So I was pressed for time earlier, since I had plans at 7:30 and started writing at 7:36 (thank god for the occasional butch who runs late). The rest of what my “42” experience brought to mind was this:
Pop culture references have frequently been a source of shame for me.
I remember quite vividly the first time I finally took a deep breath and got up the courage to say to someone I admired very much, “I don’t know who that is.” She had referenced Miss Havisham. (Dear Melissa, thank you for not laughing in my face – I know it must have been difficult.)
My shamed, awkward, scared self imagines that anyone who reads this is likely having a hearty laugh at that. Because who doesn’t know Miss Havisham, right?
But I didn’t. And I felt like it was all my fault.
The truth is, I went to a really crappy public school for a few years when we first moved to Maine; I moved from Navy base schools to public school in Bridgton during my 5th grade year and, after academic evaluations, was told I could pretty much pick what grade I wanted to go into next. No one really understands how school admissions calendars work, but apparently I turned whatever age I needed to be at the very end of their arbitrary school-entry-decision-making year, so I was already in the young half of my grade; I knew one person two years ahead of me, and no one older, so, having already experienced the social alienation that accompanied being the new kid in a small town, I chose to skip only one grade – the last thing I needed was to be three years younger than all of my “peers.”
I may as well have chosen to be an 11-year-old high school senior. While there were two other girls entering 7th grade who had also been advanced, they had grown up locally and knew that if we stuck together, it would be double social suicide. So I was the freak, the new kid and also the youngest, which is a recipe for failure in small-town public school.
Even still, or maybe in part because of this?, I strove for academic excellence; I’d always been a “brainiac,” and if I was going to be an outcast for being smart, well shit, I may as well go the distance. Except, there wasn’t a whole lot of room for it. Not much classroom conversation, papers weren’t shared and discussed, it was just assign and complete, read and report, day in and day out. I got good grades (in everything except Algebra and Maine history – go figure), but even when my teachers acknowledged the ways in which I excelled, they couldn’t do much about it.
That freshman year at Lake Region High School, we had a new English teacher. His name was Mr. Dow, and I was in love. Not only was he classically handsome – sandy hair, cleft chin, tall and muscular, the whole bit – he wanted to teach us. *Really* teach us.
We did the usual freshman stuff, because the school required it – I remember some of it… Romeo and Juliet, Robert’s Rules of Order. A few things, though, I remember in living color: one, he wanted us to study Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. More on this another time, because it changed my life. Two, he hosted a little gathering at his house – where they had NPR on the radio that was piped into every room – and afterward, he brought us to see Brigadoon at Portland Players. I’d never before seen or heard a musical, and this also changed my life. Again, more on that later. Finally, and what is relevant to this post, his reading list was essentially massacred by my mother.
Mom, if you’re reading this, please know two things: one, I don’t blame you, per se. Maybe a little, but I’m not mad about it. Two, I know you were kinda brainwashed by that Ellis dude. I’m sure you weren’t alone.
So, Mr. Dow gave us a reading list. On it were such classics as The Picture of Dorian Gray. The Glass Menagerie. The Catcher in the Rye. The Lord of the Flies. Great Expectations. Books I’d hardly, if ever, heard of, let alone knew to be great works of literary art. We were to choose a certain number of them to read, but mom didn’t approve of many on the list. She also pitched a right fit when Mr. Dow had us read The Tao of Pooh and write a critical comparison of it against the Bible. My mother was a conservative Mennonite at that time, and had broken and sent off to the dump every Aerosmith album ever recorded – mint condition, all of them, mind you – rather than sell them, despite the fact that we were living in poverty and she could have gotten a good price for them. She didn’t want others to be swayed by the devil’s music, so they had to be destroyed rather than passed on.
So, when other students were reading Dickens and Wilde and the Brontes and whomever else, I… wasn’t. I was allowed to read mom’s Dick Francis and Agatha Christie novels (I still don’t really get that), but To Kill A Mockingbird would’ve been tossed into the woodstove. Mom pulled me out of public school after my freshman year, and my reading after that was pretty much the Bible and Jeanette Oke novels. Which, I have to say, I did love at the time. I’m somewhat tempted to re-read one or more now, much as I’ve been re-reading YA novels I loved as a pre-Mennonite-mom-influenced child. But I digress.
So, there’s a lot of shit I just don’t get. I’ve been working on my cultural ignorance as an adult, especially during Banned Books Week each year – I’ve discovered Harper Lee and Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell. I’m watching movies that came out in the 80s and 90s that were rated PG-13 and R and which I was not allowed to see. I’m trying to learn what my age peers have known for decades, but I will never be affected by a John Hughes film they way they were. I will also always have to IMdB John Hughes and John Waters to know the difference. (I love that many of my friends love them both, and can tell the difference. My friends are way smart.)
So, bottom line is, when someone says something like, “The answer is 42,” I have two reactions. One is, “OH MY FUCKING GOD I GET THAT AND IT IS HILARIOUS, THANK YOU!” The second is, “Oh my fucking god, I didn’t read Hitchhiker’s Guide until I was almost 30 and I am a nerd poseur. I hate myself.”
I’m trying to lean toward the former, and create more moments like that.
So, what classic do you reference that you’d think someone is a total dunce for not recognizing?