The Art of Taking Things Literally is an Art of Childhood
by Parent Co.May 04, 2017
One afternoon, when I was in the third grade, my teacher, Mrs.Schwartzbart, explained to the class that human beings have seven layers of skin. Then the bell rang, and we eagerly filed out of the class room. Not understanding the layers-of-skin concept completely, I assumed that each time a person’s skin peeled off after receiving a sunburn, they would now be permanently down a layer. Obviously, this was going to involve a great amount of foresight on my part so as not to appear like a skeleton by the time my 15th birthday rolled around.You can imagine my dismay when I “burned through” three of my seven layers of skin in the hot summer sun of 1985. My parents had a difficult time convincing me that I still had more than four layers to last me the rest of my life. Talk about a summer of discontent.Childhood is littered with these literal misinterpretations.Every child, at some point in their youth, took both of their pointer fingers, slipped them into each side of their mouth, pulled as hard as they could, stuck out their tongue, and made unrecognizable sounds at their annoying sibling. Each time they did this, an observant parent said, from the front seat of the car, “If you keep making that face, it will freeze like that forever.” This was no hollow threat. This warning was to be taken seriously. Despite never having seen a stuck face like this in any of my juvenile travels, I had imagined a village filled with these rebellious children, all of whom had decided not to heed their parents’ advice.How unwanted these poor, crooked-faced kids must’ve felt.On warm days spent in the back seat of a moving car, on drives to the country, I was quite fond of sticking my arm out of the window. It was my prize for manually rolling down the window that had been separating me from freedom.“Stick your arm out too far, and it might go home in another car,” said my dad from the front seat, with a toughness in his voice that had to mean he was being serious.Ignoring, for a moment, the fact that I was on the right side of the vehicle and that we weren’t in England, I immediately pulled my arm in, rolled up the window, and vowed never to do that again. In retrospect, this particular warning wasn’t so terrible.“If you don’t go to bed right now, Santa won’t come,” warned my parents. “But mom,” I responded. “It’s July, and we’re Jewish.”“Santa is always watching,” she responded.I was annoyed that Santa would have the audacity to expect good behavior from a Jewish kid in July, but I never questioned the threat. Five minutes after heeding the warning, I was fast asleep.“Eat your carrots, Josh,” said my Grandmother one evening. “They’ll make you see better.”Why can’t the things that taste so good be the ones that are good for you? I mused.After eating carrots for the last several decades, my eyesight seems to be getting worse. Perhaps sitting too close to the television set all those nights, despite my parents cautioning me not to, has had an antagonistic effect on the vitamin A.“Dad,” my son asked the other day, “What happens if you swallow gum?”At a crossroads, and inclined at first to tell him that it would remain in his digestive tract for seven years, as my mother had told me, I felt a pang of guilt. “You’ll poop it out in the next day or so,” I said.He seemed relieved and vowed never to swallow a piece of gum again.Honesty – though not nearly as fun as fearful old wives’ tales – seems to be the best policy.