Worst. Fairy Tale. Ever. Also, the woman on the bed…UPDATED

So, people have been asking me what I think about the Common Core curriculum and seriously, the little research I’ve done, it doesn’t look so bad. I see that grammar, after taking a hit these last two decades, is back on the menu, so that’s good. They should bring back civics, too, but I know they won’t.

That fairy tale above you see above, though, –a “core curriculumn aligned” worksheet that recently turned up in a Long Island elementary school — bothers me, because it’s just so damned charmless and mediocre.

On a balmy summer night, almost fifty years ago, a group of children assembled on the lawn of a local school, and watched a theatrical performance of well-known fairy tales. Clever sets were turned, story-by-story, and the cast members seemed to physically shrink as they stripped off costumes in layers to reveal “The Swineherd,” “Puss-in-Boots,” “Rapunzel,” and finally “Hansel and Gretel.”

It was the finale that stayed with us. As the set turned for the last time, revealing a house that seemed aglow with sugar and gloppy frosting, we gasped in naked greed and gluttony. The door was outlined with red licorice roping, and at the windows fluttered long papers filled with candy dots, and as the hero and heroine snatched strategically placed treats without parental supervision, we children lived vicariously through them. The appearance of the witch, the eventual foiling of her evil plot and a reunion with a repentant father made for a satisfying end to a story that was delicious to contemplate, not just for the treats, but for the almost decadent weirdness of the plot.

“Hansel and Gretel” was quickly adapted to our backyard summer make-believes; it possessed all the elements of a good story: sympathetic characters, betrayal, plot-furthering mistakes, a fine villain and a denouement that allowed as much violence as we small fiends could pack into it. By September our drama included the ax-whacking deaths of both the crabby evil stepmother and an errant wolf who happened by; his stomach was discovered to be full of red fabric and a partially digested little girl who became a zombie.

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist,” wrote G. K. Chesterton, “Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” Modern wags might call it “inappropriate” but the very strangeness of Hansel and Gretel encouraged us to slip outside the story’s natural boundaries and into our own imaginings.

I doubt children reading this retelling of the story would be similarly inspired.

Peter and Patty’s new stepmother did not like children. She told the father to send them to an orphanage.

Their father loved Peter and Patty very much. He did not want to take them to an orphanage. He decided to tell them they were going camping in the woods… The stepmother sent them off with a smile.

That evening their father sat with them around the campfire and told them how special they were. He reminded them how well they knew and understood survival in the woods.

The very next morning, Peter and Patty awoke to find their father gone. He had left a note wishing them well.

Peter and Patty did not know what to do…They started walking, hoping to find their father. They came upon a cottage made of fresh fruit and vegetables. The sweet lady who owned the cottage adopted them, fed them well and sent them to a good school. Patty and Peter got to have rooms of their own, and they lived happily for the rest of their lives.

Couldn’t you just puke? Meant to speak to modern sensibilities, this story is flat, uninteresting, and apparently ignorant of the fact that children in 2013 don’t know from orphanages; they know Child Protective Services and foster homes.

Whoever sanctioned this story seems not to understand that many of the kids reading it are living in blended families, and perhaps struggling with step-parent issues. The plotting stepmother of the Brothers Grimm shows up within a broad narrative of abnormality that includes a candied house and a witch. The child perceives the character of the stepmother as being part of a warped unreality, and this can be ironically reassuring to the child: Only in weird worlds are stepmothers automatically nefarious.

This modern reworking, by contrast, presents a world where children are told they are “special” and the word is immediately robbed of its meaning; a world where fruits and vegetables are pushed as treats—a world, in fact, that sounds a lot like the reality of public school. In such a setting, an evil step-mother becomes not a literary device but someone who populates a recognizable world where—as anyone who watches commercial television knows—weak, hapless fathers are ubiquitous and non-essential.

But that’s all right, it seems. Despite the terrible parents who have abandoned Peter and Patty, a nameless, faceless but benevolent (“sweet”) stranger sees their genuine specialness and—like a bureaucrat—attends to their material needs, which is all that is required for a lifetime of happiness.

If this dull and clumsy mash-up of social engineering and government propaganda prompts thoughts of home schooling, the story of Ruby and the hairclip, reproduced here exactly as written, might urge them further along:

Image courtesy of shutterstock.com

Ruby sat on the bed she shared with her husband holding a hairclip. There was something mysterious and powerful about the cheaply manufactured neon clip that she was fondling in her newly suspicious palms. She didn’t recognize the hairclip. It was too big to be their daughter’s and Ruby was sure that it wasn’t hers. She hadn’t had friends over in weeks but here was this hairclip, little and green with a few long black hair strands caught in it. Ruby ran her fingers through her own blonde hair. She had just been vacuuming when she noticed the small, bright green object under the bed. Now their life would never be the same. She would wait here until Mike returned home.

This worksheet is used to gauge how effectively a student can infer something from the information at hand. It is not required to be used anywhere but is meant to be used (at the teacher’s discretion) in middle school and up, at the teacher’s discretion. Apparently it was given to third graders, and one mother had the good sense to reject it.

The follow-up questions ask the reader why Ruby is “so affected” by the hairclip, how the hairclip “has affected” her relationship and, “from where did the hairclip most likely come?”

Better questions might be, “is the so-called educator who wrote this processing her issues through a workbook? Does the writer—who, presumably, holds an advanced degree in education—actually believe that palms can harbor suspicions? If so, is this a religious point of view? Has the writer ever heard of syntax or split infinitives?

