Of all the sweeping generalizations about history students have treated me to over the years, this is probably my favorite.
Unlike my other examples, this one was not the opening of an essay or even of a paragraph. Obviously, it follows and gathers a number of examples. I wish I had saved the examples, because the concept of past-as-task is almost impossible for me to grasp and those examples might have clarified what my student meant.
On the other hand, the sentence is wonderfully opaque in its simplicity; efforts to clarify it would leave, I think, a murky smear at best.
Here’s your task list for today, dear:
- brush your teeth
- do the dishes
- fold the laundry
- do the past
- take out the garbage…
The sentence would probably have slid by if the student had written “the past was not always easy”—although I can’t imagine anyone thinking the past was easy, so phrased that way the sentence would be pretty pointless.
I can see her now, typing the beginning of the sentence with confidence and a bit of academic panache, then typing “a” and racking her brain for the right noun to follow it. After all, she’d gone to all that trouble typing the “a”: why waste it? The line of thought that led her down the mental garden path to “easy task” I cannot imagine: I leave it to you to either spend a few merry moments trying to trace such a journey, or simply sit back and contemplate the sentence as it stands, pure and impassable.