(This memoir first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2010: photo by Marcia Sloane)
I have read a great deal about dreams and dreaming, and whether you believe dreams are communications from the astral plane or meaningless imagery resulting from cerebral out gassing, they can certainly remind us of people and places and things we have successfully avoided thinking about for the longest time.
I recently dreamt of being in high school again, and of a transformative moment in my less than excellent adventure there. My dream was a fair enactment of the event from my junior year, though the dream ended differently than the so-called real event.
I was a disinterested student suffering from the sudden onset of chronic pain in my lower back that ended my official athletic career in a heartbreaking twinkling. Verbally precocious, I was enrolled in Advanced English wherein my teachers persistently failed to see the genius behind my sloppy prose. In class discussions I invariably scored points with my classmates for wit and irony and double entendre while merely annoying my sadly average instructors on whom subtly and originality were invariably lost. Or so it seemed to my arrogant teenager’s mind.
My English teacher for my third year of incarceration was a very sad woman who never relaxed. Not in our presence. Ever. I will call her Mrs. R. She trembled when she spoke, as if she feared lightning would strike her for pontificating about things she clearly knew nothing about. She was not inherently stupid, but her anxiety rendered her so. Had she not so obviously disliked me, I might have been more compassionate toward her, but she anointed me her adversary from day one, and so we frequently did battle.
The contest, of course, was unfair. Mrs. R controlled the podium, so to speak, while I had all but a few of my fellow sufferers predisposed to my point of view. And I suppose if Mrs. R had merely been a dogmatic nervous Nellie, I wouldn’t have kept up the fight as long as I did; but she had a pet named V who was the grandest thorn in my high school side. Thus when I fought Mrs. R, I also fought V.
Why was V a thorn? Because she was my least favorite sort of sycophant: a perfect parrot, and she loved Mrs. R with a passion verging on the erotic, their heads being often together as they poured over books and poems and V’s insufferable essays that Mrs. R always deemed the best of the bunch so we always had to listen to V read her putrid prose aloud. And to make matters lethal for the miserable likes of me, V was gorgeous and sultry and possessed of a honeyed voice; and she would only date really good-looking college boys.
That is the context. Here is the event recalled by the dream.
Mrs. R stands before us, her outfit annoyingly salmon. She is, as always, trembling, a false smile pasted on her lips. “I was very disappointed in your essays on the first forty pages of The Scarlet Letter. Only a few of you correctly identified the primary recurring symbolism.” She smiles adoringly at V who is posed alluringly in the front row.
“Is it possible,” I say, speaking from my desk at the back of the room and neglecting to raise my hand, “that Nate just wrote the story without any symbolism in mind?”
A ripple of chuckles rolls around the deathly fluorescent chamber. Mrs. R grimaces. “I will remind you again to raise your hand when you wish to speak. I’ll take questions after V reads her essay.”
V rises to read, her slinky garb igniting our libidinous imaginations. She is totally at ease in her body, in stark contrast to Mrs. R, this being the raison d’etre of V’s life: to demonstrate her vast superiority over all us dunderheads. “Color,” she intones, sounding very much like Dusty Springfield singing The Look of Love, “is Hawthorne’s secret weapon; red, rust, and crimson his antidotes to Puritan gray.”
I gaze in open-mouthed contempt at V, for she has essentially quoted Mrs. R verbatim, only rendered the words in gooey singsong. I am tempted to say, “I may puke,” but something stays me, for the best is yet to come.
V takes us on a fourteen-page romp through those first forty pages of The Scarlet Letter, pointing out every word that either is or can be construed to be a variant on red until I and my fellow sufferers are driven to the brink of insanity, with Mrs. R and V exchanging simpering smiles with each crimson revelation.
Now comes the denouement. Deeply moved by V’s regurgitation, Mrs. R says, “Yes, yes, yes. The Scarlet Letter is unquestionably the greatest novel ever written.”
There it is: the ultimate challenge to the likes of me. A proclamation of such incomparable wrongness and badness and inanity, that I gaze around at my friends in disbelief that none have yet cried foul. Thus it is left to me.
“You can’t be serious,” I declaim. “The greatest novel ever written? Puh-leez. Moby Dick? A Tale of Two Cities? Zorba the Greek? All Quiet On the Western Front? To name a few.”
“I will see you after class and again after school, Mr. Walton.”
Here is where dream diverges from history.
In the dream I am simply no longer in the classroom or in high school, but in a bedroom with a woman who might be V, though she is older and rounder and not even slightly concerned about the symbolism in the first forty pages of The Scarlet Letter.
“I just want to relax you, honey,” she says, slipping her arms around me.
And hearing the word relax, I do relax; and that’s the end of the dream.
What happened in so-called reality was that I had to sit in Mrs. R’s classroom for an hour after school for the next three days and watch her and V and a few other pets enacting what I came to realize was a love ritual—sharing favorite poems, working on college application essays, having a sweet, feminine, confidence-boosting time that ultimately convinced me there was no point in fighting them. We were from entirely different universes and would travel through entirely different wormholes to get wherever we got.
And there is also this. I would have forgiven them entirely for everything if only V had given me the time of day.
Todd’s web site is UndertheTableBooks.com.