Of White Nuns and General Custard

I’m doing some writing and reading of an entirely different nature lately.  No dragons, no magic powers, no Edric and Flavia.  There are, however, kings, plots to take over the world, disappearing ships, and crumbling empires.  And, some of the reading I have been doing is definitely fantasy.

Yes, it is finals week at school.

This year, I only had to write one final, since I opted against giving one in the elective that I teach and chose to use the same exam as the other two history teachers for the ninth grade final.  Writing a good final exam requires the finesse of both an artist and a psychiatrist, with, of course, a mastery of the subject material.  One must mislead those who didn’t study, so that they can’t just make lucky guesses, while rewarding those who did study with questions that do not stray from the important points.

To be fair, I need to discuss my own shortcomings in test writing before I talk about answers from students.  Let’s be honest — teachers make mistakes, too.

In Round One with the sophomore final, I created a nightmarish conglomeration of bad formatting and typos — part of which I blame entirely on the fact that I was using Microsoft Word.  In Round Two, I completed and turned in a test that was worth 104 points instead of 100, had two sections mislabeled, and completely left off a map that I had planned to test on.  I caught my errors and fixed them; Round Three seemed to me to be the perfect test, and I happily sent it in to be distributed amongst my sophomores on test day.  I was satisfied that I had created the perfect low-stress-to-grade test that would still measure comprehension and point out to me all of the slackers.

On test day, all of my sophomores were quick to notice that I put Henry VII as an option twice on one section, while leaving off Henry VIII (in my defense, roman numerals blend together on a computer screen when the teacher is sleep-deprived).

Where does the fantasy reading come in?  Oh, that’s in the essays I’m grading.  Essays on the freshmen exam, essays that the sophomores wrote before the exam, essays that I should have graded weeks ago but was too busy to get around to, and mini-essays that my four precious ESL students wrote for me (I teach them outside of school and get paid in hugs).  Some of these written creations are brilliant, some are a wee bit jumbled but still give evidence of effort, some have a few creative liberties taken with facts, and, fortunately, only a couple of them . . . make me put a pillow in front of my face to stifle my screams.

Some of the errors are quite forgivable: little typos that good students miss when they check (or don’t check) their work, which turn perfectly nice essays into humor pieces.  This is what I deal mostly with, I am happy to say, since the vast majority of my students are quite intelligent and hard-working.  The essays of these students are usually far superior to many of the college essays that I graded years ago at UNCW (as a teaching assistant), but they have tiny, charming, high school student mistakes that turn history into fantasy.  Many of the best examples come from the brightest students.  So far, my personal favorite is the result of an ‘n’ replacing an ‘h’ at the beginning of a word:  Did you know that the Gupta Empire was overrun by white nuns?  In another classic, I learned that “curvy” was a constant danger for sailors, who didn’t have access to fresh fruit on their long voyages.  And of course, in another of my favorites, Martin Luther posted 95 feces to the doors of the church at Wittenberg.

Some essays are just pure fantasy.  According to one student that I had in the past, General Custard made his last stand on Little Round Top and then went on to run for president (I’m just guessing here, but I think the student was trying to discuss Custer’s last stand).  In an essay this year, a student informed me that the Japanese Closed Country Edict was entirely the result of fears that Chinese Renaissance artists would ally with the Dutch (I must have missed that lesson).  Botticelli was a famous mercenary who got into trouble with the Medici family.  Niccolo Machiavelli was a renowned Flemish artist who specialized in oil paints.  Roe vs. Wade (as I read, I am sorry to say, in a college essay) was the court case that allowed for the teaching of Christian principles in American public schools.

One type of essay that I see no matter where in the world I teach (and no matter what age the students are) is what I like to call the “But wait, I do know this!” essays.  These are where the student completely did not study the question that you told him in advance to prepare for, but he hopes that his knowledge of a marginally related topic will inspire forgiveness in your heart and partial credit on his test.  For example, I got an essay on an earlier test that I gave in which a student told me all about mummification instead of the Egyptian pyramid texts and Book of the Dead.  I received another essay that told me all about the evils of slavery instead of the Columbian Exchange.

It occurred to me earlier today that I should use student essays as inspiration for short stories.  After all, what could make a more page-turning story than the idea of an army of war-mongering nuns, clad entirely in white, invading a great empire (perhaps riding elephants as they did so)?

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About HistoryGypsy

I'm a high school history teacher and author of upcoming novel Sidhe Eyes. I live in gorgeous Qingdao, China, where I spend much of my free time studying the fascinating and frustrating Chinese language, eating odd things, or taking long walks along the Yellow Sea. At "While We're Paused" I have the pleasure of blogging about things that catch my interest: good books, language, history, poetry, writing tips, grammar rants, random humor . . . I don't like to get in a rut! Some of my favorite writers include (and this is by no means an exhaustive list): Dorothy Sayers, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Jules Verne, Baroness Orczy, Geoffrey Wawro, John Lynn, Bill Bryson, the Bronte sisters, John Christopher, J.M. Barrie, O. Henry, Roald Dahl, and Robert Graves. I usually find myself reading no less than three books at a time!

Posted on December 18, 2011, in History, Humor, Stephanie Thompson and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I really want to read your story about an invasion by an army of nuns. Please write it:)

  2. You can’t win for losing when it comes to writing exams. I decided to give my (college) sophomores a free question: “Who was queen during the Victorian era in England?” Elizabeth I, Elizabeth II, Anne, Mary–and my favorite answer (apparently the only female royal the student could come up with): [drum roll] . . . Princess Di! A few creative people even came up with some chick named Victoria.

    I wonder where that era got its name?

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