THE TAKEN ROAD
"Not even once?" Maizy asked.
"Not even once," I said firmly. "I never copied an answer or sneaked a look at a crib sheet."
"What about --?" Maizy began suspiciously.
"No, I never whispered psst! to the guy in the next seat and then made a subtle finger movement to ask whether number twenty-three was a, b, or c. Not me."
"So you’re the most honest grandpa in the whole world," Maizy said, sounding just a wee bit sarcastic. She folded her test paper with the big red zero and tucked it between the pages of her history book.
"No, honesty had nothing to do with it. I didn’t cheat because I was too conceited to cheat," I explained. "I thought I was too smart to need to cheat."
"What did you do, Smart Guy? Study all the time?"
"No more than anybody else," I insisted. "Less than some. A couple of times I got bushwhacked on pop quizzes. I had a few bad grades, but I was a good guesser on multiple choice and true-false,."
"Maybe you were just afraid of getting caught."
It wasn’t easy to explain. "Say I ended up with the highest grade in the class -- I wouldn’t have any pride in it because someone else might have done better. You know, I get a 95 that should have been 85. What do I say to the kid who got an honest 93?"
Maizy shrugged. "You wouldn’t have to tell them."
"I just couldn’t feel the same pride about myself. I would have felt like, I don’t know, like I was letting myself down."
I didn’t mention another reason. I was never really up against it. There was never a time when the roof would collapse if I failed a test. Had I been in one of those fail-this-and-I-fail-forever fixes I’m not sure what I would have done. It’s easy to be moral when the stakes aren’t that high.
"Did you ever help other people?" Maizy asked.
"You mean like giving them answers?" I said. She nodded. "Okay, you got me. I did that sometime."
"Ah-HAH!" Maizy chirped.
"I meant I never cheated to help myself. I don’t count the times I let someone look over my shoulder at my paper."
Maizy stared at a far corner of the ceiling. "My teacher says the one who gives the answer is just as guilty as the one who gets the answer. She marks them both zero."
"There are worse things if you get caught helping. Do you know what a parody is?"
"My teacher says that’s when you just repeat what someone else said."
"That’s parroting," I corrected. "A parody is usually written. It copies something, but in a funny way by making slight changes. Like ‘Four beers and seven shots ago, my father brought forth on this bar a new cocktail dedicated to the proposition that all drunks are created tipsey.’"
"It’s a parody of the ‘Gettysburg Address.’ You know, ‘Four score and seven years ago?’"
"Oh, yeah," her eyes lit up.
"You get the idea. Well, one time --"
Maizy had a pencil. "Wait a minute. Say it again."
"I’ll go back later. Let me tell this first. One time our tenth grade teacher assigned the class to write parodies for the next day. I’d gone to a different elementary school from the other kids, and my sixth grade teacher taught us about parodies, so I was all set. In no time at all, I wrote three of them"
"That wasn’t fair," Maizy decided.
"So I had two left over. A couple of kids asked if they could hand in the ones I wasn’t using. Then some other kids asked. Well," I said with some pride, "I ended up writing nine parodies for other kids. But the very best one – the tenth one -- I saved for myself."
"I can’t remember them now," I admitted. "One started out ‘Oh say, dare you ski when the rocks stick out there? For if badly you fail, your blood will be streaming.’"
Maizy was mystified. "What’s that?" she asked.
"The National Anthem!" I sang it. Maizy wasn’t impressed. She wanted to hear the one about four beers again.
"One of our teachers was about to retire. He was an old guy who always took the first five minutes of class to take roll. Well, there was this poem that Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote when they were going to dismantle Old Ironsides." Maizy looked blank. "The ship from the War of 1812. Holmes’ poem helped get the ship declared a national monument. You can visit it today in Boston."
"I’ve never been to Boston," Maizy said.
"Anyway, the poem begins ‘Ay, tear her tattered ensign down! Long has it waved on high, And many an eye has danced to see that banner in the sky.’ So I wrote, ‘Aye, throw his tattered gradebook down, long has it taken roll, and many a kid has wondered if his grade would rise or fall.’ It saved the ship, but the teacher still retired."
Maizy’s eyes were beginning to glaze.
I hurried on. "So when it came time to hand our parodies in, I’d actually written ten of them – not the copies that were handed in, of course. I remember there was one on ‘The Night Before Christmas,’ and one on ‘The Raven.’"
"What was the one you kept for yourself?"
"There’s this great poem called ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost.’ It goes ‘Two roads diverged in a yellow –‘"
Maizy nodded. "So this poem by Jack Frost was the best one you did?"
"Robert Frost. ‘Two roads diverged –‘"
Maizy stood up. "Nobody reads poems anymore," she said.
"Maybe, but it could be a song. You can write parodies of songs. Just so long as people can recognize the source. ‘Two roads di –‘"
"Really? So how’d your poem make out?"
"So the next day, we got our parodies back. The nine others got A’s and I got a C."
Maizy laughed. She began fooling with her cell phone. "Can you make me a copy of that beer one?" she asked.
"Actually, I think the teacher knew I’d written the others. She couldn’t prove it, but she wanted to teach me a lesson. See, even when you cheat for others --"
Maizy was lost on her phone. "Sarah? Guess what! We’re going to write a parody for extra credit. Bring over your rap album – the one with all the lyrics on it."
I said, "I think ‘parody of a rap song’ is a non sequitur," but she didn’t hear me.