The New Red

Aug. 24 - Just when I think I see an opening for satire, the real world rears its ugly head and shames me with a story like this, and I lose all hope.

So satire is out for today. I'm going to be almost serious.

Before I get into that article, though, it's probably worth mentioning a brief discussion we had in Studieskolen yesterday.

We were reading a story in class and one of the characters was described in the text as having been mentally ill, or syndsyg. The teacher informed us that this isn't really the politically correct way of describing mental illness at the moment. The preferred term is psykisksyg. Both terms, however, are favored over the dreaded tosset, which apparently means "crazy." She explained that tosset and syndsyg have negative connotations now, which is why it's considered better to use psykisksyg.

In my halting Danish, I asked what this sleight-of-vocabulary trick was supposed to accomplish. Wouldn't the stigma associated with mental illness remain, whatever we called it? You could call crazy people "the enlightened," and soon enough people would be snickering about the Enlightenment.

The teacher pointed out correctly that the United States is even more politically correct than Denmark, and wondered aloud why I of all people couldn't understand this. I explained that I understood it, I just didn't agree with it. Sensing the possibility of a calamitous misunderstanding, I decided not to pursue it—at least, not in the classroom.

But what an opening those purple pens have given me!

What purple pens, you ask? Back to that article:

When it comes to correcting papers and grading tests, purple is emerging as the new red.

"If you see a whole paper of red, it looks pretty frightening," said Sharon Carlson, a health and physical education teacher at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Northampton. "Purple stands out, but it doesn't look as scary as red."

That's the cue pen makers and office supply superstores say they have gotten from teachers as the $15 billion back-to-school retail season kicks off. They say focus groups and conversations with teachers have led them to conclude that a growing number of the nation's educators are switching to purple, a color they perceive as "friendlier" than red.

You know why red pen marks on papers "look pretty frightening?" Because they're corrections. Red marks on your paper say, "Hey, dumb-ass, here's something you did wrong!" Who wants to hear that? You start correcting papers in purple, you're just going to get a generation of kids that consider purple a "negative" color. Which probably doesn't matter anyway: my own generation grew up with red pens, and I don't think the sales of red sportscars, red lingerie, or red lipstick have suffered for it. (Ever look at a woman and think, "She's sure pretty—too bad her lips are so red?")

I've talked about this before, I think—something about "shit-stinking skank blossoms" probably not smelling as sweet as roses. That was tongue in cheek. Now I'm being serious because, sadly, teachers are apparently being serious about this.

"I do not use red," said Robin Slipakoff, who teaches second and third grades at Mirror Lake Elementary School in Plantation, Fla. "Red has a negative connotation, and we want to promote self-confidence. I like purple. I use purple a lot."

Sheila Hanley, who teaches reading and writing to first- and second-graders at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Randolph, said: "Red is definitely a no-no. But I don't know if purple is in."

I don't know what's worse: the awful notion that our schools ought to produce confident idiocy instead of wary competence, or the idea that corrections will be embraced joyously so long as they come in appealing colors. I only know that all hope is not yet lost:

Ruslan Nedoruban, who is entering seventh grade at his Belmont school, said red markings on his papers make him feel "uncomfortable."

His mother, Victoria Nedoruban, who is taking classes to improve her English, said she thinks papers should be corrected in red.

"I hate red," she said. "But because I hate it, I want to work harder to make sure there isn't any red on my papers."

Red has other defenders. California high-school teacher Carol Jago, who has been working with students for more than 30 years, said she has no plans to stop using red. She said her students do not seem psychologically scarred by how she wields her pen. And if her students are mixing up "their," "there," and "they're," she wants to shock them into fixing the mistake.

"We need to be honest and forthright with students," Jago said. "Red is honest, direct, and to the point. I'm sending the message, 'I care about you enough to care how you present yourself to the outside world.' "

As long as we have our Carol Jagos, all is not lost.

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Today is Cut Greg Some Slack for Not Posting Birthdays and Holidays Day on JustMorons.com.

Happy Tuesday!

2004, The Moron's Almanac™

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