My parents caught on to my obsession, of course, when they saw me reading like a little crazy person. I’m not sure what they said to themselves or what they felt about the whole thing, but what I felt from them was their great pleasure in me and their great pride in the way I didn’t seem to be stuck in any small definitions of childhood- not, at least, where reading was concerned. I can remember them calling me over one time. They had a theory to test- a book for me to read. I looked at the page and scrunched my little girl shoulders when I told them I can’t pronounce those names. I was sincerely sorry, too- as only a child can be sorry. So, they said try the words around the names- just one page- we’ll help you pronounce the names when you get to them. So, on a Sunday afternoon, I read one page- just one page- of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And that was enough. I waited two more years to go back and finish it.
After one very long day in second grade, though, I arrived home and pulled my father’s 11th grade literature textbook (teacher’s edition) off the shelf. I flipped (for the pictures, of course- I was just a kid) and then settled down to read a translation of Sophocles’ Antigone along with all of my da’s notes on the symbolism of light and dark. (My father’s words were scribbled and marginalized, but oddly enough, they are the ones I still remember. And, of course, now that I think about it, that's not very odd at all.)
Now I was no stranger to Greek myths- in fact, they were my favorite stories. All that sex and violence- every character flawed- every ending at least semi-tragic even if it was a happy one. They were good groceries to my young way of thinking. (Rather like the comic books I found to read on those days when hell came just this close to freezing over.) But the words in this story were different and the ideas, too. Complex and lovely. After I finished reading it, I sat still under the dining room table, that heavy book on my skinny, kicked out legs and thought and thought while the room fell into evening.
Because my father taught them, I had a thing for the classics. I plowed through the complete works of Poe, Hawthorne and Dickens in one year; along with whatever else I could get my hands on. One night I foolishly insisted that I wanted to go to the school with my parents and hang out in my father’s class room during Parent/ Teacher Conferences. I’d gone through most everything readable in that room, so, in an attempt to stave off my impending boredom, my dad rummaged for something new before he headed off to the gym to tell parents why their kids were failing his class. What he handed me was a skinny little paperback which I’d nearly devoured by the time my parents walked in to check on me during a break. “You gave her Lord of the Flies? Honey, she's in third grade!”, my mother said to my dad, shaking her head. He seemed the tiniest bit defensive, but mostly proud when he answered, “Yeah, I did. She can handle it.” Trying to keep peace, I piped in with, “It’s okay, mommy, besides I’m almost done with it. See? Only a third left.” “Yeah. Only a third left.” My dad smiled at my mother coaxingly. And she, still shaking her head, smiled back.
I suppose third grade was when I realized that no one else in my little world was doing this. It was Dickens- specifically, The Pickwick Papers- which tripped me up. I can still remember what that table felt like under my elbows as I clasped my hands together and leaned way, way forward to include all of my friends around me in what I had to say. Something about a funny part in Dickens’ first novel- I know I was très hyper talking about it. They stared back at me. And then went back to talking to each other. (Kids are very efficient communicators, aren't they?) And I understood then that they didn’t know what I was talking about and that they wouldn’t know- not any time soon. It was the first time I understood that what was in my head was other and utterly uninteresting for my peers. The realization is a bright, hard spot of loneliness in my mind even today. It has been joined by a thousand other “you think too much”s since then. I have never figured out a good response to that one. This brain does what it wants to do. And what it wants to do is dig deep and run fast. Tant pis, huh? I cannot hold it back.
Even though the minds behind all those words, all those books, were my teachers and friends- my familiars- everybody's gotta live in the here and now or become awfully lonely. (Well, maybe not. I could shut myself away again with words and become a writer, maybe, but knowing me, I'd miss the here and now. And the girl in me would become awfully lonely. Eventually, she'd say honey, take me dancing, you know?) But I guess that my early experiences being other and outside, really did shape me. So much so, that when I encounter people whose minds move at too fast a pitch (especially when their personalities have some over all kindness and a bent sense of humor thrown in) I really do feel that I cannot afford to let them go.
Don't get me wrong, I don't need people I encounter to be strong where I am strong in order to adore them and love their company. And I know that even if they can't quite match me at one point, they are very likely to surpass me at another. We've all got our strengths. (Frankly, huge chunks of this viewpoint were learned while reading all alone. Books have got some good info in 'em on human beings from time to time, I tell you.) Still, you never know when somebody's gonna feel threatened by your confidence or the ease and joy with which you do what you can do in life. You never know when somebody's gonna decide that your strength and joy is actually snobbery and that you need to be taken down a peg or two.
Don't know if you're thinking it, but I know I have thought it a trillion times- Can't we all just get all along? No, apparently, in a lot of cases, we really can't. That's a sad fact. I don't pull my punches or dumb anything down, but I've learned to dissemble when I realize I'm in the presence of a narrow mind and a pinched soul. Don't know who to feel more sorry for in that scenario- me or pinchy. I just make sure I'm not ever pinchy when I encounter somebody who blows me and what I got way on out of the water. Credit where it's due. There's enough sunshine for everybody. Whether you burn or tan is your business.