Friday, September 18, 2009

state your case

(map print graphic: chris yates)

G. is in the throes of learning the U.S. states in school. I remember writing reports on states when I was in fourth grade at Rockbrook elementary. My teacher, Ms. Reid (who also read us "Where the Red Fern Grows"), had each of us choose two states to research and report. I clearly remember choosing Delaware, our first state, but I’ll be damned if I can remember my second report. This was back in the days when you got some tracing paper, glue, colored pencils, and possibly a typewriter, in order to create the project (I also remember my mother taking mine to her work and spiral-binding it). A few trips to the library, or the encyclopedias if you had them, and you’d eventually have enough data to put together the standard 9- or 10-year-old’s highly plagiarized work. Seriously, who are we kidding? Aside from some pasting and coloring, every kid that age is just copying text verbatim from the source; we live with it because they’re kids and we aren’t looking for free thought or expression.

Where I grew up we didn’t hit the big state and state capital quiz/test until eighth grade: Valley View Junior High School and Mr. Roslowksi’s U.S. History class. What he used as learning tools were a screen, an overhead projector, and two light sabers. (Not actual light sabers but toy ones that whistled as you wiped them through the air – this was about a year after Star Wars came out.) Mr. R would simply project a blank map of America with state borders on the screen and have the first two kids head up, one on either side of the screen with light sabers at the ready. He’d call out either a state or a capital and the first knucklehead to point to, or whack at, the correct state would then spell both the state and the capital in order to claim victory. And don’t, for one moment, think you could get away with “l-i-n-c-o-l-n”. It had to be “capital L-i-n-c-o-l-n”; same rule for the states. Trebek had nothing on Mr. R. The winner stayed at the screen while the conquered returned to his or her seat. The next kid in the row then came up prepared for battle. We played this game for about 15 or 20 minutes every day for a few weeks while everyone studied at home and readied for the inevitable 100-question test that arrived two or three weeks into the school year.

I spent every weekend on I-80 between Omaha and Lincoln, from about fifth or sixth grade on, in transit with my dad. He’d come up to Omaha, pick me up on Friday afternoon, and we’d drive the 45-minutes back to Lincoln (repeat backwards on Sundays). I remember the first few miles out of Omaha were often filled with some news from NPR (as if I’d ever listen to that) or KEZO 92.3 back when it was easy listening. After about ten miles I’d no doubt begin to beg him to ask me stuff – trivial stuff – in order to pass the time. It was during these trips that I learned all manner of maths, history, and geography…including all the states and their capitals. (We also played a game where we’d try to guess, as close as possible, what mile marker number would be on the overpasses as we’d approach. I pretty quickly sorted out that there were 25 poles between each mile marker and the last three digits of the overpass would be some number that equated to the number of posts passed and some then some slop added on. If the overpass was between markers 415 and 416 – going eastbound – and we’d passed 13 poles, the overpass would be labeled something like 415053. Going westbound would require counting, multiplying, and then subtracting. Ah, the Eisenhower Interstate System. For those in Vermont, feel free to ignore this mile marker thing since there’s no functioning system up there.) Anyhow, by the time I got to eighth grade the states and capitals were second nature to me. I knew that unless I mucked up my spelling of Phoenix I’d easily get 100% with no studying required, but that wasn’t all there was to the story.

Our class, for some reason, wasn’t seated alphabetically; I think Mr. R just randomly drew names and put two random kids at each two-person desk/table. I ended up at the front-right corner of the class, table one, and so the first day of state / capital battle began with me and the poor kid next to me kicking off what I fondly remember as “Todd kicks everyone’s ass at states and capitals”, or something very close to that. I spent the entire first week at the screen and suspect I might have approached Lou Gehrig-like records; I’m sure the school maintained the stats until the day it closed, and the quarterly newspaper may have touted “Eighth-grader’s Streak Reaches 400”. Every record and every streak eventually ends. We all knew during those halcyon days exactly who would end my reign - we just didn’t know in which inning. Every run through the room meant I had to vanquish AO*. She sat somewhere in the middle of the room and as the warriors fell, one-by-one, the tension would grow as the class saw the looming showdown. Every pass through her got tougher and tougher and I probably won the first six or eight battles before the defeat. When the moment arrived we both knew what we had to do: keep track as best as we could what states and capitals had been called out over the last ten or twelve jousts and then sit on the curveball. In the moments it took for her to get to the screen we both knew what states we were sitting on. Maybe I was thinking Raleigh, Tennessee, and Columbus. Maybe she was on the western side of the map and working Olympia, Idaho, and Santa Fe – the speed at which we lashed out with the sabers meant there was no time for thinking: you had to bet ahead, sit on the pitch, and swing from the heels; hero or zero.

I don’t remember what state she beat me on that day. It was no doubt an honest go on both our parts, but she was the better woman that day. There was no luck involved, I had no injuries, I was focused – simply beaten. We had a few more days of the game after that classic set-to but the mystery was over and the king was dead. The other kids were all getting quicker and the distance between haves and have-nots closed rapidly. As we moved further into autumn the game became more pure review than a game – AO and I probably split our final 6 or 8 contests with little fanfare. The final test came and went and if I remember correctly everyone scored at least 95% and we moved on to other historical topics. Those days only slowly faded away.

I was telling G. about learning the states and capitals this morning while he was studying the first 25 and eating his breakfast. (Not the whole story, just about learning them in the car.) He said something along the lines that knowing the states and capitals when you didn’t have to know them seemed like some sort of craziness to him. He couldn’t understand why I’d memorized them. I told him it was similar to he and his brother memorizing every Pokemon or Magic card – a hobby…something you enjoy. And, no doubt, some bonding with my father. I think he thought that was an okay explanation in the end: He didn’t even know the part about my standing on the summit for those grand weeks back in 1978. I told him that if he misspelled Nebraska on his test he’d be grounded.

One other tip that I’d like to pass along to any eighth graders who are reading: Lusitania. You may not know it now but it’ll come up.

Love to all


*I’m using initials because it was funny, and strange, to have someone find their name in the blog whilst searching the Internet a few years ago. We ended up having a pretty funny conversation about it via e-mail but I’ve decided to limit names – protecting the innocent and all that jazz. Truth be told, I sort of had a crush on AO - maybe she was to me what the Katharines are to G.

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