Joe is in the 4th grade and has graduated from those cheesy book reports that are mostly art projects designed to drive parents insane (you know…dioramas, mobiles, puppets….seriously, teachers?) to true, written reports this year. Joe is a solid C student in language arts. He reads quite well, but his writing and spelling are, well…let’s go with interesting. Still, he’s been doggedly determined to learn to write on his own so we’ve set him loose to see what he can come up with for his book reports. For the most part, we’ve been pleasantly surprised with his reading comprehension and his ability to retell the story for his reports.
Today I got quite a shock, however, when I proofread his written report for his latest book, Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. We’ve been on a Dahl kick at our house. Joe’s read James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The BFG. So far he has refused to read Matilda because (and I quote) “It’s about a girl.” At any rate, as I was reading the text of Joe’s report this time, I became a bit concerned.
“Joe….what do you mean by ‘He ran away to poach peasants’?”
“He went off into the woods and poached peasants,” he responded, as if I was crazy for not understanding.
“What do you mean by poach?”
“He gets peasants and eats them.”
“He eats peasants?”
“Yeah. He eats them.”
“Like he cooks them up and eats them?”
“Yes,” Joe replied, obviously becoming exasperated with my idiocy.
Was my son honestly telling me that this library book that I had selected for him was a book about people ingesting other people? I know Dahl’s stories are highly imaginative. In James and The Giant Peach, James’s parents are trampled to death by rhinoceroses in pastoral England. Then, James takes a trip from England to New York in a giant peach filled with a cast of bug characters who are all the size of an adult human. Dahl’s stories make me wish I had known the right drugs to do while I was in college. But, I still could not imagine a children’s novel in which Dahl creates cannibals who hunt and eat peasants. That seemed like a bit much, even for him. Joe and I went round and round until I finally grabbed the library book and began scanning it for evidence of cannibalism. Then, I found the word that might clarify the entire book report.
“Joe…were Danny and his dad poaching and eating birds?”
“Yes. Peasants are birds.”
“No, Joe. Pheasants are birds. Peasants are people”
“I know that,” Joe replied. “I knew they were eating birds. There were pictures of the birds. I just forgot that there was a difference between peasants and pheasants.”
“Big difference, Joe. At least your report makes more sense now. I was a bit uneasy picturing Danny and his dad feeding peasants sleeping pills stuffed in raisins and then watching them falling out of the trees.”
Joe had a good laugh about my mental image of poor, country folk dropping from the sky only to be then being picked up and subsequently cooked by gypsies. But this little miscommunication proves how delicate and complicated the English language is. One missing “h” and suddenly a simple hunting expedition takes a sinister turn. It’s miraculous that any of us learn to understand and communicate with the English language. There are myriad rules and then just as many exceptions to those rules. Take the suffix “ed,” for example, which can sound like “ed” (tainted), “d” (cleaned), or “t” (walked). For a native speaker, these distinctions are somewhat natural because we’ve heard them repeatedly. But, to a non-native speaker learning English, there is nothing but obfuscation. And, don’t even get me started on our punctuation rules, which can turn “Let’s eat, Grandpa” from a nice invitation for your grandfather to join you for dinner into “Let’s eat Grandpa” and somehow we’re back to cannibalism.
At the very least, today’s book report exercise reminded me to cut my kids some slack as they muddle their way through phonics and language arts in grade school. I have a master’s degree in writing and I still regularly have to research correct language and usage rules. I tell you, though, I am going to start being a bit more careful around Joe. If he could mistake pheasants for peasants, who knows what kind of breakfast he might cook up for me on Mother’s Day?