I remember the pom-pom-toting teens of my high school English class like fourth period was yesterday—or, better yet, like an NBC sitcom run one season too long. Something always seemed a little off about forcing fashion-obsessed 17-year-olds to focus on classic works of literature. Never, you see, did Mary Kay quite mesh with the racial angst of Cry, the Beloved Country.
And yet, there was one message that filtered down through the gossip and spitballs: apartheid is bad, mmk? I’m not even sure we knew why it was bad, but we knew it was bad. Evil.
It might seem hard to pit Alan Paton against the chaos of late-teen social life, but I swear there were days when Central High felt a lot like 1960s South Africa—when social turmoil reared its ugly head, and the worst of high school drama went head-to-head with the worst of apartheid. Take, for example, the ineluctable prom kerfuffles that ensued after third period, by the gym doors, before lunch:
“John didn’t ask you to the prom? THE HELL, GURL! What a skank! He’s got that apartheid beat, mmhmmm. Damn, what a nasty ass.”
“Yeah!” they would cheer, those pom-pom-toting tweens, not really knowing what apartheid meant. But it was evil. Ohhhh, it was evil. Like John. And off they pranced to Algebra in their never-washed mini-skirt uniforms.
You know how they say, those older folk, that you have an old soul? I have an old soul. Really old. Like Mozart-would-have-written-my-funeral-dirge old. And I’m fine with it, really. At the end of the day, I still have no idea whether Command & Conquer is a board game or a Kama Sutra series, but I can tell you how invigorating it would have been to play second fiddle to Thomas More at the start of Henry VIII’s reign. To some, that makes me a card-carrying dork, but I prefer to call myself—like the generations before me—a profoundly old soul.
The curse of old-soulness is never being quite in touch with your own generation. Even if I had grasped the significance of Paton’s heart-wrenching story, I couldn’t have passed the message along to my peers. Most days, conversations with the popular caste entailed a lot of blinking, ending invariably with me skulking away mumbling apologies, tossing aside whatever point it was I intended to make.
Is it any wonder I fell in love with Keats, courted Tennyson, wrote letters to Salinger, cuddled with Fitzgerald, and smiled every time Williams walked into the room? It seemed natural to me, and provided a sense of normalcy unavailable elsewhere. The trouble was, I had to work to get there. I was never a born reader, you see, but I loved the idea of reading—I loved the idea of being a Victorian parlour intellectual. Of sipping brandy and discussing the philosophies of that odious Chesterton.
In fact, I spent so much time wading through the murky channels of philosophical and prosaic writing, that when I finally had a breakthrough, I ran to tell my closest friends—friends who, incidentally, were busy discussing how Sarah cheated on my friend Kevin, who in turn got back at Sarah by taking Melanie to prom. Alas, Chesterton had no place in Central High’s gossip-laden hallways. And so, waddling back to the steps next to the gym, I would wrench open another chapter and imagine myself with a dickie and ivory cane on my third glass of brandy.
Who would have thought I’d be here today? Sure, I’ve spent my share of tears and sweat on writing—academic papers, poetry, prose, stories, weird bouts of fusion, cancered narratives that have made little to no sense but survive on the novelty of experimentation. And I’ve found some success. I mean, you’re reading this, aren’t you? I can’t help but think it was a blend of Keats and Kevin that got me here, of pom-pommed naivete and the elusively cerebral eyesores of literature. I am a product of both, and I have somehow molded the two worlds into one.
In recent years, I would say my writing has taken a bizarre turn that I never expected. Its character and voice are often buoyed by quirky humor—the kind that I might have heard in the hallways of Central High or on the steps next to the gym, after third period, before lunch. And yet, there is a touch of Chesterton in there. If you look closely, you can still see the yearnings of a little boy who always wanted to bat about philosophy in an 1800s drawing room. It is quirky, quizzical, and fun—some might even say queer. And through it all, I am most of proud of my ability to make fun of myself in the narratives I create. I suppose there are many stiff-necked socialites of the Restoration era who would turn up their nose at such fun—the very ones I looked up to. But that was then, and this is now. I’m a different man than they, however much I wanted to be their spitting image. And as I muddle through writing after writing, idea after idea, I find myself gently pilfering their verses for a tongue-in-cheek irony. Sure, I love the words I steal, but they have a different meaning now. And I would imagine those greats would be quite tickled to know their work was still employed—recycled, even. I can only hope that some day, the next generation’s great poets will want to take a piece out of me.
What do I say to that? More power to them.