Gimpel the Fool Essay - Gimpel the Fool, Isaac Bashevis Singer

Gimpel the Fool, Isaac Bashevis Singer

Introduction

“Gimpel the Fool” Isaac Bashevis Singer

The following entry presents criticism of Singer's short story “Gimpel tam” (“Gimpel the Fool”), first published in the journal Jewish Daily Forward in 1945. See also Isaac Bashevis Singer Short Story Criticism.

“Gimpel the Fool” is Singer's best-known and most acclaimed work of short fiction. The story chronicles the life of the “wise fool” Gimpel, who comes to realize profound truths about love, evil, and spiritual faith. Originally published in Yiddish, “Gimpel the Fool” made its first appearance in English in 1953, translated by the writer Saul Bellow, in the journal Partisan Review.

Plot and Major Characters

Gimpel, an orphan in the fictional East European town of Frampol, is teased as a child for believing anything he is told, no matter how outlandish. As he grows to adulthood and becomes a baker, he remains gullible, and he is widely regarded as a fool. When townspeople bully Gimpel into marrying the town whore, Elka, he becomes her cuckolded husband. Eventually he falls in love with her and accepts her abuse and infidelities. Elka has a baby four months into the marriage, and Gimpel trusts that the child was “premature.” When Gimpel finds Elka in bed with another man, he is ordered by the rabbi to divorce her. Reluctant to do so, he proclaims that he must have hallucinated the entire incident. With that rationalization, the rabbi allows him to return to his wife, who eventually has six more children, none of whom are Gimpel's. Before she dies, she confesses the truth to Gimpel. As a result, he experiences a profound loss of faith and sense of betrayal. He even urinates on the bread dough he makes in the town bakery to exact vengeance against the townspeople who think that he is a fool. The Devil encourages Gimpel's need for revenge and fosters his spiritual doubts. When Elka visits Gimpel in a dream and warns him not to be like she was, he buries the contaminated dough and leaves Frampol. Liberated from his role as the village fool, he wanders the countryside and tells fantastic stories about devils, magicians, and windmills. In the end, he is at peace with his life and looks forward to death.

Major Themes

Critics have identified the central concerns of “Gimpel the Fool” as the power of faith and love, the virtue of the powerless, innocence, tolerance, and conformity. Some commentators have observed that “Gimpel the Fool” explicitly establishes a connection between Gimpel and Adam and between Elka and Eve: as Adam forgives Eve for deceiving him, they note, so too does Gimpel pardon Elka. Gimpel's forgiveness of his wife—in fact, his forgiveness of everyone who has taken advantage of his kindness and love—is another of the story's central themes. Much critical discussion of “Gimpel the Fool” focuses on the significance of the protagonist. Several critics perceive Gimpel as the archetype of the wise or sainted fool, which is a common type in both Yiddish and Western literature. A variation of that interpretation views Gimpel as the archetypal schlemiel—a foolish but wise individual found in Yiddish literature. Gimpel's role as a scapegoat, as he is ridiculed by his wife and the townspeople, is also a subject of commentary. Gimpel is seen as becoming, in the latter part of the story, reminiscent of the figure of the Wandering Jew, as he considers esoteric questions of faith and meaning and longs for death. Some critics have viewed Gimpel as representing the Jewish experience during World War II.

Critical Reception

“Gimpel the Fool” is regarded as a masterpiece of Yiddish short fiction. Reviewers have praised the simplicity of Singer's narration and his poignant and compelling portrayal of Gimpel as he undergoes a profound spiritual crisis. Critics have contended that “Gimpel the Fool” affirms Singer's preference for faith over skepticism and can be viewed as a meditation on the power of love and spiritual faith. Gimpel has been discussed within the context of the literary tradition of the “wise fool” or schlemiel and has been viewed as a rare example of the schlemiel figure in postwar Yiddish literature. He has also been compared to similar creations by Sholom Aleichem and I. L. Peretz. Since Bellow's translation brought the story to the attention of the American public, “Gimpel the Fool” has remained Singer's most popular story and his most anthologized work of short fiction.

