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

Worst. Fairy Tale. Ever. Also, the woman on the bed…UPDATED October 8, 2013

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.

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