Sailing The Ocean Blue

Thinking back on why I became the type of English professor I did, I remember my fourth grade teacher, Mrs Yount. She was a great influence on encouraging  my ultimate profession — but only indirectly. In fact, when I was in her class I had already decided on my future career, and it most certainly was not going to be in the teaching profession.

No, my ten-year-old self was definitely going to grow up to be a physician. Was it an early love of medicine? Hardly. I bowed to no one in my dread of Dr. Souter, my pediatrician. She could not have been more kind, but her needles, tongue depressors, and scary mallet for the knee-jerk reflex test all seemed to have come from a Kiddy Torture Chamber.

But long before my Bar Mitzvah, my Jewish immigrant parents had suggested strongly and often that deciding to become a physician would be choosing the noblest profession of all (and, “coincidentally”, a high-status, lucrative one as well). Perhaps there is a kernel of truth to the joke that in Jewish tradition, the fetus is not considered a viable human being until after graduation from medical school.

But on one special day in Mrs Yount’s class, I experienced a true wonder that would inevitably lead me to consider sharing similar marvels as a future calling. I remember the exact date, October 12, because Mrs Yount was honoring Christopher Columbus by relating the story of how this most famous explorer was able to launch his world-changing expedition.

I wasn’t all that taken by the irony of his sailing west to reach what he thought was the East Indies, and even in fourth grade I was aware that “In fourteen hundred and ninety two / Columbus sailed the ocean blue” was poetry of a quality that could have been written by a kid in junior high.

But what I still remember was Mrs. Yount’s back story of how the Italian Christopher Columbus, having been turned down for financial support by most of Europe’s royal courts, came to sail under the flag of Spain. She explained that Queen Isabella had such faith in the mariner’s far-fetched promise to bring riches from China back for the glory of Spain that she was willing to pawn her Crown Jewels to supply him with the men and ships he needed for the long voyage.  

Immediately, my young, overly active imagination fastened on a scene of Queen Isabella, in full royal regalia, leaving her palace to visit Juan Pablo’s Pawn Shop on Hock Street in downtown Cordoba. And since all the pawn shops I knew about in Indianapolis had Jewish owners, I envisioned Her Majesty bravely removing her diamond tiara crown and handing it over to the owner, who somehow had the face of my synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Greenfeld.

It was on that day, for the first time, that I saw teaching as the one profession where, by transferring fabulous knowledge from the past through the medium of marvelous stories, you could inspire young people to make such knowledge relevant to their present and even their future. And as I advanced through junior and senior high school, I discovered that the golden nuggets of historical and literary anecdotes were both endless and riveting. I realized too that I was a born storyteller. 

And so both my teaching and lecture careers have been based on translating the lives of authors and other historical figures into memorable presentations for my students and audiences. With luck, my listeners have been inspired to view these men and women in a new and more radiant light.

Imagine my delight when Duke University, in October of 1992, asked me to be on a panel of five judges for their commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage. They were sponsoring a writing contest open to all third graders in North Carolina. Because the contestants were eight-year-olds, they were only to write a one paragraph essay on “The Importance Of Columbus Day.” The winner was to receive $100.

We were told to look for the most original entry. The minute I read an entry from little Kristen, I knew I had a winner. We were supposed to list our top ten choices; I was shocked when she was not on any of the other judges’ lists. I can still quote her brief essay verbatim: 

Columbus Day is very important. Columbus Day must always be honored. Here was a man so friendly that he asked everybody to call him “Columbus,” rather than “Mr. Day.”

Original? And how. Even though little Kristin would now be over forty, I think Duke still owes her that $100–with interest!

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