Principal Works

“Gimpel Tam” [“Gimpel the Fool”] 1945; published in the journal Jewish Daily Forward.

*Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories 1957

The Spinoza of Market Street and Other Stories 1961

Short Friday and Other Stories 1964

Selected Short Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer 1966

Zlateth the Goat, and Other Stories 1966

Schlemiel Went to Warsaw, and Other Stories 1968

The Séance and Other Stories 1968

A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw 1969

A Friend of Kafka and Other Stories 1970

An Isaac Bashevis Singer Reader 1971

A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories 1973

Passions and Other Stories 1975

Old Love 1979

The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer 1982

Stories for Children 1984

The Image and Other Stories 1985

The Death of Methusaleh and Other Stories 1988

Shoten an Goray [Satan in Goray] (novel) 1935

Di Familie Mushkat [as Isaac Bashevis; The Family Moskat] (novel) 1950

Mayn Tatn's bes-din Shtub [as Isaac Warshofsky; In My Father's Court] (memoir) 1956

Der Kunstmakher fun Lublin [The Magician of Lublin] (novel) 1960

Der Knekht [The Slave] (novel) 1962

Sonim, di Geschichte fun a Liebe [Enemies: A Love Story] (novel) 1966

Der Sertifikat [The Certificate] (novel) 1967

The Manor (novel) 1967

The Estate (novel) 1969

The Mirror (play) 1973

Der Baltshuve [The Penitent] (novel) 1974

Yentl [with Leah Napolin] (play) 1974

A Little Boy in Search of God: Mysticism in a Personal Light (memoir) 1976

Yarme and Kayle (novel) 1976

Shosha (novel) 1978

Teibele and Her Demon [with Eve Friedman] (play) 1978

A Young Man in Search of Love (memoir) 1978

Farloyrene Neshomes [Meshugah] (novel) 1981-82

Lost in America (memoir) 1981

Love and Exile (memoir) 1984

Der Veg Aheim [The Way Home] (novel) 1985

Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer [with Richard Burgin] (interviews) 1986

*Published in Yiddish as Gimpel Tam un andere Dertseylungen in 1963.

†These works were originally published serially in the journal Jewish Daily Forward.

Criticism

Paul N. Siegel (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Siegel, Paul N. “Gimpel and the Archetype of the Wise Fool.” In The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Marcia Allentuck, pp. 159-73. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

[In the following essay, Siegel examines the ways in which Singer utilizes the archetypal figure of the wise fool in “Gimpel the Fool,” and calls the story “a masterpiece of irony.”]

“Gimpel the Fool,” perhaps the most widely acclaimed work of Isaac Bashevis Singer, has its roots deep in the soil of Yiddish literature. It is concerned with two of what Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg tell us, in their Treasury of Yiddish Stories, are “the great themes of Yiddish literature,” “the virtue of powerlessness” and “the sanctity of the insulted and the injured,” and has as its anti-hero the “wise or sainted fool” who is an “extreme variation” of “the central figure of Yiddish literature,” “dos kleine menschele, the little man.” The wise or sainted fool is, however, not merely a recurring character in Yiddish fiction; he is a centuries-old archetypal figure of western literature. The manner in which Singer handles this archetypal figure, making use of the ideas associated with it, but in his own distinctive way, makes “Gimpel the Fool” the masterpiece of irony that it is.

The idiot was regarded in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance as being under the special protection of God. He was also often regarded as an “innocent” or a “natural,” a child of nature who lived without thought of the past or the future and was consequently happier than the supposedly wise man. The court jester was either a feeble-minded person or a lunatic who evoked amusement by his inaneness or his antics. He might also be someone who pretended to be a fool and used his assumed folly as a license for his wit.

