Dangerous Minds

27 Feb

Reading is incredibly dangerous.

It’s a skill that’s forced on us in first-world nations, and so we take it for granted, giggling at the posters in libraries featuring celebrities with the aim of making reading cool. Do those things ever work? Did a single jock of my generation ever stop, peer at the image of Michael Jordan smiling at them over the cover of whatever book he was holding, and think “Wow, man, I need to get a BOOK?” My personal guess is no. And that’s probably why the majority of reading is still done by those we know as nerds.

The thing about reading, of course, to paraphrase Gaston, is that you start reading, and then you start getting all these ideas. They don’t burn books because they need the heat unless “they” are characters in La Boheme. No, these things are weapons of the mind, written to incite everything from independence to collaboration to, well, all manner of liberal behaviors.

The funny thing is, this isn’t just limited to all those books they make you read in high school (though a number of the books on my high school reading list may have been burned within your high school district, depending on where you live). I was blessed as a child to have parents who granted me a pile of childrens’ books and many a trip to the library, and the first revolutionary idea I remember getting is from a book called Wayside School Is Falling Down by Louis Sachar. I don’t know how old I was when I read it, but chapter 7 has come back to me again and again for probably twenty years now.

If you’ve never read any of the Wayside School books, the premise is this: Wayside School is effing goofy. It was supposed to be built one story high with thirty classrooms side by side, but the builders turned the blueprints, and so it was built thirty stories high with thirty classrooms (only there is no nineteenth floor, except when there is, but that’s chapter 19, and a completely different topic) and we focus on the inhabitants of the highest classroom of all. The goofiness of the school extends to the students and teachers within it; for example, the original teacher on the thirtieth story was Mrs. Gorf, a terrible witch of a woman who turned her students into apples. She was eventually turned into an apple herself, and subsequently eaten.

No punches pulled here.

Anyway, back to chapter 7, and Myron, a student staring out the window at the bird whom he has named Oddly. The book also lets us know he has named the bird oddly. Myron wishes to be free like the bird, and imagines that the bird thinks he lives in a cage. So, one day after recess, he doesn’t go back up the stairs. He goes down the stairs instead, embarking on a dark and terrifying trek through the basement. After wandering for an indeterminate length of time, he’s eventually caught by a trio of men in suits who present him with this choice: Do you want to be safe, or do you want to be free?

The choice is, of course, presented in childlike terms, with none of the dangers mentioned and all of the little nitpicky rules of being a child that do have reason behind them (Wipe your feet before you go inside, brush your teeth, can’t watch TV until you finish your homework) but it’s still there. Do you want to be safe, or do you want to be free?

Predictably, he chooses to be free, and after feeling his way back to the stairs, he returns to his classroom where his teacher is powerless to punish him for sitting on the floor and choosing not to take his math test. Every child’s dream at least once or twice, and fantasy pure and simple. Still, it isn’t the meaningless, ignorant freedom that appealed to me about this chapter, that made it stick in my mind. No, it was the realization that safety and freedom were, to degrees, mutually exclusive. Indeed, how many steps is Myron’s choice from Benjamin Franklin and his “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety?” And from there, to revolutions across the Middle East?

Two questions for you, then. Do you remember any books that gave you dangerous ideas as a child? And two, no really, do these things ever work?

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One Response to “Dangerous Minds”

  1. Bob. T. Bear February 27, 2011 at 7:11 am #

    Well, That One might have… because, y’know… Nathan Fillion is awesome >_>

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