Bargaining with the devil

Posted: Jun 13, 2006 12:05 PM
Perhaps it's this way with most writers, but in my life books have often played a larger role than have people. Filled with wisdom, joy, tears and laughter, they are everything parents, friends and siblings should be, but rarely are. And very early on, one book in particular taught me a lesson I have never forgotten.

It all began on a Saturday afternoon in 1951. One of my older brothers took me to see a re-issue of "The Grapes of Wrath." It wasn't my usual movie fare, but the saga of the Joads losing their home to the Oklahoma dust storms struck a major chord. Maybe in my eleven-year-old brain, I made a connection to our own move west from Chicago to Los Angeles a few years earlier. Or maybe it was just the natural empathy anybody would have for decent people whose lives were tragically uprooted through no fault of their own. If it could happen to the Joads, it could happen to anyone.

In any case, when we got home, I noticed a thick volume with the same title on the bookshelf.  I decided to read it. The novel was probably three or four times longer than anything I had ever tried. But I wanted to know more about those people.  Maybe I was hoping the book, unlike the movie, had a happy ending.

Two weeks later I turned in a report to my teacher, Mr. Vanderhaven. I assumed he'd be impressed that someone who had never exhibited much interest in reading anything that didn't have Oz or Dolittle in its title had actually read and appreciated a 600-page novel about migrant farm workers. He was impressed beyond my wildest dreams. He gave me an A+. Next to the grade, however, was a question mark.

When I asked him about it, Mr. Vanderhaven explained he could not enter the grade in his roll book until I made one small change. It seems I had described one of the characters, Rosasharn, as "pregnant." The word, he said, was unacceptable in the fifth grade. Acceptable terms for her condition, he told me, were "full of life" or "in a family way." I thought he was kidding.  He wasn't.

What made his reaction particularly mystifying was that he was the first male teacher I had ever had. I'd have been less surprised if prissy Miss Crane or Mrs. Gordon, my third and fourth grade teachers, had taken me to task. But Mr. Vanderhaven?!  Besides, the book report wasn't for public consumption. The only people whose sensibilities could possibly be offended by that wicked eight-letter word were Vanderhaven and myself. And it was too late to save either of us.

I must have voiced some mild defense of my position because, for the first time in my school life, I was sent home with a note to my mother. When I presented my case to her, she told me to shape up and give Mr. Vanderhaven what he wanted.

The next day the dirty deed was done. Rosasharn was no longer pregnant; she was something else, but I can't recall what. All I can recall after all these years is that I got my A+, but I thought it scarlet and shameful.

In a roundabout way, "The Grapes of Wrath" taught me what great books always do.  It showed me who I was—an eleven-year-old wimp, a groveler for grades. But, more important, it made me realize who and what I wanted to be. A's, I learned, are cheap, but principles are dear.  It was the last time as a writer or as a person I ever consciously betrayed my own convictions.

The lesson I came away with, thanks to the unlikely combination of Steinbeck and Vanderhaven, is that when you sell out, you inevitably get less than you bargained for—whether you're Faust or a fifth-grader.