Shakespeare's Feste and Touchstone are jesters of the second kind, “fools” who, as Viola says of Feste (Twelfth Night, III, i, 61), are “wise enough to play the fool.” Feste demonstrates the foolishness of Olivia in her exaggerated mourning for her brother, and Touchstone satirizes the foolish artificialities of the court. Each finds the world to be made up of fools, of whom it might be said (in the words of Touchstone (As You Like It, V, i, 30-31), “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

Lear's fool is mentally unbalanced but shrewdly perceptive, crack-brained but sharp-witted. He knows the ways of the world and exposes the folly of Lear in seeking to give up power but to retain the pomp of power. Paradoxically, however, while mocking Kent for foolishly following someone who has given up his power, he himself remains faithful to Lear. In doing so, he is following a higher wisdom than worldly wisdom. This is the wisdom of St. Paul, who warned that those whom the world regarded as wise must become fools in the eyes of the world if they were to become genuinely wise. They must become as the little children of whom Christ spoke. The “innocent” or “natural” fool might act on such wisdom without thought or utter Christlike truths without realizing their significance.

The heyday of the wise fool was in Renaissance literature. However, the idea was continued in different forms in Coleridge's crazed mariner, the “gray-beard loon” who has learned the secret of the love of living things; in Melville's young black boy Pip, who on being alone, like the ancient mariner, in the vast immensity of the ocean, has been rendered idiotic but has seen in its “wondrous depths” the “hoarded heaps” of “the miser-merman, Wisdom”; in Dostoevsky's saintly Prince Myshkin, reviled as an “idiot,” who experiences a vision of light at the beginning of his epileptic fits.

Gimpel differs from the other representatives of the archetype, the Yiddish ones as well as the others, in that he is the expression of his creator's own idiosyncratic mixture of faith and skepticism. It is this mixture which, as we shall see in analyzing the story, is the source of its pervasive irony. Singer stated in a Commentary interview on November, 1963 that it would be foolish to believe the purveyors of fantasies about psychic phenomena—just as it was foolish of Gimpel to believe the fantastic lies he was told—yet the universe is mysterious, and there is something of truth after all in these fantasies, at least a revelation concerning the depths of the human psyche from which these fantasies emerged and perhaps something more as well. The need to continue to search for the truth, the realization that this search cannot result in the attainment of the truth, the need to choose belief, the realization that, intellectually speaking, such a choice cannot be defended against the unbeliever—all of this lies behind “Gimpel the Fool.”

In many ways the work dealing with the idea of the wise fool that is closest in spirit to “Gimpel the Fool” is Erasmus's The Praise of Folly. Although Erasmus accepted Christianity as divinely revealed, he was capable of writing, “I like assertions so little that I would easily take sides with the skeptics wherever it is allowed by the inviolable authority of Holy Scripture and the decrees of the Church.” Socrates, the man who was so wise because he knew how little he knew, he regarded as a saint equal to St. Paul. He attended the same school of the Brethren of the Common Life and imbibed there the same philosophy of a simple Christianity devoid of scholastic subtleties as did Nicholas of Cusa, who in his Of Learned Ignorance maintained that all human knowledge is only speculation and that wisdom consists of the recognition of man's ignorance and the apprehension of God through intuition. The expression of a fusion of skepticism and faith resembling that which underlies “Gimpel the Fool.” Erasmus's The Praise of Folly is pervaded by a similar complex ironic ambiguity. It will be interesting and illuminating, as we proceed in our discussion of Singer's story, to observe the similarities between these two works.

Gimpel is the butt of his village because of his credulity. But is he the fool that the village takes him to be? Telling his story himself, he affirms his own folly in his very first words: “I am Gimpel the fool.” In the very next breath, however, he takes it back: “I don't think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that's what folks call me.” As he relates the story of his life, this denial of his foolishness seems to be the pitiful defense of his intellect by an evidently weak-witted person who at times tacitly admits that he is a fool, but a steadily deepening ambiguity plays about his narrative. This ambiguity, present from the beginning, is indicated in the title and the opening sentence of the Yiddish, where the epithet used is “chochem” or “sage,” which often has the ironic meaning of “fool,” the meaning in which the villagers and Gimpel's wife use it.

