Sunday, February 8, 2009
A Grimm Misunderstanding
This is perhaps the most unusual topic I have ever blogged about, but after my experience with my freshman English students on Friday, I felt a story coming on...
Last school year the librarians at the high school where I teach were giving away items from the library. The school had just completed a new library and the librarians wanted to stock the new library with new things. They sent an email of the things they had to give away, and among those things was a bust of the Brothers Grimm. Being a direct descendant of the Grimm brothers, I felt I had first dibs on the bust. I shot an email immediately to the librarians staking my claim (as if anyone else would be beating down their doors), then hurried to collect my treasure. I burst into the library looking around for a lovely, plaster-of-Paris bust such as the ones I've seen of Mozart or of Freud, and then a librarian pointed me in the right direction and ... whoa! There was the ugliest thing I had ever seen: a dark, muddy green-gray bust of the brothers, their two narrow heads squashed against a castle that rose in between, and all this atop a hill of barely recognizable fairy tale characters etched in the side. And as if the muddy conglomeration of figures and faces wasn't ugly enough, parts of the paint had been chipped off, so that the plaster-of-Paris showed through in several stark white spots, including one on the tip of Wilhelm's nose.
I masked my disappointment and, politely thanking the librarians, made off with this piece of crap I had been so worried might get snatched up by someone else. I now abandoned my original plans to place the bust in my home, and decided it would be more suitable in my classroom. I tried a few places, then finally settled for the top of my very tall filing cabinet. You could barely see it up there. Before I left it there, I touched up the white spots with a black marker. The black faded nicely into the plaster-of-Paris so that the spots now blended with the mud color and nobody could tell it had ever been chipped.
After a couple weeks, a teacher down the hall who is from New Orleans brought me some Mardi Gras beads, and these I draped across the bust. If it wasn't an improvement, it certainly looked no worse. One afternoon my friend Karina was visiting in my room, when I noticed her looking up toward my file cabinet. I self-consciously told her how I had acquired the bust and how ugly I knew it was, and she replied in complete sincerity, "Yeah, I was just sitting here thinking how ugly it is."
A year has passed and I haven't given much more thought to the bust. It remains atop the filing cabinet, well above the average eye-level. Friday, the subject of fairy tales came up in my first period class, and I informed my students that I was descended directly from the brothers Grimm. I then pointed to the bust and said, "That's the Grimm brothers, up there." Everyone looked, and one student asked, "Are they all in there?" The question was a puzzling one, but I could only assume she was seeing the fairy tale characters etched on the side of the monstrous hill. So I simply said, "It's a bust of their heads."
The next class was my homeroom class, and one student from my first period English class was present. He seemed bored, as always, sitting glumly with his friends, when suddenly he pointed over my head and and announced, "There are people's ashes in there!" Then he eyed me almost suspiciously. I was at a loss. Where were people's ashes? Was he pointing to the ceiling? Was that possible and where had he heard such a thing? Then it dawned on me that he was pointing to the Grimm brothers bust, and that he had assumed from the get-go that it was an urn. Trying to contain my laughter, I hastened to explain that it was simply a bust, not an urn, and then, in an attempt to cover the fact that I was laughing at his misconception, I joked that I would be rich if I possessed the ashes of the Grimm brothers.
I then realized that the student that had earlier asked "Are they all in there?" had also apparently thought the bust was an urn. And my cousin has since pointed out that her choice of the word "all" shows that the Grimm brothers meant nothing to her, that I might just as well have said, "The Brothers Smith." To her, they are just a family of several brothers whose ashes I have chosen not only to collect but to keep in my classroom.
Now that I think back to that unpleasant moment when I first laid eyes on the bust, to the day I tried to dressing them with Mardi Gras beads, to my friend's candid criticism, and now my students' misunderstanding, I now feel I have indeed acquired a treasure. No attractive, natural plaster-of-Paris bust could possibly have yielded the experiences this one has.