Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Seeing Red-June 5, 2005

In the forward progress of time, some things get left behind and become unappreciated. You might have an ancestor, for example, who gets starry-eyed talking about the fatback (salted strips of pig fat) sandwiches his mother used to make for him before marching him off to the one-room schoolhouse. The more he describes those sandwiches, the more you have to fight the gagging sensation building in the back of your throat. Society’s tastes have passed that one by; don’t look for the McFatback Sandwich to show up on the Value Menu anytime soon.

Other things go out of style but shouldn’t. Take shame, for example. More unfashionable than a Members Only jacket, shame once ruled the world. It was hot. It was happening, and it was everywhere. You could get it at home, doled out in heaping helpings by Mom and Dad for failure to eat broccoli, back-talkery, or a long list of other crimes. You could get it on the streets, where a perfect stranger would provide it if, for example, you were a girl and you dared expose your knees to the sunlight. And of course, you could get it at school in Price Club-sized packages at just about anytime for almost any reason at all.

Personally, I never felt worse than when being handed back a test or report and seeing that a small animal, maybe a squirrel or mongoose, had been slaughtered on it. I could see it across the room in the teacher’s hand and knew I was in trouble. On test day, I might have felt that I had faked my way through the questions, but it was obvious from the flood of red ink that I was wrong about Moby Dick having a happy ending. When the hideous thing hit my desk, I felt slightly faint and immediately turned the paper down so no one else could see its shameful mediocrity. It’s the kind of thing that can ruin a kid’s whole day.

Which, I think, is the point.

Red ink on your test paper is nature’s way of telling you that you need to smarten up, buster. Back in caveman times, getting a lot of red ink on your Mammoth-killing mid-term let you know that if you didn’t buckle down and work harder, you’d be eating turf throughout the winter. And not the kind that goes with Surf n’. I mean literally turf.

I started hearing rumors a few months ago that a Southern California school district (I won’t tell you which one, but I’ll just say that in Pasadena our Schools are in that District) had stopped using red ink to make corrections on students’ work. The story had it that red ink had been banned because it’s such a strong color that it might make the kids feel bad for getting incorrect answers or saying that the main theme of Moby Dick is that “fighting whales is best left to other whales or possibly sharks.” A crackpot answer like that calls for a bucket of red-ink, Carrie-style, to pour from the rafters on the slacker, but that’s just not in the cards anymore.

I had forgotten about all that until I read an article in USA Today this week where I learned that this insanity is spreading. The principal of a school in Carlsbad, near San Diego, even went so far as to say that corrections should be made in lavender, instead of red, because “it is a calming color.” In the same article, a corporate executive from Pilot Pen says this is all because “teachers are trying to be more reinforcing and less harsh.” The way I see it, if you’ve got enough things wrong on your paper that you need to be “calmed,” you could probably use a good old-fashioned dose of panic. You’re going to flunk, hairball! Too much “harsh” isn’t your problem; too much looking at life through lavender-colored glasses might be.

Don’t think that it takes a special mix of smog, soy milk and goat cheese pizza to make people nutty enough to believe this. Even in good old Pennsylvania, USA Today found an elementary school principal who calls red ink on student papers “frightening.”

Frightening? Well, ok, maybe red ink is a little frightening, but like with everything scary, you’re supposed to get the idea that it’s bad. That second row of teeth in a shark’s mouth? Frightening, definitely. That’s because they use them to turn bones like yours into a chunky salsa that goes well with whale chips. You’re supposed to be frightened; it’s helpful in keeping you from becoming a cold appetizer that gets pushed aside as soon as the main meal arrives.

So I say keep the red ink. In fact, couldn’t NASA or Microsoft come up with an ink that not only glows a ghastly blood red but also moans like the ghost of Jacob Marley in Christmas Carol? That, I believe, would send the more appropriate message that if you’re constantly making mistakes on your schoolwork, you don’t need “calming”.

You need to “study.” It’s in the dictionary, cream puff.


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