Singer's device of having Gimpel act as the narrator is similar to Erasmus's device of having the allegorical figure of Folly deliver a mock encomium of folly. Are we to take what she has to say seriously? Her oration is in the form of a mock encomium, that is, it is an ironic praising of folly which, it would seem, should be read as the opposite, as a censuring of folly. But then, it is delivered by Folly herself. If Folly censures folly, then it would seem as if Wisdom should praise it. But if Wisdom praises folly and Folly censures it, how are we to know which is Wisdom and which is Folly? We are lost in a labyrinth of irony similar to that which we shall find in “Gimpel the Fool.”

Gimpel, looking back upon his childhood, seeks to justify the way in which he would allow himself to be taken in. He once played hookey because he had been told that the rabbi's wife had been brought to childbed. But how was he to know that he was being lied to: he hadn't paid any attention to whether her belly was big or not. So too, when he took a detour because he heard a dog barking, how was he to know that it was a mischievous rogue imitating a dog? These excuses of Gimpel sound plausible enough, the first as well as the second. After all, we don't expect a child to note the advance of pregnancy. Each birth is unexpected and comes as a kind of miracle that may happen to any woman.

But as Gimpel continues to explain that he was not really a fool, we see that he was indeed stupidly credulous, accepting the most fantastic stories which all the villagers conspired together to make him believe. Working as an apprentice in the bakery after he left school, he was subjected to a never ending flow of accounts of alleged wonders, each more silly than the other. Whereas before it was the rabbi's wife who was said to have given birth, now the rabbi was said to have given birth to a calf in the seventh month. But, as outrageously ridiculous as the stories are, there is still some uncertainty about how utterly a fool Gimpel is. He had to believe, he tells us, or else people got angry, exclaiming, “You want to call everyone a liar?” His belief, then, was in part the wise acquiescence of the butt who must play his role, knowing that otherwise he will never be free of his wiseacre tormentors.

Yet it was not merely a pretended belief. For always there would come the thought: maybe it is, after all, true? When he was told that the Messiah had come and that his parents had risen from the grave, he knew very well, he informs us, that nothing of the sort had occurred, but nevertheless he went out. “Maybe something had happened. What did I stand to lose by looking?” The jeering he got on that occasion made him resolve to believe nothing more, but he could not stick to this resolution, his poor wits being no match for those of the villagers, who confused him with their argumentation.

Moreover, he came to believe not merely because he was talked into it but also because he wanted to believe. When he was derisively matched with the village prostitute, he knew very well what she was, that her limp was not, as alleged, a coy affectation and that her supposed little brother was actually her bastard child. But, after having been pushed into marriage with her by the entire village, he grew to love her and the uncertain belief in her virtue to which he had been persuaded became a determinedly held belief against all the evidence.

At this point in his narrative Gimpel, the husband of the sharp-tongued Elka, becomes both a henpecked husband and a cuckold, the two figures who have been objects of mirth through the centuries and have often as here been combined in the same person. With comic repetition each time the truth is revealed to him he is talked out of it or talks himself out of it. Elka bears a child seventeen weeks after the wedding, but after a period of pain he allows himself, having grown to love the child, to believe that it is his. She bears another child after a separation of more than nine months. The village laughs, but Gimpel accepts it as his. He finds Elka in bed with another man, but after a period of painful separation persuades himself to accept her story that it was an illusion. On returning home unexpectedly after the separation, he finds her in bed with his apprentice, but again he permits himself to be persuaded that what he saw was an illusion, this time allowing himself to be overwhelmed by her torrent of abuse and giving up all doubt the following morning when the apprentice replies to his questioning with amazed denials.

His credulity has no limits. Repetition seems to make it easier for him to believe rather than the reverse. We should laugh at this spectacle of the fool continuing in his folly, but we do not, for we have come to wonder if Gimpel, undoubted fool that he has proven himself to be, is not in reality superior to his...

