The Cow-Tail Switch and Family Values

One of my favorite stories to read with my classes is The Cow-Tail Switch. It’s a short, African folktale about a hunter that is killed by a leopard in the forest. It takes all of his sons to bring him back to life, and after he returns form the dead, he makes a cow-tail switch (a sign of honor and authority in the village) and wants to give it to the son that did the most to bring him back home.

The funnest thing about this story is that, traditionally, there was no real ending. The point of it was to argue over which son did the most important thing to bring him back from the dead, but it’s impossible to say which was most important because each brother’s work was useless on its own and dependent on each other to bring the father back. So how do you decide?

“Let’s have a death match over it,” one of my students said in 3rd block. We had just performed a little reader’s theater with the piece, which really put the students in the mindset of the characters. Then we started a class debate over who should get the cow-tail switch. Both previous classes had argued and voted, civilly on who should get the switch. But my 3rd block always made things interesting. “I can take all ya’ll,” he said as if he really was the son that gave his father blood to live.

“That’s not fair, Z,” I said. “The youngest brother is only two years old by the time they find the father. You can’t fight a two year old!”

“Yes, I can!” he said. “He’ll be the first one out!”

“I think we should just burn it,” one of the girls said as if the switch was really sitting in front of us. “It’s causing too much trouble.”

The verbal battle over the imaginary cow-tail switch (an item that no one in the class understood or cared about when we first started the story), went on until the bell interrupted us, signalling the end of class. My 3rd block students argued all the way out the door and into math class.

Then it was time for 4th block. We went through the story in the same way and when it arrived for the big celebration where the hunter, Ogaloussa, chooses which son to give the switch to, we began our debate.

At first, it was a debate very similar to every class before us, they brought up each of the sons and weighed their contributions to their father’s reincarnation. But then something strange happened.

“So what do we do?” I asked to wrap things up.

A tiny little doll of a girl raised her hand. “I think we should share it,” she said. “Can we share it?”

A few other students nodded their heads.

“Oh yeah!” another student added on. “We can put it in one of those glass cases and the whole family can keep it in their house!”

“How about if we just make more of them?” Another student said. “Then each son can get one.”

“Or we could take it apart and use each piece in a new switch so that every son gets a piece of the first switch.”

This class came up with more ways to share the switch than there were characters to give it to! I had never heard any idea like it in all the times I’ve taught the story. But I had to stir up some kind of controversy. So I said, “Let’s assume we only have the one switch and we have to give it to only one person. Who would we give it to?”

They thought for a moment, and then someone raised their hand. “What about the mother?” he said “She’s the one that raised all the sons. She had to raise all seven of them! She’s the one that kept the family together when the father was dead. She’s the one that must’ve taught them to do all the things they know how to do. She deserves it the most.”

All the students nodded.

We took a vote in the last minute before the end of class and the mother won in a landslide.

It struck me how odd that was. The mother is barely even a character in the story. She has no lines of dialogue and is mentioned perhaps twice in the whole passage. She could have just as easily not existed and it wouldn’t’ve changed the story.

But the mother figure of any family is not so easily overlooked by my students–most of whom live with single mothers. To them, that invisible mother in the African village was the cornerstone of the family. All of the arguments spoken on her behalf were just as true for each student’s own mother. And when they took that vote in the end, they weren’t voting for a fictional character. They voted with a heart dipped in the reality of their own lives.

It was beautiful.

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