This is a story about a book burning.
When I was fifteen or so, the majority of my free time was spent in the pursuit of knowledge. Knowledge of girls. It was hard and (mostly) thankless work, but it had to be done. In my town, most of the girls my own age wanted nothing to do with me as a boyfriend. Not to be deterred, I pursued a girl two years my senior. She was a model. And she had a car. To the astonishment of everyone, including myself, she accepted my advances and proceeded to give me an invaluable education. Unfortunately it was not to last, and she broke my heart in the time honored fashion. After that she left town and I never saw her again.
Although mightily depressed, I found solace in the fact that my stock had risen during the course of our relationship. But I didn’t feel inclined to date the girls that had previously rejected me. There was, however, one girl who intrigued me a bit. Her name was Sarah. She was pretty, quiet, and very good at school. I was none of these things. Her father was a fire and brimstone preacher in the sort of church where I was not welcome. She listened to no popular music, attended no dances. Despite our differences, for some reason she liked me. One day, she even had flowers delivered to me at school. I was flattered, embarassed, and bewildered. One of my platonic girlfriends said—
“Sarah likes you.”
“Well, I can see that. But why?”
“Dunno. Maybe she likes bad boys.”
I liked that idea.
But that wasn’t it.
She wanted to save my soul.
I found this out early on, (thank God) and by accident, when I managed to draw her into a conversation about sex during a disruption in Mr. Waterson’s biology class. I thought I was being a smooth operator until she interrupted me, no eye contact, and said—
“I don’t believe in sex before marriage.”
I nodded and shrugged. I’d heard that before. It was only proper to say.
“And since the job I want to do, which is to be a missionary—
“would be difficult unless I were married to another missonary—”
Not me! I already have a mission in life!
“—I’ll probably never get married. Which means,” and here she did meet my eyes, “that I will never have sex.”
I was shocked and embarrassed for the both of us. She must have seen my feelings on my face, for she looked away blushing. I was trying to decide on whether to apologise or try and change her mind when Mr. Waterson reentered the classroom, and we spent the rest of the hour listening to him talk about bees pollinating flowers.
Mr. Waterson was the most reviled teacher amongst the pupils in our school. Well before any of us had had him, we’d been warned about him. He lectured in a monotone that would put you to sleep. If you did indeed fall asleep, you would be invited into his “office” (the hallway) for a tutorial (a quick beating with a paddle that resembled a cricket bat. Even though corporal punishment was illegal by that time, it was widely practised. Nobody bothered to tell the kids it was illegal, and it was reserved only for boys.)
He was my favourite teacher. I could see that he was an outsider amongst the other adults. He and his wife were not from our town and thus were never fully accepted, as was largely the case with my family. He was incredibly well read, and openly scornful of anyone who was not, as there was simply no excuse other than wanton ignorance. It was clear to me that he felt as if his many years of teaching had been in vain.
He largely tolerated me. I couldn’t quite figure out why.
From time to time, he would enter the classroom in a mood that even the thickest of us would recognise; he would be thinking thoughts of France, where he had spent some time after the second world war. Without introduction or segue of any sort, he would begin talking of France, the food and music, the art and literature. France was the crown jewel of Europe, he said, the friend of Ireland, the friend of America. The other students would pretend to listen. The longer he went on, the less he could actually lecture. I was keenly interested, but I had a reputation to uphold. And so, when at the end of one such reminiscence he asked if we had any questions about France, I raised my hand.
“Did you ever visit a brothel when you were in France?”
There was barely even time to register the shocked giggles from some of the girls in class before he spoke.
“Of course I did, you idiot. I was nineteen. What would you have done?”
I did not have an answer, and the day’s lecture began. When he had finished, he let the other students leave but told me to stay.
“O’Mara, do you want to live in this God forsaken hell-hole for the rest of your life?”
“And do you want to go to France someday?”
“Please pay attention in class.”
That was one of many such exchanges between us, and we both began to enjoy them in a reserved way. As long as I kept my marks and showed genuine interest, I was allowed to get away with almost anything.
