A Fable: Of Cereals and Spoons

Seeing my dazed and despondent look on my face, a fellow classmate asked me several weeks ago how my one o’clock class had gone. I answered him with a story, whose moral could be applied to any of the various classes attended this semester:

Once upon a time in Japan there lived a young boy who lived with his grandparents outside many of the major cities. The boy grew up immersed in the old styles and customs of the country as his grandparents shunned many of the modern traditions and habits adopted by the urban populations. Although he loved and respected his grandparents, the boy wished to see and experience the world a bit. He particularly yearned to visit the Western world and taste its delicious food for his grandparents would only eat rice, night and day, day and night. The boy was in desperate need for a change of a palette.

Then one day, the boy got an invitation asking him to visit his cousins in America for the summer. Overjoyed at this news, the boy — after obtaining permission from his grandparents like a good grandson — quickly packed and left for America. When he got to the house of his cousin, he decided that his first experience was to sample American cuisine; therefore, on the morning of his first day he slipped downstairs early in the morning and grabbed a box of flakey cereal and a glass of milk. He had many good things about how delicious cereal in America was and how you eat it not with chop-sticks but with Western utensils, namely a spoon.

The boy had just poured the milk onto the snapping flakes and readied himself for the first bite when his cousin’s father trudged downstairs. The father was an out-of-work academic and seeing the young boy with his first bowl of cereal used this opportunity to refresh his teaching skills.

“Hold on, Kyon,” — for that was the boy’s name — “Wait a moment before you eat that.” The boy, Kyon, hesitated, just inches away from sampling the the spoonful of crunchy sugary cereal.

“Before you eat, let me explain a little history to you about the utensils that we use here in the States. It will help you to better appreciate that meal of yours.” The boy set down his spoon into the bowl and waited, while the milk slowly soaked over and into every morsel of breakfast cereal.

The father then began explaining the history of the spoon, its uses, its origins, and what types of food were created specifically for the utensil: soups, custard, porridge, and grapefruit. He delved into the types of spoons from soup spoons to ladles, to spoons with holes and spoon-straws. “An amusing invention,” the father said, “but quite absurd unless one is eating an orange slush.”

He explained the composition of each spoon, reveling in the stories of ancient wooden spoons, its uses in warfare, and the eventual advent of metal leaden spoons and then lead-free metal spoons: “A practical and eventual discovery, but wonderful nonetheless.”

He then described the architecture of the spoon. How he had coined the round curved section as “bowl” and then thin metal handle as the “handle.” “All of this,” he chimed as his lecture climaxed, “paved the way for the invention of the . . . spork!”

He said this as if to receive an applause, but none came. The boy looked on. His face a strange mixture of boredom and incredulity as the father then descended into another lecture about sporks, eventually transitioning into forks, their uses, their history, and why no one had every thought of such an incredible utensil before.

Eventually after what seemed like several hours, the father paused. The morning paper had landed on the lawn and the sprinklers threatened to soak the Classified and Unemployment section. The father ran outside, accidentally locking the door behind him. Quickly the boy used this opportunity to taste the cereal, which — as you might have guessed — had now turned into pile of mush floating in lukewarm milk. This was worse than week-old rice, the boy thought, promptly tossing the mushy mess, spoon and all, down the garbage disposal.

The moral of this story, for those who have not guessed it, is that even the most delectable exercise can become unpalatable if weighed down with too much instruction. Sometimes the best way to teach anything is by not teaching at all.