Worlds & Time

Friday, January 26, 2007

A Response to a Good Essay

Normally you don't criticize an essay that you agree with, but I guess I'm just in that mood. Besides, I spent way too long on this. I'm responding to this post by Atheist in a mini van and her daughter Possum #1.

Hi Possum #1. I'm an atheist, and I think that your essay was quite good, and I agreed with the points that you made about being sensitive to the cultural differences of other students.

However, I am one of the people that doubt that you wrote it. I have a couple of reasons (I describe them below) but first I have to agree with what kazim said in the first post. You shouldn't be insulted, you should be flattered.

You shouldn't care what I think if I'm not right, you should know that people don't believe you precisely because of how impressive it is.

I did say that I didn't believe an eleven year old wrote the essay. Please realize that I'm not attacking you, but this is the basis for my though process:

First, if an eleven year old wrote the essay, that eleven year old is in the 99.99th percentile in writing. People like that do exist, and #1 could be one of them, but the odds are against that.

Second, I have a passing familiarity with 5th and 6th grade writing. My mother taught 5th/6th in a Charter school for years, and I would occasionally tutor her students or grade the work of kids in her class with her. Once again, #1 could just be a prodigy, but I've seen the work of prodigies and this is significantly better than the best that I've ever seen from kids at this age.

Third, and this is most convincing to me, the cultural references in the essay are dated. You reference "A Christmas Story" instead of a more modern Christmas movie or book. The reference makes sense in context, but it also illustrates a deep knowledge of Christmas movies gleaned from years of experience.

The movie is used as a springboard into the cultural significance of Christmas as it relates to the separation of Church and State. You state that "[your] public school teacher" should be more cognizant of the fact that there are non-Christians in the class. It's obvious that you understand the debate, and you have a well thought out position on it.

You also don't bother to explain why "Mahmeed" doesn't celebrate Christmas. You are implying that he's Muslim because of his name, but I find that implication odd. Most people aren't taught that names correspond to religion (or region). That's an acquired stereotype.

Your reference to all three other students is also strange because you specifically point out that the other three aren't doing their work. Perhaps you are very empathic, but if you are, you apparently care nothing about pointing out that your friends aren't doing their work to a teacher that you find incompetent for her lack of empathy.

The entire last paragraph of the essay is very bitter. It's moving, thoughtful, and attacks your teacher convincingly on a personal level. She should have known better than to offer you a "standard" essay on the subject of gifts on Christmas. Yet I'm surprised that you recognize that this is a standard essay.

All of these cultural markers are not ones that I expect from an eleven year old. They're cultural makers that I expect from someone that: 1) Has seen "A Christmas Story" every year since 1981; 2) Has had years to understand and think about their position on the separation of Church and State as it has to do with public education; 3) Has an understanding that names can carry a cultural bias; 4) Doesn't have a personal connection to the people that she illustrates as not doing their work; and 5) understands how "standard" an essay on what you want for Christmas is.

These are all references that I would expect from college graduates due to their age and experience, not from elementary school children.

Fourth, in this long list of what convinces me that an eleven year old did not write this, is the language. I've written ten minute essays before in class, and this is about the right length, but strikes me as suspiciously polished. If this was a "pop" essay, it appears much too clean. There doesn't appear to be any evolving thought process through the essay as if it was come up with on the fly. It appears that it was visualized in its entirety before the writer started. Even if I got this essay as a TA for a college class, I would doubt that it was written in ten minutes. Perhaps in a half hour with a rewrite, but not in ten minutes.

Fifth, the vocabulary is exceedingly large for someone in her age group. This could also theoretically be explained by being a prodigy.

None of these would automatically raise my suspicion on their own, but together they lead me to think that this isn't an eleven year old's ten minute "pop" essay.

Once again, good essay. I do agree that the teacher should be more sensitive to students that are not going to celebrate Christmas.

Good luck on your future endeavors.

-Spherical Time

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  • Possum is in the 99.99th percentile, actually. She's 11. But, she's registered in the seventh grade (not the fifth or sixth). She's taking algebra two, this year, so that she can go to the community college this summer and take calculus. She goes to the local highschool for her science class. Not that you need this information, as you've already formed your opinion, but she took the SAT and scored 2150. So, yeah...she's very special. But, you do have your reasons to doubt and I can't do much about that. Just thought you should know the facts.
    And, by the way... we have the television tuned to TBS every Christmas and have since possum1 was a baby. A Christmas Story is a pretty common movie. Not that obscure.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:57 PM  

  • Thanks for your reply, atheist in a mini van. I guess I'm not a fan of TBS. I haven't seen "A Christmas Story" on television before this year for several years.

    I hope you had a good holiday season.

    By Blogger Spherical Time, at 12:28 AM  

  • I replied to you in my blog.

    Sorry for getting all defensive. We never intended for this essay to cause such a stir and the attention has been a bit much for us. As I said in my blog: we are totally used to seeing her writing and this was just on par. The writing really didn't seem extraordinary to my husband and I. The *thoughts* in the essay did. I didn't post the essay so that our close friends would say, "wow...what a good writer." I had posted it because she, normally the shy one, had actually spoken out! We've talked about atheism, of course, but we didn't really think she was paying that much attention to our talks/discussions, since that's NOT her favorite topic of discussion. She's usually writing about science or history. So, for us, this wasn't about her writing, but about the subject matter.;)

    We did have a good winter break. Thanks.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:56 AM  

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