Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Keeping it Surreal

On the first day of class, my eighth grade English teacher breezed in on a cloud of patchouli, hopped up on the desk, assumed a half-Lotus and introduced herself. "Greetings, everyone; welcome to English and Composition. My name is Mary Something-really-long-and-Eastern-European, but I'm cool with 'Mary.'"

Wow, I thought; a real, live hippie.

Mary went on to say we could read whatever we felt like reading and write about whatever we felt like writing about, "as long as we kept it real."

But it turns out old "maryjane" (what most of us called her behind her back) hadn't meant "whatever" as I'd always understood it to mean, and that keeping it real was serious business - no place for potboilers, S.E. Hinton, J.D. Salinger, Tom Robbins, or even Ray Bradbury.

She approved of Pablo Neruda, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, and Carlos Castaneda, "but I don't want you reading these authors just because I approve of them."

Phew, I thought.

"I want you to want to read them," she said.

And all I wanted was an "A," not to have my head shrunk by this Woodstock refugee.

"What about biographies?" I asked.

"What sort of biographies?"

"Oh, only real ones, about real people - no celebrity exposes or rags-to-riches stories." Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she spoke. "I think that's an excellent idea. Especially at your age, when you're shaping your worldview and are at your most inspirable. Why, I'm still drawing a lot of inspiration from a biography I read about Gandhi..."

At that time, I didn't know what, exactly, a worldview was, and even if I did, I certainly didn't give a hoot for shaping it. I just wanted to keep it real enough to get my "A."

But a funny thing happened on the way to that "A": I discovered I really liked biographies, maybe even more than fiction.

By the end of the semester, I was much more in awe of Thomas Jefferson than I was the TV Jeffersons (even if they did manage to break the cursed White Ceiling and get themselves a "deluxe apartment in the sky") and would have, given the choice, rather spent an hour with the enigmatically one-eyed Moshe Dayan than collected a week's worth of one-eyed Peter Falk's "Columbo" residuals.

I've had short-lived crushes on everyone from Che Guevara to Teddy Roosevelt over the years; I've been uplifted, inspired, moved, and occasionally enraged by people I only "know" on paper.

But no one has shaped my worldview quite like the Honourable and eminently quotable Sir Winston Churchill, whose, "He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire" just about made me fall off my chair.

I thought about calling old maryjane and telling her, but somehow I don't think she'd see the humor in it. After all, keeping it real is serious business.

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