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Maurice Natanson (essay date winter 1974)

SOURCE: Natanson, Maurice. “Solipsism and Sociality.” New Literary History 5, no. 2 (winter 1974): 237-44.

[In the following essay, Natanson offers a phenomenological perspective on “Gimpel the Fool.”]

In one edition of Isaac Bashevis Singer's story “Gimpel the Fool,” the concluding paragraph carries the line: “At the door of the hotel where I lie, there stands the plank on which the dead are taken away.”1 Lying on his “bed of straw,” his shrouds in his sack, ready to greet his Maker at the door of the hotel, Gimpel, turned itinerant beggar—a shnorrer—awaits death. In the opening paragraph of the story, Gimpel tells us that he...

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Edward Alexander (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Alexander, Edward. “The Short Stories: ‘Gimpel the Fool’.” In Isaac Bashevis Singer, pp. 143-46. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.

[In the following essay, Alexander examines Gimpel as a schlemiel figure and considers “Gimpel the Fool” as a commentary on the Jewish Holocaust during World War II.]

“Gimpel the Fool” (in Gimpel the Fool …) is without question Singer's best-known, most frequently anthologized, and most thoroughly studied short story. When Saul Bellow's translation of it appeared in Partisan Review in 1953, the barrier of parochialism which has kept the American literary world ignorant of even the greatest of Yiddish...

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Thomas Hennings (essay date winter 1983)

SOURCE: Hennings, Thomas. “Singer's ‘Gimpel the Fool’ and The Book of Hosea.Journal of Narrative Technique 13, no. 1 (winter 1983): 11-19.

[In the following essay, Hennings views “Gimpel the Fool” as a modern rendition of The Book of Hosea.]

The most popular of I. B. Singer's short stories, “Gimpel the Fool” tells about a man who endures the derision of his neighbors for marrying, divorcing, and remarrying an adulterous wife. Shortly after Singer wrote the story in Yiddish for the Jewish Daily Forward, Saul Bellow published a translation in The Partisan Review and brought it to the attention of the American public. Since then it...

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Daniel V. Fraustino (essay date spring 1985)

SOURCE: Fraustino, Daniel V. “‘Gimpel the Fool’: Singer's Debt to the Romantics.” Studies in Short Fiction 22, no. 2 (spring 1985): 228-31.

[In the following essay, Fraustino argues that the major themes of “Gimpel the Fool” were drawn from the poetry of the Romantic period.]

“Gimpel the Fool” is generally regarded as Isaac Bashevis Singer's greatest fictional masterpiece and for good reason. Its appeal to the reader is personal and immediate. Gimpel, the narrator-protagonist, represents that child-like quality in all of us which is the source of both our humanity and our vulnerability: the need to believe in the people around us and in the credibility...

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Sheldon Grebstein (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Grebstein, Sheldon. “Singer's Shrewd ‘Gimpel’: Bread and Childbirth.” In Recovering the Canon: Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by David Neal Miller, pp. 58-65. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1986.

[In the following essay, Grebstein identifies the controlling metaphors of “Gimpel the Fool” as bread and childbirth.]

Rabbi Isaac said: In the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, we find that bread strengthens the heart.

—Midrash Rabbah

At surface, Isaac Bashevis Singer's classic story “Gimpel the Fool” (“Gimpl tam”)1 might be perceived by the...

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Sally Ann Drucker (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Drucker, Sally Ann. “I. B. Singer's Two Holy Fools.” Yiddish 8, no. 2 (1992): 35-9.

[In the following essay, Drucker compares the archetypal figure of the holy fool in Singer's novel Shosha and “Gimpel the Fool.”]

A gantser nar iz a halber novi. A whole fool is half a prophet.
A halber nar iz a gantser khokhem. Half a fool is a complete sage.

