John Leech's 1843 illustration

John Leech’s 1843 illustration

In fourth grade, I won a spelling bee. Or something similar. I got a prize.  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I was an avid reader, the kind of kid who didn’t mind getting sent to my room because there were books there. I took my prize upstairs and started reading.

It appears that Charles Dickens is written well above the reading level even of the most nerdly of fourth graders. I knew the words–that’s the type of nerd I was in training to be–but context defied me. I asked my mom several questions, and eventually threw a fit and cried because at ten years old I was not equipped to understand the deep workings of human transformation and redemption about which Dickens was writing. I had frustrated myself beyond belief. Mom took the book away.

My experience was similar in high school when I read Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and “Grapes of Wrath.” Ability to read–yes.  Vocabulary acquisition-yes. Totally missed the entire literary point even with an expert teacher standing there jumping up and down trying to say that it was a good thing that he shot his friend or that she breast-fed that guy–I don’t get it.

And now, my love of great literature is coming back to haunt me in the form of a nerd-in-training Scrooge obsessed five-year old.  In fact, he’s been obsessed Dickens since he was nearly three. He stares transfixed at the television any time Scrooge appears. He streams it on Netflix, requesting the exact rendition to suit his mood. He replays certain frames, monologues, and images over and over. He compares and contrasts the versions. He ranks them in order of quality. He loves them almost as much as his dinosaurs.

He is a connoisseur of every version of A Christmas Carol, from George C. Scott to Patrick Stewart from Alistair Sim to the new Jim Carrey. We argue about which version is the best. I like the George C. Scott. Declan likes it too, but finds the Jim Carrey the most frightening.

Declan recites the monologues throughout the year. Key words in conversation might trigger “the ponderous chain” speech, for example, randomly in public.  In fact, try saying the word “business,” in any context around him, and you will endure a loud punctuation piercing the middle of your conversation–which was probably about some real business endeavor–startling you out of the “business” at hand.

“BUSINESS?” he will shout, “Business!”  “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” [Edit: We managed to capture this unprompted yesterday: Declan Recites Scrooge]

You will most likely stare at him, with your mouth gaping open, look back at me, and wonder, “Is this kid playing with all 52 cards?” In fact he is–there’s just no joking about Scrooge.  Today, we had the following conversation after he noticed some writing on his dry erase board and commanded me to…

“Sponge away the writing on that stone!”

Business indeed.

There were serious questions to attend to.

“Why does Scrooge need to see all the ghosts?”

“Why does the white horse take him to his grave when he’s standing there?”

“Why did he die in his dream?”

“Why couldn’t Jacob Marley stay? He was his friend.”

“Why doesn’t the Ghost of Christmas Future talk? He NEEDS to use his talking. He needs to use his English words.”

“What’s a conscience?”

And the most important question of them all…”Why isn’t there a Scrooge II?” We’ve discussed all of this over and over. Scrooge, when presented with his own demise, got it the first time–no need for a Scrooge II.

We always end with a spirited debate about whether the black ghost is, in fact, good or bad.  I explain that he’s good–Scrooge needs these lessons even if they’re scary.  Declan insists the ghost is bad because he has crinkly clothes and he’s dressed in black. Archetypes appear early. “He’s bad. But he’s my favorite ghost. I like Marley too.”

Sort of brings me back to high school again–all the shades of meaning I wasn’t prepared to understand. Then college, where I must confess I spent more time waitressing than I did studying.  It wasn’t until later in life that I finally looked down at my shelf of classics, my piles of syllabi, the original research of the innovators in my field, and smiled.  I understood. I was ready to learn. Ready to dig deeper–ready to apply those shades of meaning to my life.

The expression, “when the student is ready, the master will appear.”  I have seen this many times in life, in the lessons I’ve taught and in the lessons that have been taught to me.  Sometimes those “masters” appear in the form of a person, sent only when you are ready to understand. Other times, those lessons appear in history, or in words written on a page–words we’ve read a thousand times but suddenly capture us when we are ready to apply them to our lives.

This year has been full of such lessons in my life–lessons about taking chances, living up to my expectations, doing more with the gifts I have been given, letting go of fear and apprehension and knowing that life generally turns out okay.

This blog is the smallest result of one of those lessons.  I wonder how many more lessons I can relearn and apply by digging into those gems from my past–my Dickens, my Steinbeck, my Dostoyevsky…we don’t have time to teach them in schools anymore, and sadly some of them are going by the wayside.  However, in all fairness, I wasn’t ready for them then–I didn’t deserve them then. I’m ready for them now. I will reread them and remember an outstanding instructor from my past, jumping up and down telling me what Steinbeck was trying to say, and be secretly proud that I’m finally old enough to get it.

I think Scrooge would be proud.

The Black Ghost

Declan drawing The Black Ghost

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