Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A Play, A Teacher, and a Changed Life

Ladies and Gentlemen, believe it or not I’m going to blog about something other than “Natural” evil! (I admit that when I get hooked on a topic, I can become a wee bit obsessive – just a bit).

Last week my small group visited the “Garage Theater” in Minneapolis for a showing of Thorton Wilder’s famous play Our Town. I was the one who suggested (insisted) that the small group go. The reason is that this play was instrumental in completely changing my life.

I first encountered this play in Ms. King’s 11th grade Humanities class. Up to this point in my life, I had zero interest in school or in anything academic. I honestly don’t remember reading a single book cover-to-cover. From 7th to 11th grade I gave five different book reports on the same book – Hiroshima – and I honesty don’t think I even read that (short) book all the way through. My whole life revolved around playing drums in a rock band, doing drugs and partying (though I remained active in cross country running and track, mainly because I was pretty good at it and it kept my dad happy – and unsuspicious).

I was totally checked out of the academic system, but I always thought a lot about death and the purpose of life. I was an atheist, but I obsessively wondered about -- and searched for --something that would make sense of life. Reality struck me as totally absurd. More often than not, my pot smoking and acid dropping excursions were more about trying to gain insight into the mystical oneness of things than it was just for fun.

So here I was sitting in Ms. King’s class. We were supposed to have read Our Town (which I of course didn’t do), and then in class we watched this totally hokey black-and-white film production of the final act. I was, as usually, totally checked out until one point in the play when a young lady (Emily) died and visited with other deceased people in the town’s graveyard. Something about Wilder’s perspective on death intrigued me, so I perked up. I ended up being quite moved by the play.

Then we discussed the play in class. At one point Ms. King brought up that in the play the narrator says “it's only natural that we go through life two by two.” She wondered what the rest of us thought about that. To everyone’s surprise I blurted out an opinion. (It’s the first time I recall participating in any class discussion). “That’s a crock of sh*t!,” I said.

Ms. King didn’t take offense at my language, but simply asked why I thought this. “We’re born alone; we die alone, and we go through life alone,” I said. Ms. King responded by saying something like, “That doesn’t sound very romantic,” to which I replied, “Romance is an illusion we create to suppress the pain of our aloneness.”

All the girls in the class turned against me. Mayhem broke out. But I stood my individualistic, nihilistic ground.

At the end of the class Ms. King continued the discussion with me. She complimented some of the points I’d made and told me she actually agreed with me. Then she said, “Greg, have you ever thought about going into philosophy?” It was the first time in my life I recall a teacher showing any (positive) interest in me, let alone affirming some potential in me. I asked her what “philosophy” was. She gave me a brief explanation and then made a deal with me. If I’d read two books on philosophy and write up two reports on what I thought about the books, she’d pass me (I was flunking at this point). I accepted the deal.

I went to the library, checked out the card catalogue on philosophy (I needed the librarian’s help because I’d never done this before!), and eventually happened upon Eric Hoffer’s True Believer. It completely blew me away! I couldn’t believe someone else thought the kind of thoughts I think – and wrote a book about it! For the first time in my life I found something interesting enough to read!

The somewhat fried neurons in my dormant brain began to wake up and talk to one another. And I’ve been reading and thinking philosophy ever since.

Ms. King gave me an “A” in the class, bless her heart.

And to this day Our Town remains my all time favorite play.



POSTSCRIPT #1: I visited Ms. King last year in the hospital, several weeks before she passed away. I told her how God had used her to completely change my life. (I had told her this twenty years earlier, but I wanted to remind her). It was a precious moment. Like the rest of us, Ms.King had to take the journey from this life into the next alone. She did it with peaceful courage and style. But she certainly didn’t live life alone. I was dead wrong in 11th grade. She touched many lives – including this previously checked-out teenager – along the way.

POSTSCRIPT #2. I had planned on writing about the play Our Town, but I got a little sidetracked. I’ll do that on my next blog.