Sarah and I had a mutual friend. I decided to tell her about the awkward conversation we’d had. I did not expect her response.
“Her mum and dad told her that she was conceived out of wedlock, and that having her ruined their lives, and that they didn’t want the same thing to happen to her,” she said. She was looking at me in a guarded fashion as she spoke. Rightly so. I was shocked and disgusted that parents would say such a thing to a child. And I said as much.
“That’s just the way she feels,” our friend said. “Maybe you should apologise to her.”
“That’s the way she was told to feel,” I replied. “That all life is precious, but her life is a mistake. Hypocrites!” I composed myself. ” I’ll apologise to her. I will. There’s nothing I can do about this.”
Sarah saw me first. She tapped me on the shoulder. I spun around to see her smiling. I have to admit I felt a little something.
“Would you come to church with me this weekend?”, she asked.
After ” I am having your baby after the miracle of Immaculate Conception “, this was the last thing I expected to hear. I started stuttering and stammering, and managed to blurt out ” What will everyone think?!”
She knew I was talking about her father and his church community.
“Oh, daddy and I talked about it last night, and he says you’re welcome to come. You’ll have to wear nicer clothes, of course.” She blushed a little, and waited for me to speak.
Since I had only a faint idea of what went on in her church, and was trying to salvage a potential friendship (all other thoughts had left my mind by this time, and I felt it was only right to accept the invitation), I asked—
“Well, what will be going on? Is it just a sermon, or—?”
“I think you’ll like it! We’re having a book burning!”
The look on her face was one I’ve seen since then. I used to call it “true believer face” but that doesn’t quite do it justice. It is the face of a person who is only half brainwashed, a person who knows they are doing something terribly wrong but for whatever reason cannot stop, and who is hoping against all odds that everyone else will join in so the horrible act will become normal and everyone can get on again.
I could see that she wasn’t joking. I lost my temper and began shouting.
“Who burns books?! A Nazi does that! That’s like something a Nazi would do!”
She kept smiling sweetly as if she were trying to soothe a spoiled child.
“Not real books, silly,” she said. “Pornography.”
I hadn’t excpected that. The thought of enough pornography to make a bonfire of had an instantly intoxicating effect on me, but before I could daydream proper, Sarah burst in with—
“You know, like “Catcher in the Rye.” ”
I began losing my mind, and before I said something I could never take back, Sarah’s friend led me away gently.
That evening I went over to my friend Ned’s house to study (drink beer). Ned was a great student but also a very wild boy who loved causing discomfort in others, particularly religious folk. I told him my tale of woe and once he got his righteous indignation out of way, he laughed and made a suggestion.
“You should go,” he said, leaning in with a grin and a whisper. “And just when the fire gets roaring, you should pitch in a Bible!”
“I’m not going to burn a Bible!”
“Not even the King James version?”
He did give me another idea, though.
During that time, there were a great many books that were either banned outright or so controversial that many bookstores simply would not carry them.
My father did his best to acquire them all.
“If a priest doesn’t like it, it must be a good read,” he, the former candidate for the priesthood would say. ( I remember being very excited when he came home from a trip with a copy of The Satanic Verses by Salmon Rushdie, which was not banned but had earned Rushdie the murderous ire of the Ayatollah Khomeini, amongst others. I couldn’t wait to read all of the lurid Satanic things the book had to say. God, was I disappointed.) At the time of my difficulty with the book burning brunette, the book of the moment was The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. The book was banned. The movie was banned. You’d go straight to hell if you so much as saw a copy. My dad had it on a shelf in the sitting room.
“Dad, can I read this?”
“I don’t know, can you?”
Sigh. “May I read this?”
“Yes, you may.”
I took the book from the shelf, brimming with gleeful malice. As I walked back to my room, he spoke—
“You’re not to take that to school, or out of the house, at all—”
“I mean it, now. If that thing gets confiscated I’ll be explaining it away for months. I have to deal with people, you know.’
“I wouldn’t take it from the house. Why would I?”
I took it from the house.
