Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Diminishing Moments of Innocent Ignorance

I think I am a fair teacher partly because I remember what it was like to not understand something. I will phrase it less delicately: I remember what it was like to be ignorant of something that was obviously important to others, enough so that they roared with laughter, or even worse, put their hands over their mouths in shock.

For example, my Uncle Charles was always cracking jokes that I couldn't understand, but I'd laugh anyway. I must have been pretty young, maybe four or five, and I didn't understand any of his jokes. All the adults would laugh, but if I laughed, it was faked, and I remember the feeling of ignorance. Ignorance is a word that is out of favor now, but it is a great word, and it means lacking knowledge or generally not knowing what is going on. I either confided to my Uncle Charles that I didn't understand his jokes, or else he asked me if I did. I remember telling him I didn't understand them and asking him why I didn't, but I don't remember his answer.

One day my Uncle Charles was driving a car up the Gulf Freeway in Houston, Texas, and my father and I were in riding with him. We went by one of those huge cemeteries in big cities that you used to see. It was Meadow Lawn or something like that, and my Uncle Charles pointed to it and asked, "Walter, do you know how many of those people in that cemetery are dead?"

There were thousands of tombstones, graves, and mysterious little houses with people's names on them, and I had no idea how many, so I said, "No."

He immediately piped up, "All of 'em."

My Dad gave a chuckle, and I remember sitting there in the car and realizing it was a joke! How many people in that cemetery were dead? ALL OF THEM!! I roared with laughter and will never forget that moment when I really undertood my first joke. I remember yelling, "I get it! I get it!" What a feeling. And the laugh! It was a real laugh, not faked!

Many years later I was in the seventh grade and our school actually had a Halloween Parade. One of the eight graders came dressed in brown and wearing a black tie and an armband with some sort of weird insignia on it. This student paraded all over the school marching with an odd, stiff-legged, high-step and sticking his right arm out and up at a 45 degree angle and yelling something about hile hitler. It was all a mystery to me. More than that, I was ignorant. Ignorant of Nazi Germany. Ignorant of all the secrets and horrors of that war. And why were all the adults so upset? Everyone of them was in an obvious frenzy, and their hands were over their mouths. Here's how serious it was: the next year there was NO Halloween parade. That eighth grade student turned out to have a father who was a professor of history at the University of Houston. That boy was privy to adult secrets that had not been revealed to me or my other classmates. No wonder Israel doesn't want certain things swept under the carpet, so we are all ignorant like most seventh graders in 1961.

I remember being confused about this student in his Nazi outfit. Wondering. A feeling of ignorance. I am still aware when that feeling comes over me. There are a lot of things I don't know, and I don't want to lose that feeling of innocent ignorance. It's not as strong as it used to be, as I slowly and unwittingly gnaw on the apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. I try not to convince myself that I understand every joke or every shame and shock. At least I hope I never will. Every day has one or two of those moments, and I treasure them. Still learning. Still losing my innocent ignorance. Praying that it will never all be gone.

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