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Paul Coates -- Confidential File, January 9, 1959

January 9, 2009 |  2:00 pm


'Madame Guillotine,' Alias Pierre Coates

Paul_coates_2 As a combined result of personal preference and the common sense economics of knowing what side my bread is buttered on, I have a paid-up subscription to this newspaper.

And I recall reading in its pages, many months ago, a series of articles titled "Why Johnny Can't Read."

At the time I thought this scathing indictment of laxity in our educational system would produce favorable results.

But it hasn't. At least, not where I live.

There's a teenage daughter in our household. And don't ask me what I've gone through to see that this kid got the best of everything. I wanted her to have the chance in life that I never had -- to go to Sarah Lawrence and come out engaged to a Yale boy.

The way she's going, however, she'll be lucky to nail a subsidized SC football player.

1959_0109_cover When I came home last night she was sitting at the kitchen table and staring mournfully at the blank pages of a loose-leaf notebook. "Whatsa'matter with her?" I demanded of my wife.

"She's got to do an essay on the French Revolution for her homework. And she needs your help. She doesn't know enough about it."

I spun around angrily and faced the child. "Why do you wait until you get home to do your homework?" I shouted.

"Daddy," she replied, "I wanted to wait until you were here. There are some things I don't know about the French Revolution."

"There are some things a lot of people don't know about the French Revolution," I said mysteriously. Then, pacing up and down irritably, I challenged: "Go ahead. Ask me."

"Well," she asked, "like what caused the French Revolution?"

"Politics," I said.

"And who was Robespierre?"

"Yes," I nodded sagely, "He was one of them."

1959_0109_runoverI rubbed my chin thoughtfully and continued: "The major engagement of the French Revolution was known as the Battle of Concord."

"Concord? That's in America," she said.

"France," I snapped.

"But, Daddy," she pleaded, "wasn't the Battle of Concord in the American Revolution?"

I shot her a glance that would wither a lesser child. "My dear," I said coldly, "let me answer a question with a question. What is France's leading product?"

"Wine," she said.

"Very good," I commended in a tone that oozed sarcasm. "Now then, if you please, from what is wine made?"

"Grapes," she replied.

"Excellent. And," I hooted triumphantly, "I suppose you never heard of Concord grapes!"

That victory won, I warmed up to the subject. "Make notes while I talk," I commanded. And, pacing furiously, I went on:

"The mother of the French Revolution was an old lady named Madame Chere who was known affectionately to the unwashed hordes as 'Ma Chere.' She used to sit in the bleachers at the guillotine and knit while they were knocking off the Royalists.

That Same Old Revolution

"It was in this same revolution that Marie Antoinette, upon being advised that the peasants were storming the palace courtyard made the now historic remark: 'If they don't like it here, let them go back where they came from.'"

1959_0109_simcaAfter giving her a few basic facts, I dismissed her with a gentle reminder that while I was glad to help her, I wouldn't be here forever, and she must learn to think for herself.

Obviously, she'll get a good grade on her essay. And she's informed now about the French Revolution. But you can't thank our school system for that. If you want to thank anybody, thank me.