Monday, November 21, 2011

Scoring Superpowers

So here I am, once again scoring those state essay tests, this time written by fifth graders. After weeks and weeks of reading about the difference between clothes in 1899 and clothes today (apparently: skinny jeans) we finally came to the question that I had been waiting for seemingly forever: “What superpower would you like to have? Write a paragraph that describes how you would use that superpower to do good.”

Well! If you know me at all, you know that this is the type of thing I could talk about forever and to be honest I did spend quite a bit of time doing just that with the two guys sitting next to me. For days and days we considered the possibilities. Now as I see it, the only superpowers worth considering are flying and invisibility. And to be honest, I’m not even sure what’s so great about flying really, but there are those (like my younger daughter) who would choose this above all else. As for me, all I ever wanted was to see and hear things I was not supposed to see and hear, though I discovered recently when talking it through that this also meant I wanted to take things I wasn’t supposed to take. I was reminded that I had to do good with my superpower. This stopped me right in my tracks.

But here’s the thing: There are many kids who also seem flummoxed by the fact that they have to do good with their superpower and they end up getting derailed, such as the kid who wanted arms that shot fire so he could…put fire in fireplaces so people wouldn’t have to buy matches and fire lighters. Uh huh. Or the kids whose aspirations weren’t so high (“I would press a button on myself and a jet pack and a shopping cart would come out. I would go to the store a lot faster. Then I would be done shopping a lot faster.”) or didn’t really want superpowers so much as moderate assistance: night vision, keen hearing, the power to learn.

Many of the kids write about using their superpowers to stop bank robberies, but somehow they all conjure up images of early-twentieth-century bank robberies what with the black robber masks and the old fashioned stick-em-up talk (“There has been a hold up! one man shouted as he ran down the frost covered street.”). Which is pretty much the way we all think about bank robberies, I suppose, unless of course you think of this.

I spent most of the day struggling with the illogical responses of these fifth graders (Wait, he wants to be invisible so he can hold doors open for people? Can’t he just do that anyway??), but occasionally being impressed by their altruism, such as saving extinct animals by turning into an extinct animal and fighting off hunters (Um, wait, couldn’t he get shot too?), or their extremely high aspirations (wanting to be able to go back in time to both stop the attack on the Twin Towers and flirt with the Hannaford’s cashier over and over again).

Unfortunately, having watched way too much science fiction (so?), I am always looking for the catch, the way that the superpower attempt to do good would end up backfiring and causing worse problems (such as interfering with the prime directive, or, um, something like that). What if by trying to stop animals from going extinct you end up causing an overpopulation with devastating results? What if when trying to control the weather, you cause a terrible drought when you simply wish for more sunny days? What if the Hannaford’s cashier just never gets to go home?

It must be the fact that you have to do good with your superpower that is throwing everybody off, right? I mean, of course I would do plenty of good if I were invisible! Just after I was done seeing and hearing and taking things I shouldn't be seeing and hearing and taking. Perhaps if the kids were told they could use their powers for evil, the essays would have been better written?