The story and questions are morally inappropriate for third grade readers. They might provide eight grade readers with enough of a hormonal rush, however, to keep them too busy to absorb the abysmal prose.

A Long Island Middle School
is disallowing physicality during recess. Because, “Without helmets and pads, children are much more susceptible to getting hurt, experts said.”

Seriously? How the hell did we ever grow up with scary stories and scrapes and cuts and yeah, sometimes a bloody goose-egg on the head. If my kids were growing up today, I’d definitely home school them — simply to protect them from these unnatural freaks who, it must be pointed out, are not fairy tales.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • alice

    I live in Indiana which is not accepting Common Core. My children go to a Montessori school where they can read Grimms fairy tales and go outside every day rain or shine and play football, ultimate frisbee, tag, or shipwreck! They also go to a farm for one afternoon a week and tend crops, care for animals, and service fences and equipment. There are alternatives to homeschooling and ways to get your political representatives to stand up for school choice and curriculum choices!

  • Anna

    Their father loved them very much – and so decided to trick them and abandon them in the woods rather than have them cared for in an orphanage? And yet the answer to the first question is that they were left in the woods because the *stepmother* didn’t like them? Aside from the laughably lame writing, the “correct” answer to the question is not actually supported by the story.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    That Peter and Patty story is crap. It dissapates the tension rather than building it with a further twist. The lady had to be a witch, or at least wicked. There’s a reason why Grimm’s fairy tales are eternal and stories like that fall into the ash heap of history.

    But let me play a little further with this bit of story:

    “Peter and Patty did not know what to do…They started walking, hoping to find their father. They came upon a cottage made of fresh fruit and vegetables.” It was energy efficient, with solar panels shining off the roof, and had a dark, round compost bin in the back. Five types of recycle garbage pails, each a different color, were on the side of the house. The front door was decorated with an assortment of Wicca pentagram symbols and on the front lawn were statues of the pagan spiral goddess and one of mother earth. Then the nice old lady, with a pointy hat resembling a witch’s cap, but certainly not a witch because the term witch sterotypes women, came out the front to greet the children and on her neck were pendents of the feminist venus symbol and the ankh. “Come in children,” she said, “we have some indoctrination to do, especially on this little boy. First thing, we will have to dress you in gender neutral clothing…” ;)

  • KyPerson

    This is too funny. I remember years ago a little book called Politically Correct Holiday Stories featuring such interesting tales as Frosty the Person of Snow.

    I’m about to teach my class the section on traditional literature, which does include Hansel and Gretel with all the gory parts left in.

    I am seeing books especially written to reinforce Core Content and they are charmless and not in the least interesting.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Glad you liked it. I enjoyed coming up with it. :)

  • Stacey McKenzie Means

    Thanks for posting this. In the Grimm version, after they shove the witch in the oven and return home, the stepmother is gone. I was reading this to my very young daughter, and I said, in all seriousness, “I wonder where the stepmother went?”

    “Mom! She was the witch.”

    Duh. Of course she was. That girl won the freshman humanities prize last year at her small liberal arts college. But she wouldn’t have learned anything from that bowdlerized version.

  • kmk1916

    Between the new books, and the old ones chucked out because of that ruling (can’t remember what it was called, the “possibility of lead so no books before 1970 unless certified” stupidity), there’s almost no point to visiting the library anymore.

  • Andrew

    Dear Elizabeth, et al.
    As I read the CCSS, nothing new is required in terms of materials. The teachers need to ensure they are provided legitimate opportunities for their students to analyze texts. Some teachers will spend their cash on junk like this because they feel they cannot do it on their own.

  • Panda Rosa

    Let me have some fun with Peter and Patty: The stepmother didn’t so much not like children as much as she didn’t like [I]these[/I] particular ones. “Husband, they sit there and smile all the time, and I mean ALL the time. They ask for underwear and socks for Christmas. They never wear jeans, just those creepy Dick-and-Jane clothes. They’d rather play jump rope all day long than video games. They hate pizza and they always remind the teacher about homework. Did I mention that They Never Stop Smiling? Husband, they’re giving me the creeps!”

  • perpper

    Yours is the original story, They had to edit it down for space.

  • Katie in FL

    I homeschool my children. My son has taken a couple of high school courses through Florida Virtual School which is online public school, and it is open to homeschoolers. Florida adopted Common Core this year, and I reluctantly let him try out the 11th grade American History course.

    We dropped the class after a week for various reasons. The main reason is that I did not realize it only covers the time periods of Reconstruction to the present. Upon telling the teacher this, her email response stated:

    “I think you will find that all United States History courses taught in Florida follow the new Common Core standards which start Segment I of United States history at Reconstruction and Segment II at the start of World War II.”

    So, what that tells me is that the children, at least in high school, are not learning about the founding of our country, the Constitution, the Civil War?!

    Thanks, but no thanks.
    We will be going back to our previous curriculum which is more traditional.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Thanks. :)

  • Kristen inDallas

    Yay! A story that teaches my kid if he’s ever lost in the woods, all strangers are nice and should be trusted even if they never attempt to reunite you with your parents.

  • Nan

    No, no, no, it isn’t that the term witch stereotypes women but that it’s a remnant of the patriarchal christian point of view and therefore unacceptable as wiccans don’t believe in that paradigm. I’m not sure how you missed the statue of Bast, the Egyptian cat goddess on the lawn?