May 14th, 2010


Getting George's Goat

By the end of this post, I want you to feel sorry for George W. Bush. That may seem impossible, but give it a try.

You may have heard that when George found out about the 9-11 attacks, he was reading a book called "My Pet Goat". Well, that's not quite correct. The story was actually called "THE Pet Goat", and it was just one of many short stories in a primer titled "Reading Mastery II: Storybook 1 (Rainbow Edition)" by Siegfried Engelmann and Elaine C. Bruner. With a name like that, you might imagine that the book is one of those dull texts written by a team of English teachers eager to create a course of "new reading" the way they destroyed arithmetic with "new math" in the seventies. You would be right. Of course I had to track the book down and buy a copy, just as a historical artifact.

I only bought the student ("Rainbow") edition and not the teacher's manual, so I have no idea why each story is written with a variable typeface. For no understandable reason I can figure out, many vowels have lines over the top of them. Font sizes change randomly through the text. There are curving swoops over entire words. I don't think this was done for stylized reasons... I think the reader is supposed to do something special when those special characters show up. Stand up, maybe, when you see italics. Or rub your tummy at an underlined verb. In the video, the teacher bangs her book with a pen while forcing the students to repeat sentences while reading in an odd staccato monotone. I guess it's supposed to help them learn, by sucking all the rhythm and music out of language.


In any case, it makes for very awkward reading, like trying to decipher the fake runes written on walls in a bad sci-fi movie. The story tries to use as many new vocabulary words as possible, which it thinks is more important than making sense. As a result, the book is full of such mindbending stories as "The Barking Shark", "The Farmer's Buttons", and "The Bug In The Ball". It's like Dr. Seuss, only if the doctor was insane and had no talent for writing children's books whatsoever. It is an attempt by clueless PhDs to connect with young readers, with a warped idea of what kids find interesting or funny. Here is the full story "The Girl And Her Goat":

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So here is where the pity part comes in. Picture George W. Bush reading to a roomful of children who are hyperactive and excited at meeting the president. Nine months into his presidency, the world has correctly decided that George is woefully inadequate for the job. The economy is tanking, and George has no grasp on foreign or domestic issues. He is forced to sit still for long periods of time, listening to meetings that he doesn't understand. Or, he is forced to attend dog-and-pony photo ops like this one. He has a hard time with the English language as it is, and now he is supposed to be setting an example for the overmedicated students in front of him. Holding tightly onto the nonsensical book in front of him brings back bad memories as a dim-witted boy of having to stand in front of the class and read out loud as punishment.

Now, even as an adult, he is humiliated trying to stammer his way through a story that makes no sense - when all of a sudden, an aide comes into the room an whispers in his ear that a horrible catastrophe has happened. The country is looking at you, Mr. President, for guidance and leadership that you clearly do not possess. The bizarre words of the goat story mix with the scrambled thoughts in his head, "capes cans panes pans north tower hit". The world shifts sideways and the sentences on the pages make even less sense then they originally did. George doesn't know what to do, and sits in a drug-like stupor in silence for the next five minutes, wondering what happens at the end of the story that he will never get to finish. Will the robber steal the car? Will the little girl have to give up the goat? Will the United States lose its mind and spend billions of dollars fighting a war in a different country than the one the attackers came from and losing it's morality by torturing and killing innocent civilians?

Personally, I blame the book.
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