I have often been told by those of you who listen to my lectures in person or on recordings that you tend to remember the trivia I mention in passing at least as vividly as you do some of the major themes of my talks. I’m always happy to hear this since I admit to spending at least as much time researching and organizing the supporting trifles as I do on my most important biographical or analytic points.
I always felt that my ultimate triumph would be if I could pass on some trivia concerning the word “trivia” itself. And, voila, here it is: though the word is the plural form of the Latin word "trivium"(which meant a crossing where three roads meet), there has never been a popular use of that singular form in English. There-- how's that for a singular observation about the plural trivia?
I was actually once asked at a Q&A session how long I’d been including trivia in my talks. The question brought to mind the genesis of my devotion to the memorable minor detail. Oddly, it concerns a chained bear, a student teacher, and my high school’s longest losing streak.
The year was 1964, and I was a sophomore in high school. Though I had enjoyed far more than my share of inspiring and inspired English teachers, I suffered a real setback when I was assigned to old Mrs. McMuttersome’s class. As you can guess, I am using a Dickensian name rather than her real one. I would not want to offend her if she were alive, though with her apparent age of eighty back then, the odds seem distinctly against it.
In any case, she was thirty years beyond her best teaching period and started each class by muttering the ominous question: “Who can tell me what we were discussing last time?” We soon discovered that she was just like the rest of us in not having a clue as to the correct answer. The fifty-two minutes we spent in her class five times a week became my personal translation of the Latin “ad infinitum."
But then, halfway through the semester we were saved, not by the bell, but by a student teacher assigned to our class. Mrs. McMuttersome took full advantage of her helper and vanished into the smoke-filled faculty lounge for the duration of the young woman’s stay. I don’t remember her name, but I’ll never forget her teaching style: completely captivating. She was either born in a cradle of chalk-dust or was a female descendant of Mr. Chips.
She was everything Mrs. M. was not – enthusiastic, involved, prepared, and articulate. Her passion was Shakespeare, and it soon became mine. Her most memorable lecture was given on the morning following our basketball team’s greatest victory over our arch-rival. We had gone 0 & 10 ; they were city champions and heavily favored. But we beat them by two points in the final two seconds. The underdog had won, and there was great excitement as we filed into her class first period the following Monday.
As I took my seat, I glanced at the blackboard and noticed a drawing she had sketched of a large bear chained to a post. Her lecture was on Shakespeare’s Globe Theater; I was disappointed that she launched into it without saying a word about our most remarkable victory on Saturday. Instead, she began by emphasizing how great Shakespeare’s dramatic skills had to be to compete with the other games and entertainment occurring simultaneously and in the same small arena of the theater.
She walked to the blackboard, pointed to the animal, and asked if we had ever heard of “bear-baiting.” We hadn’t. It was Shakespeare’s noisiest competition. As sport, they would release dogs to attack the captive bear, with men betting on the winner. Certain dogs were trained to jump at the bear’s throat; others ran under its legs trying to bring it down with bites to the haunches. Those leaping at the throat were called “top-dogs”; those running beneath the bear had the longest odds of success and were called, of course, “underdogs” – “just as our basketball team had been!” she exclaimed with a bright, charming smile.
I was enchanted both by that piece of trivia and by its simple connection to our basketball victory. Of course, as a typical teenage boy in the 1960’s, the horror of the animal abuse barely registered. But thanks to teaching literature for fifty years, not to mention having many of you compassionate souls as my dear friends, I hope I am a much less callow “Senior” than I was a Sophomore.
And I’m wondering if perhaps this student teacher might have led me to my specialization in Charles Dickens. For what other author has so devoted himself to the cause of the downtrodden, from poor mistreated Oliver Twist, to little David Copperfield, to Pip, and onto the ultimate romantic underdoggery of Sidney Carton? Moreover, by recounting the fascinating tidbit of the bear-baiting, she showed me how to set a listener’s imagination on fire. And she also fired the starting gun for my own lifelong academic Pursuit of Trivia.
Wait, was that 1980’s wildly popular board game an homage to Li’l Ol’ Me?