Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Doug Gets Rich

Posted by Neal on June 11, 2006

When Doug’s class went on an end-of-the-year picnic to a nearby park last week, they had to wear their official school T-shirts. These shirts are to be worn only on field trips (like this one), or on certain designated days at school, so it had been a while since I’d seen the shirt. I looked at it while I packed Doug’s lunch: It’s a beige shirt, with a 6-inch-diameter picture of a penny on the front. Under the penny are the inspiring words from the fourth-grader who won the T-shirt design contest last year:

If I had a penny for every new thing I learned at [this school], I’d be rich.

These words stared me in the face a few minutes later, as I rubbed sunscreen into Doug’s arms and neck. I pondered them while he put on his shoes and backpack. Just before he left for school, I got a penny, and said, “Doug, I want you to have this penny. Do you know what it’s for?”

“No,” he said.

“This penny,” I said, “is for every new thing you’ve learned at [your school]!”

You know, I don’t think Doug appreciated what I was doing for him. I saw that same penny again this morning, in the bottom of the washing machine with Doug’s school T-shirt and the shorts he wore that day.

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3 Responses to “Doug Gets Rich”

  1. bearing said

    hee hee!

  2. Philip Whitman said

    Just wondering, what would be Doug’s punishment if he wears the shirt to bed or on a weekend or to watch TV some night or to go to a movie or do something else in his leisure time?

    Dad

  3. Neal said

    Dad: No punishment, even if he wore it to school on a non-field trip day. But: (1) it’s somewhat big; and (2) if he wears it whenever he wants, there’s more chance of it being dirty or otherwise unavailable on one of the few days of the year when it’s actually appropriate.

    Bearing: I’m glad you (evidently) got my joke. It occurred to me later that a likely interpretation of my action was that I thought Doug had learned only one new thing during the entire school year. For anyone who read it that way, I was playing with ambiguity of the relative scopes of a and every, interpreting it as, “If there existed a penny X such that I possessed X and X represented every new thing I learned…”

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