If I couldn’t stop the book burning, and couldn’t stop Sarah from going, I was going to let her know that I had the book she likely wanted to burn the most, and she wasn’t going to get her hands on it. I was nine kinds of nervous on the way to school that day. But I was determined to go through with my plan.
As luck would have it, my opportunity came during biology class when Mr. Waterson was called away on a personal matter. As my classmates chattered away, I reached into my bag, produced the book, and made a show of presenting it to Ned.
“Jesus!’ he bellowed so loudly that I almost started laughing. “Surely that’s not The Last Temptation of Christ?!”
Everyone stopped what they were doing to look, including Sarah, who was sitting directly in front of me. Her eyes widened and her face went white. I felt proud and sick in the same moment. Probably a bit more sick.
“It is,” I replied. “I’ve had it for a while now.” Some of the other students were out of their chairs, gathering around for a look. Others stayed in their seats, clucking and hissing. I was beginning to regret what I’d done; there was no way news of my stunt wasn’t going to get back to my father.
“Have you read that?” Sarah asked me in a trembling whisper. Her expression was now a mixture of pity for me and fear for her own eternal soul for sitting so close to an unrepentant sinner.
“Yes, I have.” I began slowly turning the pages as the onlookers waited for lightning to rain down upon me. “It’s quite good.”
“Well tell us all about it!” Ned shouted, knowing full well I hadn’t read a word of it. I glared at him but before I could reply, everyone sat in their seats, eyes front, to face Mr. Waterson. We had all been so wrapped up in my little drama that no one had noticed his return.
“Mr. O’Mara. What is it you’ve got there?”
My death warrant.
He began walking toward me with an outstretched hand. All eyes were upon me, almost all of them gleeful. The Lord’s vengeance had come, not in the form of a lightning bolt, but in the guise of a disgruntled biology teacher. My beating would be bloody and epic. People would talk of it for centuries. Maybe even base a religion on it. I hung my head handed him the book. He read the title aloud.
“Is it any good?’
That was not what anyone expected to hear. I looked up to see if he was serious. He was. I nodded my head, praying he wouldn’t ask me what it was about.
“May I borrow it?”
This struck fear into me as well, for if my father asked for the book, trouble at school would pale in comparison but I had no choice but to nod my head in assent. The rest of the class went by in silence. When we were dismissed, Mr. Waterson said—
“Not you.” I felt a few smug glances tossed my way as my classmates left.
“Is this your father’s book?”
I stared at him and said nothing.
“I thought so. I’ll have it back to you shortly. You can go.”
I began to hurry out the door.
” Yes Sir? ”
“You really are an idiot. You know that, don’t you?”
He was smiling. I had never seen him smile before. And it was a smile for a special occasion, for it was one of the warmest and most genuine smiles I had ever seen.
The following Monday, I asked Sarah how her book burning went. She mumbled something about low attendance and asked if we could not talk about it anymore. That suited me fine. We set our differences aside and slowly became friends again. Mr. Waterson finally returned my father’s book to me near the end of the school year, a bit later than I’d wanted.
“What did you think?”
“Not bad,” he said. “Ran on a bit in the middle.”
Early the next year , he suffered a massive heart attack. Apparently he had been suffering from a heart condition for some time, and that was what had prompted his move to our town in the first place. He took an early retirement. I only saw him once more.
Towards the end of my last summer in the place where I grew up, I was out for an afternoon drive with my girlfriend. She stopped for petrol. As she was getting back in the car, she said—
“Waterson is trying to get your attention. He’s waving at you.” Apparently he had been doing so for some time, as when I looked up he flung his arm down as if to say “To hell with you!” and stormed inside the station. I asked my girlfriend to wait until he came back outside.
“Why? I hate that man.”
“I love him. Best teacher I’ve ever had. Just a minute.”
When he opened the door, scowling as usual, I began waving like a madman. He saw me and stopped. He waved back, and he smiled. But instead of “you are an idiot”, this time the smile said—
Run, young man.
Do all of the things I can no longer do.
And that is exactly what I did.
to be continued…