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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


14. [Plate 37]
The Education of Young Prick

Prick the Donkey was, for all his virtues, no great shakes as a scholar. He went to a school for well-bred asses and studied under a famous pedantic ass, but oh, it was hard, it was hard, it was hard! Try though he might, he could not memorize his lessons. The instant he opened his school-book, all the answers would flee from his head.

Worse, Prick was terrified of his teacher. At exam time that solemn old ass would glare down at him, wooden spoon ready to descend upon Prick's head should he answer incorrectly, and tears of misery would flood Prick's eyes. The other students laughed and jeered, of course. Youth is so cruel! But though their barbs stung him, Prick fought not to show it. He was brought up believing that an ass is the noblest of beasts. So he always strove to act like one.

At last he went to his father for advice. That venerable ass snorted and said, "Tell me, son — What is the purpose of an education?"

Prick thought. "To learn a skill?"

"Skills are for tradesmen!" his father brayed derisively. "No, the purpose of an education is to get a diploma, so that you may be a lawyer, an arranger, a leader of men!"

Prick the Donkey had never thought of it that way. "But doesn't one need to learn in order to get a degree?"

"Not necessarily," his father said. "Not if one contributes generously enough to his school."

Overcome by his father's wisdom, Prick the Donkey could only bob his head and bleat his gratitude.

From that day on, education was much simpler for Prick. If a class was too difficult for him, he skipped it. If a teacher refused to give him good grades, that worthy soon found himself transferred elsewhere. School became as easy for Prick as everything else in his life. It was a lesson he never forgot.

In later years, Prick made self-reliance a cornerstone of his political philosophy. He considered himself to be, as he told anybody who would listen, a self-made ass.


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This is the 14th of 80 stories by Michael Swanwick written to accompany Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos. For a listing of the most recently available stories, go to The Sleep of Reason.

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