The Stupid Book

I seemed to be on a roll in 6th grade. We were already moving from classroom to classroom almost like high school kids, with different teachers for different subjects. Mrs. Hardwick taught English, and she looked every bit her name. I don't know why, but looking back it seems as if most of my elementary school teachers had been gray-haired spinsters with stern, rigid faces.

One week, we were told to prepare an oral book report to present in front of the class. For my report, I chose a book by Mary Stewart called "The Moon Spinners." I had seen the Disney movie with Haley Mills and had liked it very much, so I was pleased to have found the book. However, I had not liked the book half as much as the movie. Every oral book report had to end with a critique, so when I got up in front of the class I summed up my report by saying that I had not enjoyed the book because I thought it was stupid.

Well, this provoked something of a fit in Mrs. Hardwick, so I was dispatched posthaste to look up the word 'stupid' in the dictionary that was on the shelf to the side of the classroom. I walked with my head bowed in shame like a wet dog coming in from the rain. The last thing an unpopular person like me needed was to be singled out and reprimanded in front of the whole class. I placed the heavy red book on top of the small shelf, and began to fumble through its wafer-thin pages. Every eye in the classroom was on me and I could hear myself swallow. Finally, facing the classroom which by this time looked more like a firing squad, I began to read the definition out loud. This is what it said:

stu pid (adjective) dull, uninteresting, a stupid book.

In that moment, it was as if every cloud in the sky had parted all at once, and I was being touched directly and most personally by the hand of God Almighty Himself. The roar of laughter from my classmates was spontaneous and deafening. Mrs. Hardwick looked as if she was either going to cry or split in half. Her lips twitched like Mr. Ed as she searched for the proper words to respond, but they did not come. The situation was now completely out of her control."This is highly irregular, uh, I have never seen...", but it was too late - the damage had been done.

My relationship with Mrs. Hardwick would change dramatically after that day, as would the way my classmates treated me. I would enjoy this small triumph for a while. Like a cocoon, the facade of the perpetual loser was beginning to crack and the me that I was slowly becoming was starting to emerge.


I have looked many years for that dictionary or for any dictionary giving that exact same definition. When I went with Cream Magazine back to Woodbury in 1981 to do a retrospective on my life, we actually visited my elementary school to take pictures. One of the first things I did was to check the dictionary that was on the shelf in one of the classrooms...but it was a newer dictionary than the ones that had been used in the 1960s.

To this day, I am still mystified by this incredible experience and it stands out among the many serendipitous moments that have graced my life.