Friday, December 21, 2007

The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

Say say my playmate,
Come out and play with me,
And bring your dollies three,
Climb up my apple tree,
Slide down my rainbow,
Into my cellar door,
And we'll be jolly friends,
Forever more
(children's nursery rhyme)

I once read a blog entry whose author waxed poetic on the fact that certain people (blogging or interacting on Internet forums) “just don’t get it,” it presumably being some unwritten rules for coolness on the Internet, understood by “those in the know"/the author’s particular clique of Internet acquaintances.

I had assumed that most of us were automatically uncool, by virtue of spending any significant amount of time on the Internet, in the first place. Weren’t all the cool people too busy caught up living the breathless whirl of their exciting lives to read or write? Then it dawned on me. Was it possible to be such a loser that even the other losers looked down on you? This possibility first occurred to me in Mr. M’s grammar class in Junior High.

I attended an old fashioned American prep school, also attended by my father, my aunts, my uncle, my sister and one of my cousins. It had a motto that went something along the lines of “And Jesus grew in understanding with the Lord” and an honor code. I learned to diagram sentences, scan poetry meter and exegete Bible verses, a tedious exercise that did wonders for my textual analysis skills but little for the faith it was aimed to reinforce. If God communicated by the written word and the written word was subject to multiple interpretations, how could we then be sure what God was saying? Maybe he speaks in Math. But I never was much good at Math. Most of all, I remember my chief preoccupation in those years was attempting to decipher the unwritten grammar of the arbitrary and constantly changing social behavioral code meted out by certain (seeming at the time) godlike peers.

In such a place, it was possible to achieve a solid academic education, along with an adequate introduction to, and, for the lucky, a lifetime immunization to institutionalized hypocrisy. Like so much in life, the lessons from what I'll call for lack of better name "The John Knox Institute" that really stayed with me were not the ones they consciously taught. Dispensing and deflecting sarcasm was one survival skill you might pick up there. The biggest triumph was to matriculate with some significant part of your dignity and individuality intact. I don’t know if I hated that place so much as I hated the person I was in that place. Funny how so many behavioral instincts go back to the schoolyard. It is one of our first frames of reference.

Back to Mr. M’s eighth grade grammar class. Some of my teachers at The John Knox Institute were truly inspiring individuals and some could have inspired Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” (We don’t need no education), M. was of the latter persuasion. As he handed back our tests, M. would cheerfully dispense his prognosis of the student’s collegiate aspirations accordingly—Duke, Vanderbilt, University of Georgia (considered a safety school for Atlanta prep schools in the eighties), Ole Miss (you really fucked up and couldn’t get into the University of Georgia), Bumfuck University in the middle of the sticks, trade school, enlisted in the military and very rarely, an Ivy League school.

It was another boring day learning about prepositional phrases in “Warriner’s Grammar and Composition” so I didn’t hear what Joe Dweeb said. Joe Dweeb had coke bottle glasses, wore Seventies style clothing (before Seventies clothing came back in style), supposedly had gotten a sixteen hundred on his SATs, had parents who were university professors and lived outside the Perimeter. None of these attributes, in and of itself, would have counted against him, if he wasn’t simply the type of kid who was doomed to be spurned by his more conventional peers anyway. He was unapologetically different. He also, apparently, had a sardonic sense of humor because that day he made a joke. I didn’t hear Joe Dweeb’s joke. If I had heard it, perhaps I wouldn’t have gotten it.

I did hear M’s response: “Joe, only you and I got that joke, and I didn’t think it was funny.” To this day, I think this is the cruelest put-down. I remember thinking how sad and isolating it would be if somewhere some person told a joke, a clever, complicated joke, with multiple levels of humor and frames of reference. And the impossibly improbable occurs: somewhere across the space-time continuum, some other sentient being claims to comprehend the joke, only the cruelest part of the joke is the one other person capable of comprehending it, doesn't think it's funny. This kind of makes me think about process of writing on the Internet and a C.S. Lewis quote where he says “we read to know that we are not alone.” Presumably we write for the same reason, but sometimes the very act or space in which it takes place leaves us feeling even more so.

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