Saturday, October 8, 2005

Across the known universe, millions await an important autumnal rite. They may have to crouch down in respect and possibly genuflect. There most certainly will be ceremonial foods.

It is time for Back to School Night, when big humans pay homage to little humans. Adults head to the nearest teeny-tiny classroom, where they solemnly lower themselves into teeny-tiny chairs behind teeny-tiny desks.

They may experience awe — or alarm — should they examine the contents of the teeny-tiny desks. They will step on a lost Crayola. They will fiddle nervously with a No. 2 pencil. They will listen to a short sermon titled “How We Spend Our Day.”

They will eat vanilla wafers and drink Hawaiian Punch.

Wise veterans of this experience, however, know that the little humans are actually in control of everything, so what the heck. Go back to school. Sit in a little desk, eat little humans’ cookies. But the wise also know that the little humans actually have rewritten the history of the world as we know it:

Moses, of course, went up to Mount Cyanide to get the Ten Commandments.

Solomon had 300 wives and 500 porcupines.

Christopher Columbus sailed in the Nina, the Pina Colada and the Santa Fe.

Rasputin was a pheasant by birth.

Hitler shot himself in the bonker.

And there was always the Iran Hostess Crisis.

This body of work has come to be called “Student Bloopers” by a growing number of academicians who see fit to chronicle the misnomers, spoonerisms, malapropisms, blunders, omissions and assorted boo-boos of their young charges.

And maybe a few onomatopoeias thrown in, too.

Yes, according to some youthful observers, Benjamin Franklin died in 1790 and is still dead. And the Knotsis had dreams of conquest during World War II.

Just ask Richard Lederer, the grandfather of it all. He spent close to three decades teaching English in a New Hampshire school and lived to tell about it. And write about it. Over the years, the intrepid Mr. Lederer has compiled the most glaring classroom misunderstandings into best-selling books.

St. Martin’s Press has just published his fifth collection of, well, scholarly mishaps of many persuasions.

“There is an unending supply of such things. More than ever,” Mr. Lederer said recently from his home in California. “I have hundreds of the things. Did you know, for instance, that the president is elected by the electrical college?”

This might be something Karl Rove needs to know.

Mr. Lederer continued, “And it was Martha Stewart who sewed the first American flag.”

That student translation is possibly an improvement over the perception of one eager pupil, who was convinced that Old Glory had something to do with Johnny Weismueller. Well, doesn’t it? It is the Tarzan’s Stripes, right?

Mr. Lederer has company in this burgeoning field.

There’s also Anders Henriksson, chairman of the history department at West Virginia’s Shepherd College. He collected the most magnificent student bloopers gleaned from those little blue exam books and tortuous term papers from two dozen colleges.

“Non Campus Mentis: World History According to College Students” was born.

Here, we become privy to King Toot; Judyism; the prophets Moses, Amy and Confucius; the Wholey Roman Empire; and Joan of Ark. You know — Noah’s wife.

Oh, and let’s not forget the Yikes of March, the Automaton Empire and King Minoose, head Cretin of ancient Greece. And we can’t omit Marie Curie— winner of the Noel Prize for inventing the radiator — plus Martin Luther King’s famous “If I Had a Hammer” speech and Premier Dim Sum of Korea.

In recent times, student bloopers also have been compiled by Quincy University, the University of Alabama, North Carolina State University and former educators John Muir and Vincent Shanley, who authored several volumes of “Classroom Clangers.”

Overseas, enterprising observers have collected looney fare from students charged with translating their own language into English. “For a great fruit salad,” wrote one, “take an apple, two bananas, some grapes and half a dictionary …”

Meanwhile, recent answers on the British high school competency exams revealed that the body consists of the brainium, the borax and the abdominal cavity, while benign is what you will be after you are eight.

But Mr. Lederer is quick to reassure anyone fearful about the state of academics on planet Earth.

“Don’t worry,” he advises. “In my research, only 15 percent of the really bad bloopers come from the students. The other 85 percent come from us.”

Jennifer Harper covers media, modern life, politics and assorted bombast for The Washington Times’ National Desk. Contact her at jharper@washington or 202/636-3085.

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