(Kumove, 95-6)

These proverbs, seemingly contradictory, are usually interpreted as having ironic import—yet at first glance, their meaning is ambiguous and could imply the wisdom of fools. There are many words for fool in Yiddish and many types of fools in Yiddish...

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Anita Norich (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Norich, Anita. “Isaac Bashevis Singer in America: The Translation Problem.” Judaism 44, no. 2 (spring 1995): 208-18.

[In the following essay, Norich examines Saul Bellow's 1953 translation of “Gimpel the Fool,” addressing issues of translation and the preservation of Yiddish.]

Rabbi Yehuda said: “If one translates a verse literally, he is a liar; if he adds to it, he is a blasphemer and a libeller.”

—Talmud, B. Kiddushin 49a

I sometimes suspect that the Universe is nothing but a bad translation from God's original and this is the reason that everything here...

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Nancy Tenfelde Clasby (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Clasby, Nancy Tenfelde. “Gimpel's Wisdom: I. B. Singer's Vision of the ‘True World’.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 15 (1996): 90-98.

[In the following essay, Clasby considers the connection between the archetypal images of the scapegoat and the trickster or fool and traces Gimpel's journey to wisdom in “Gimpel the Fool.”]

Isaac Bashevis Singer's “Gimpel the Fool” is the tale of a gullible baker, his faithless wife, and the devil who tempts the baker to settle old scores. Singer's theme is that of the wise fool,1 a common figure in literature, but always a bit of an enigma. The fool is a catalyst for reversals and surprises....

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Leslie Morris (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Morris, Leslie. “1968: The Translation of Isaac Bashevis Singer's ‘Gimpel der Narr’ Appears in the Federal Republic of Germany.” In Yale Companion to Jewish Writing and Thought in German Culture, 1096-1996, edited by Sander L. Gilman and Jack Zipes, pp. 742-48. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Morris investigates the reception of the German translations of “Gimpel the Fool” and the work of the Jewish humorist Ephraim Kishon in Germany, asserting that “The reception of their work in the German popular and critical press can give insight into the discourse about Jews, Jewishness, and the Holocaust in Germany since 1968.”]...

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Alice R. Kaminsky (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Kaminsky, Alice R. “Gimpel.” In Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Vicki K. Janik, pp. 215-19. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Kaminsky provides an analysis of the central thematic concerns and the critical reception of “Gimpel the Fool.”]

BACKGROUND

Isaac Bashevis Singer (July 14, 1904-July 24, 1991) was born in Leoncin, Poland, the son of a rabbi, Pinchos-Mendel Singer, and a rabbi's daughter, Bathsheba Zylberman. He lived in Warsaw and was a proofreader for a Yiddish literary magazine, which helped inspire him in 1917 to write in...

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Tamar Yacobi (essay date May 2001)

SOURCE: Yacobi, Tamar. “Package Deals in Fictional Narrative: The Case of the Narrator's (Un)Reliability.” Narrative 9, no. 2 (May 2001): 223-29.

[In the following essay, Yacobi compares the reliability of the narrator in “Gimpel the Fool” and William Thackeray's Vanity Fair.]

The authors of Vanity Fair, The Brothers Karamazov, Don Quixote, or “The Overcoat”—to cite a few notable examples—partly divest their narrators of reliability, though leaving them as variously omniscient as George Eliot's. … Whatever logic or theology may lead us to expect, there are no package-deals in narration.

...

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William A. Reinsmith (essay date fall 2002)

SOURCE: Reinsmith, William A. “Literature and Life: Helping Students See.” Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction 3, no. 1 (fall 2002): 10-15.

[In the following essay, Reinsmith relates the experience of teaching “Gimpel the Fool.”]

In twenty-seven years at my small university I have never had the pleasure of teaching English majors. The focused students who appear in my classroom will be going into various health care professions. If they persevere in a difficult curriculum they will become pharmacists, physical or occupational therapists, physicians' assistants, biologists, toxicologists, science teachers. Yet they all must take a required number of...

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