Parable of the Hand Turkey

I was in first grade and the teacher was handing out brown construction paper and red felt-tip pens.  My left hand was pressed so hard against the desk top that my finger nail beds were white with the strain.  My pudgy right hand wiggled the uncooperative fingers on my left hand into place so as to affect the best match with the white chalk sketch on the board.  Tongue hanging out of my mouth at a jaunty angle and head flat on the cool desk, I concentrating on the bleeding tip of that red pen and tried to trace–as precisely as possible–the contours of my aching left hand.  I don’t know how long it took to draw from the side of my pinkie to the side of my thumb in minutes, but it felt like an eternity.  When I lifted my hand–with the sort of anticipation usually reserved for opening Christmas presents–my response was closest to that effected a month later when I tore into a brightly covered package to find it full of underwear.  The composition in red and brown bowed and looped, failed to connect, and struck out in wholly inappropriate directions only to suddenly stop and retrace itself.  The picture didn’t look so much like a hand as a mirror shattered around a hand, but after liberal application of orange plastic safety scissors the dark brown body of my hand turkey very much like the rest of its flock.  In fact, so much so that the next mandated step was to write my name on its back in white crayon.

My guess would be that it was at this point that your hand turkey and my hand turkey began to take on the characteristics appropriate to its particular species–decorated with prefab red, yellow, and orange “feathers” if your teacher was fresh out of college and still willing to put in hours and hours of unpaid labor with her own scissors, sporting dyed chicken feathers in day-glow colors, or perhaps just further magic-marker scribbles trying to emulate the carefull crotch-hatches modeled on the board.  Yet, for all our hand turkey’s differences they are all remarkably similar–no small feat considering that there is really no reason why they should have become a craft in the first place, let alone the go-to Thanksgiving craft of choice for at least two generations of American children.  After all, a hand turkey looks no more like the wild poultry than a nose Christmas tree might look like Tannenbaum.  Yet children continue to trace, cut, and glue much to the chagrin of both hands and turkeys everywhere. But why?

Conspiracy theorists, those sensitive to the feelings of indigenous people, and–perhaps–those with liberal tendencies might argue that hand turkeys are one more part of the revisionist history undertaken by whites to somehow whitewash the crimes of Europeans against Native Americans.  Like “you call is corn we call it maize”–which actually seems to have been cooked up for this margarine ad–the hand turkey links modern/commercialized holiday celebrations with nostalgic reimaginings of Pilgrim feasts in days gone by such that one of the things modern Americans don’t have to be thankful for is that Indians hadn’t yet acquired an immunity to small pox virus.  However, such a reading does not seem to take seriously the fact that for at least a generation–for those like myself of “Generation X” and certainly for “Y”–public school kids have been told all about the sins of our fathers in gruesome detail.

Instead, I’d like to argue that the hand turkey is indicative of a more fundamental lesson than that of happy smiling Indians and Pilgrims sitting together to share drumsticks and aluminum can shaped cranberry sauce.  In fact, the hand turkey might be emblematic of the most fundamental lesson of American education. Think back to your first grade self struggling to grip that too-small pen in a balled-up fist, to master the fine motor control of spreading the fingers on your left hand apart, but even more the struggle of keeping your arm still—of keeping your whole body under control and concentrating on that one tiny red point as it deposits as much ink on the edge of your hand as on the paper. Then, all those hand turkeys cavorting on the surprisingly flat institutional-green fields of the hallway outside your class room—all so unique and yet–remarkably–the same. I don’t think it was accidental my first grade teacher taught us the mechanics—put your left hand on the paper like this—before telling what we were making. The lesson of the hand turkey is this: follow instructions even when they don’t make sense and you will make something wonderful out of yourself–just like everyone else. Sit quietly and don’t move around or you’ll spoil your chances of success. Your hand doesn’t have to look like a turkey because things are whatever we call them. If your hand turkey looks very much like the one the teacher made they you are “right” and if it does not they you need to try harder–satisfaction and guilt work equally well to form you into the person you need to be.

Now, in the run up to next years presidential election, as we watch news stories about terrorists and rioting students, as we struggle to justify the purchase of that new car or house, as we gather together to watch parades, eat turkey or ham, and fall asleep afterward to the sounds of football from our flat panel televisions and surround sound systems, remember the parable of the hand turkey-the way we all measure success, the routes we were told we had to take to find it, and the satisfaction we feel living more or less like our neighbors.

(Inspired by a lecture on Althusser by Dr. Hilary Strang)

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