When I returned home after my two weeks in Bethel, Maine, I was somehow a changed person. Linda had visited me while I was at NTL, so possibly the changes weren’t quite as scary for her as the first time I had attended that Board of Ed workshops. It is difficult to describe what exactly I experienced, and the closest I can come is to say that it was somehow an epiphany, something like what some of the characters in Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy experienced. As a matter of fact, for the first time I understood what was going on in those works, although War and Peace continued as just a fat, entertaining book, an object of worship rather than of thought (because of its bulk) and getting more so with each reading.
I looked the same, did the same things I had always done, but somehow I was different. One of ways I differed (in addition to my new, odd taste in music and my newly discovered dancing talent), was that I was more attentive to what was going on around me, to what people said and in how they moved; not that I did this consciously. It just happened. I was now more process-conscious and very much more effective when working in small groups such as classes or various committees in which I was involved. However, that wasn’t the whole thing. I also felt wonderful, lighter, more insightful, more capable, and strange things started happening.
Almost wherever I went, people came up to me just to talk, almost to warm themselves on me. They told me things I didn’t think people spoke about to strangers, and it didn’t matter where I was. It happened in restaurants, in libraries, at work, with neighbors. It was really weird, and some of the stories they told me about themselves were also weird. They would sit down with me, on one pretext or another—something as trivial as a request for a light for a cigarette for instance—and begin talking, telling me about their lives, their loves, their fears, their problems, and I listened. One of the things I discovered was that my quiet neighbors, with the requisite 2.3 children and the 30-year mortgages weren’t all that quiet after all. I was absolutely amazed at some of the stuff going on in the neighborhood, and they told me their stories without fear, without shyness or embarrassment, absolutely confident that I would keep it all private, and they were right. It was all passing strange, but eventually my “magic” faded, and I became my regular, boring, old self, although with some minor differences.
Part of being an English teacher is teaching vocabulary, and this usually means teaching ancient trisyllabics that were used a long time ago in books very few ever read. Each year I tried to do something different by teaching words that had just been added to the language, and these I found in the annual supplements to the Encyclopedia Britannica, my feeling being that it would be more useful to teach and learn words that the living still used. One of the words I tried to teach was “grok” which the Britannica had defined as knowing. A rather bright student in my class got up and told me that this was not what it meant. Surprised, I asked him what he thought it meant, and he told me to read the Robert Heinlein best seller, Stranger in a Strange Land, and read it I did. He was right. It meant considerably more than the definition I had provided. I recognized it immediately.
One of the things I may unwittingly have learned at NTL was to grok. If you don’t already know how to grok, I hope you will learn, and that you will grok today’s piece.