Night of the Skunk

At the office during the day, in a meeting in a giant conference room around a giant table with fifteen other people, I listened to a Texan woman talk about the Texas state Reading standards, and I listened to the publisher ask whether the push for text-evidence comprehension was universal across all genres and whether our approach to vocabulary instruction aligned with the Texas state standards and how reading skills differed from a reading strategy, taking for example the idea of sequence of events, which you would have in a narrative fiction piece but not a nonfiction persuasive piece or something else, unless it was laid out that way. And I listened to people discuss whether the new emphasis on text-dependent evidence was inclusive of or exclusive of metacognitive skills as we used to know them, such as identifying main idea or making inferences. And by the way, what about the language here citing “author’s message”? How is that different from main idea, and wasn’t that just the same as author’s purpose just more abstract?

The Texan said that in general we will be seeing more instruction that asks students, Why did the author uses that chart or graph? Why did the author say in paragraph seven such and such, and why did the author use this subhead? Because, of course, it was now all about text evidence, the kindly and intelligent Texas educational administrator said. Students have to be able to cite text evidence in order for them to be college- and career-ready.

When we got on the topic of bias and sensitivity, an editor, J., related the story of “How Skunk Got Its Stripes.”

“How Skunk Got Its Stripes” is a Native American folktale. There are many like it, and they are used  a lot in the classroom because they are short, in the public domain, and tidily moralistic. Students can easily be asked questions about the skunk.

The tale goes that skunk was up to no good one night, was caught, and so two white stripe were put down his back so that he couldn’t cause mischief in the dark. He would be seen in even the faintest moonlight. Disputes like these are usually settled in Native American folklore before an animal tribunal of sorts, with a bear or a moose sitting as judge. I always like, in a Native American folktale, the way wild animals act civilized and rational, and carry on discussions. Bears are big, so they are authorities, and that is enough explanation for a folktale—that kind of wisdom makes me lighthearted. Now the meeting was getting at least a little interesting.

The editor J. went on to say that the idea that black equals troublemaker and white equals improved or better-behaved is not the best for a racially divided America. That meaning, though, is not at all native to the original authorship, someone pointed out. Though the conversation was tedious, this brief foray into story was for me the highlight of the afternoon. I kept in my mind the indelible image of the skunk in the dark.

That night, after ten and half hours at the office and a late dinner, I took a walk. The sun had set. On Boulder Road, I saw something move on a dark lawn. A rabbit? An albino squirrel?

No, a skunk. Truly a skunk, and truly I only saw the white stripe waddling along as if free-floating above the grass. I could not see the rest of him. He blended into the night. When he froze near a bush (perhaps hearing my footsteps), I thought of him as being up to no good.

I smiled. Something essential to me was still with me. I knew I was all right, I could work again another day.