie Holiday is to ballads.
Miles Davis is to trumpet.
Lester Young is to tenor sax.
Dizzy Gillespie is to trumpet.
If you’re thinking You’ve got to be kidding me, then you’re halfway right. And even if you’re thinking that you’re hip to this, you’re probably still unsure, maybe trying to work out the logic: “Do I base my answer on the musical era (Billie Holiday), or on the style (it’s swing, so Lester Young), or is it just their names/nicknames beginning with the letter D?” No, no, and no. The only acceptable answer to the question is B. Why?—because Miles, like Duke, was a composer (not Dizzy; he didn’t sight read) as well as immortal on his trumpet like Ellington was immortal on keys. My test score marked me as illiterate, which didn’t feel fair—culturally specific referents aren’t basic common knowledge—and that was the point.
And it brings me back to Frankenstein. Victor thinks that he’s been doomed by Fate, but he’s wrong. He’s just cocooned in privilege—
All of the above?
—which isn’t the only reason for his ethical near-sightedness, but it doesn’t help. Worse, as Quentin will soon find out while he reads the last ten pages, Victor doesn’t learn. Not even an F, a total nada. And if personifying Prideful, Rash Disaster doesn’t teach you a clarifying lesson, nothing will.
Two-hundred years ago, Mary Shelley knew this. She knew it at the age of 19. I’d rather vote for her than most office-seekers these days (even you, James Inhofe, though you do pack a pretty mean snowball). Imagine the headline that would generate: “Illegal Alien’s Ghost Wins Election.”
I could mail it to Mrs. Felhoffer and flunk again.
Rob Carney’s fourth book 88 Maps just came out from Lost Horse Press (distribution by University of Washington Press). Previous books and chapbooks include Story Problems and Weather Report, both from Somondoco Press.