AT this time of year in the schools of America, acres of themes are being turned in to history and English teachers. And where is William Bennett, the man who knows how everything is to be done? Nowhere to be found. ``Please pass your papers to the person in front of you,'' the hopeful teacher orders his class. And forward, with many a sad uncertain rustling, come versions of history and exposition.
These are packed into a bag and are borne off to be graded in the teachers' lounge, or worse - at the kitchen table at home.
And late in the evening, when the Bennetts are off dreaming about James Madison High School, teachers are brought face to face with the near-impossibility of their task.
If you've taught for a few years, you begin to make a short list of the student version of language and history. A few more years and you discontinue the list. Every student is different, which is nice in a way, unless you have to read their writing.
The inhabitants of ancient Egypt were called the mummies. They lived in the Sarah dessert. The Sarah dessert was so hot that the inhabitants had to live elsewhere. And so on. Dr. Bennett, would you like to have a few words with this student?
We're not making fun of anyone here. Most of the opinions expressed by students in theme papers are deeply held and fully believed in. And maybe the Saharans actually did have to live elsewhere.
Continuing: Did you know that Earth is larger than the moon but they they are about the same distance apart? When you get through with ancient history, Dr. Bennett, you can start on astronomy.
History teachers discover that in the first book of the Bible, called Guinness, Adam and Eve were created out of an apple tree. Jacob, son of Isaac, stole his brother's birthmark. The Israelites made unleavened bread, which is bread made without any ingredients. David fought against the Philatelists, who were a group of people who lived in Biblical times. And when the Greeks fought the Persians they were outnumbered, because the Persians had more men.
Right, Dr. Bennett. Japanese students don't write like this. Part of the problem here is that in the daily life of the American school, history and English are sandwiched in between the periodic table, the quadratic equation, and the insides of frogs. And 50 minutes of obligatory half-court. Anyone who can switch his frame of reference eight times a day, and cope with puberty at the same time, is nothing short of a wonder. Read on.
Did you know that there were no wars in Greece because the mountains were so high that they couldn't climb over to see what their neighbors were doing? A myth is a female moth. One myth says that Achilles' mother dipped him in the Stynx until he became intolerable. Homer wrote the Iliad, and also the Oddity. Actually Homer didn't write these; they were written by another man who had the same name.
Are you still with us, Bill?
Shortly after the Ides of March killed Julius Caesar, the Mid-evil ages started, when Joan of Arc was cannonized by Bernard Shaw. Chaucer wrote poems and verse, and he also wrote literature. The Magna Carta said no man should be hanged twice for the same crime. William Tell shot an apple while standing on his son's head. Gutenberg invented the Bible and someone else invented the circulation of the blood.
Shakespeare wrote tragedies, comedies, and errors. Cervantes wrote Donkey Hole. The English defeated the Spanish Armadillo. John Milton wrote Paradise Lost. After his wife died, he wrote Paradise Regained. And Sir Francis Drake circumcised the globe with a clipper.
Talk to these kids, Bill. Get tough with them! The colonists revolted because the English put tacks in their tea. After they won, the Americans no longer had to pay for taxis.
Benjamin Franklin went to Boston carrying all his clothes in his pocket. He said a horse divided against itself cannot stand. Speaking of which, Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin which he built with his bare hands. He wrote the Gettysburg Address while traveling from Washington on the back of an envelope.
Of course, Dr. Bennett is dealing in theory, and he sees the big picture: Education is viewed in terms of dollars in and results out. But what do you do with real students who write that Voltaire, who invented electricity, wrote a book called Candy? Beethoven was so deaf he had to write loud music. Handel was half German, half Italian, and half English. The sun never set on the British Empire, because it was in the East and the sun sets in the West. The invention of the steamboat caused a network of rivers to spring up.
The point is that the most highly disciplined instruction can't account for that portion of the class which, out of inattentiveness, just can't get it straight. Every one of these faux pas has a goofy earnestness at its root. Coming down hard won't cure the problem. In fact, it might just get worse.
Back to basics, says Dr. Bennett. And where does he teach? At James Madison High School, which Dr. Bennett invented and which exists in his own mind. At James Madison everything works perfectly. And I'll tell you why: Because there aren't any kids there yet.
Jeff Danziger, the Monitor's cartoonist, taught English in Vermont for 11 years. Most of these examples of student writing were collected by Richard Lederer, an English teacher at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., and are taken from his book ``Anguished English,'' published by Wyrick & Co., Charleston, S.C.