(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER RUSTLING)
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
I - I...
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG GROWLING)
SIMON: I don't know what to say. The dog ate my script.
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SIMON: You know that old excuse that makes people groan, palpably ridiculous, right? But was it always so? This week Forrest Wickman of Slate magazine traced the origin of that phrase school kids have used for decades to explain why they don't have their homework and adults have cited as what amounts to an exemplar of absurdity.
Forrest Wickman joins us from Slate in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
FORREST WICKMAN: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: So, near as you can tell, who was the first person to say something like, the dog ate my homework?
WICKMAN: It's hard to point to anyone in particular. One can make the argument that one of the first examples is this guy Saint Tyron(ph) who around the fifth century had this fox that he found and he started taking the fox around. And at some point the fox ate his psalms.
SIMON: So the fox ate my scripture?
SIMON: OK. So that's the 5th century. We've got some time to account for. Yes. And?
WICKMAN: It really starts picking up in the 20th century. One of the earliest really popular stories that's told often around 1905, 1910 - this priest who finishes his sermon and then he pulls his clerk aside and he asks his clerk: What did you think of the sermon? He's a little worried. And the clerk says: Oh, I think it was a fine sermon. And the priest says: Oh, I'm so glad because the dog just ate the last several pages of my sermon.
SIMON: What other kind of permutations were you able to find over the years?
WICKMAN: Yeah, so even through the '60s people - it's still juts one of many excuses. People might say my dog ate my homework. My dog went on my homework is one excuse that's used in a popular book from 1965 that's called "Up the Down Staircase."
SIMON: This is Bel Kaufman's novel about a New York City high school. Right. Yeah.
WICKMAN: Right. And it was turned into a movie in 1967. And then in the 1970s, it finally really becomes a think, a stock excuse that was well known as perhaps the most popular excuse.
SIMON: Is it an excuse that's running out of steam in the digital age when it might make more logical sense to say the dog drooled on my hard drive?
WICKMAN: Right. There has been some speculation about this. Google has these things called engrams, which track the appearance of a phrase over time. And pretty much any permutation of my dog ate my homework, all of those phrases, have been declining over the last decade or so.
SIMON: Anything to replace it?
WICKMAN: I don't know. In the '90s, there were all these children's books that started to really play with the phrase once it was so well known. So, "Godzilla Ate My Homework," "A Dinosaur Ate My Homework," "Aliens Ate My Homework," "My Teacher Ate My Homework." But I don't see any of those taking over anytime soon.
SIMON: I like the aliens ate my homework. I mean, perhaps that's their way of learning about our world.
WICKMAN: That could be how it works.
SIMON: Forrest Wickman of Slate magazine. Thanks so much for being with us.
WICKMAN: Thanks very much.
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SIMON: This is NPR News,
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My Dog Ate My Homework
We derive immeasurable good, uncounted pleasures, enormous security, and many critical lessons about life by owning dogs.
My husband and I came home from our errands one day and opened our bedroom door to let out Sunny, our six-year-old Greyhound. Gary opened the door to the backyard while I entered the bedroom.
“Oh no!” I yelled, looking at the scraps of paper all over the floor. I realized that they were from a book my counselor had assigned me to read. I was seeing someone because Gary and I were at odds about starting a family. I was apprehensive, while Gary had been ready soon after we were married. I felt that I needed to talk with someone to process why I didn’t want to move forward, especially since when we were dating I thought I was certain that I wanted a family.
In the two years since we had adopted Sunny, we had developed a regular routine for leaving Sunny alone at home. During short errands of less than an hour, we would let her stay in our room, her favorite place in the house. She loved lying on our bed soaking up the sunshine. When we knew we’d be gone longer, we had to put her in her kennel. Ninety-nine percent of the time she didn’t shred things when we were only gone a short time. However, unfortunately, this time my homework was the victim of one of the one percent episodes.
Choosing a Greyhound for a pet was an unusual selection for both Gary and me. Our parents both had hunting dogs. When I was a girl, I would look through dog breed books and plan what kind of dog I wanted when I was on my own. I had never considered a Greyhound, but when we decided to get a dog early in our marriage, Gary wanted an unusual breed. We read a newspaper article about a retired racing Greyhound adoption network. It piqued our interest so we attended a Greyhound showing at a local pet store. We met Sunny, an elegant brindle-colored lady, whose racing name was Sparky’s Sunbug. We fell in love with her.
After bringing Sunny home, we discovered the advantages of owning a retired racing Greyhound. Sunny was completely housebroken, and, in general, was easily trained. One “no” after she climbed on our furniture and she never tried it again. Once I caught her putting her front legs up on our kitchen table to try to mooch Chinese food off a plate, but after one reprimand, she never did it again. Since she was shorthaired, she shed very little, and she was quiet, only barking when she was in a playful mood. Sunny did not slobber either. Her means of affection was more like an Eskimo kiss. She would gently make contact with her nose instead of trying to lick your face.
In human years, Sunny was well into her adulthood when we adopted her. Although, she had her child-like times, often she seemed like an old soul. Sunny would stick close to me whenever she sensed that I was troubled. When there was a vibe of stress in the house, she picked up on it, would stand near one of us, and lean against us. She seemed to know when I was worried, since in her soulful eyes was a sage, grandmotherly look that conveyed, “This too shall pass, dear.”
At the time of the homework shredding, I was anxious about the idea of starting a family while maintaining a job that at times required working fifty to sixty hours a week. I couldn’t imagine raising a child under those circumstances, although I knew women with careers who managed it somehow. I was approaching a milestone that would require me to make some life changes, and I didn’t want to. I liked the familiarity of the life that Gary and I had.
I didn’t know it then, but letting go of worry and restlessness was the lesson that I needed to learn. Sunny introduced me to the idea of appreciating simply what I had at the moment — a home, a good marriage, and a secure lifestyle. She was helping me settle into the kind of home life that was needed for welcoming a child.
Gary and I were in our late-twenties when we adopted Sunny. We enjoyed traveling and going out to restaurants and concerts, but after we adopted her, it meant staying home more. It also signaled to me that it was time to move beyond simply owning a house to making it into a home. Slowly I made attempts at modest decorating — well, painting anyway — and staying home to cook a meal rather than going out. Over time I came to enjoy cooking and developed a repertoire of Italian and Asian dishes. This was all a prerequisite, the true homework that I needed to complete before I could be ready for parenting.
When I reflect on the ripped pages of the counselor’s homework, I see the lesson that Sunny presented to us: to simply be there for her and give her more attention. I really didn’t need the counselor. Her conclusion after a couple of sessions was that I needed to give myself more time. Although it would take us two more years to take the plunge, Sunny was conditioning me for parenting.
Sunny delivered the lesson that day with ironic flair. When I knelt down on our bedroom floor amidst the snippets of book pages, I read the shreds to Gary, “kindness,” “time together,” and “loving attentiveness.”
I pictured Sunny with an uncharacteristic rebellious look in her eye, ripping up the book.
“I guess she showed us,” Gary said.
~Colleen Ferris Holz