Eric could hear, but he couldn’t talk. Kevin could talk, but he couldn’t walk. Cory could walk and talk and hear, but she couldn’t exactly stand up straight, and that was pretty much the lay of the land that day. Allison had blood-alcohol poisoning, Web had rickets, Jeremy had epilepsy. Ruth had Down’s syndrome, Andrew was schizophrenic, Sarah had cerebral palsy. Owen was mildly dyslexic, Daoud had malaria, Betsy had frostbite, Karyn had anger-management issues. And of course, the only person who made a big deal out of anything, as if we couldn’t have guessed, was Patti Jayne Penfield. She was legally blind.
Todd Pruzan’s work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, the Village Voice, the New Republic, Inside, OpenLetters.net, McSweeney’s and a bunch of other publications. He lives in Brooklyn.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Have you ever gone through some form of ‘sensitivity’ training as a child or an adult?
- TP: I did as a child, though it wasn’t nearly as absurd as what I wrote about in this story. I grew up in a liberal D.C. suburb with a public-school curriculum that was probably about as progressive as you’re going to find anywhere in the United States. The county devoted one day every schoolyear to something called the Sensitivity Awareness Symposium—I’ve borrowed its name for this story—generally consisting of teachers leading classroom discussions about “tolerance” of different ethnicities and (dis)abilities. My fourth-grade class was a bit like the one I’ve depicted, but not a single thing in the story actually happened. My idea for the story came from imagining how useless such training could have been if administrators had made a couple of well-intentioned but misguided decisions about how to lead such discussions. (Understanding how TV news really works came as an adult. I hope I gave the story’s reporter a fair shake.)
- HT: Do you think this kind of training is effective?
- TP: I think it definitely can be, though probably not in the format these characters have to go through, which is pretty silly. I think probably the biggest jolt I ever got from sensitivity training was as a 19-year-old college sophomore, when I watched a three-hour traveling slide show shot by a Danish photographer depicting rural and urban poverty and misery across the U.S. Part of what made the program effective was its sheer length and relentless cascade of horrifying images, coming to me at a very impressionable age. That wouldn’t have been appropriate for elementary-school kids, but I definitely think it’s wise to teach social awareness in some form to young kids. I’d definitely support even a kooky liberal curriculum over the sort we’re seeing emerge in parts of Kansas and Ohio, where the theory of “intelligent design” (i.e., creationism) gets as much airplay in biology class as the theory of evolution. That sort of harmful, ignorant “education” shames and embarrasses our entire country. OK, I’m getting off my soapbox.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- TP: There were several. Because I don’t have much contact these days with elementary-school kids, I’m not sure I know the subtle differences between how fourth-graders, fifth-graders and sixth-graders think, so I had to rely on my memory for their personalities and voices. And for a while, it was tough to get the story’s tone right—it kept swinging from sentimental reminiscence to social satire and back. After getting some good advice from friends who read early drafts, I think I eventually got it to balance both approaches. I think I also had a fairly funny story in mind, and while I think this story is wry, I have no idea if it’s something anyone else would find funny. I guess I’ll keep an ear out for random fits of laughter over the next three weeks.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- TP: At this point, I’m not sure—probably a few weeks for a first draft, but it probably took about three years to get the original, way-too-long version into this form. Obviously, I wasn’t working on it night and day, though there were times when I really wanted to. I find it very difficult to stop tinkering with something I’m working on, even when it’s finished, whether it’s a magazine article or a piece of fiction like this.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- TP: When I was a college kid, I met Jack Shafer, an editor at Slate.com who at the time was the editor of Washington City Paper. He happened to mention that he basically read all day long—riding the Metro, sitting at his desk, carrying his laundry basket down to the basement of his building. I wouldn’t say I’ve consciously tried to emulate that, but I do find myself reading basically all day, and that’s about the most efficient training when it’s inconvenient or impossible to actually sit down at my computer.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- TP: I’m a magazine editor, which means I don’t write fiction as much or as quickly as I’d like to, but my hobby for several years has been writing a bunch of short stories that, I recently realized, all seem to examine the intersection of the media, or journalists, and “real life.” In the back of my mind, I see these stories as parts of a unified collection, and maybe eventually I’ll be lucky enough to get it published. Speaking of which, you probably had no way of knowing that the date you randomly chose to publish this story, July 15, is also my birthday! What a great present. Thanks. I’d also like a Mini, a new PowerBook, and a pint of Guinness. Chin chin.