From time to time people ask me, “Lemony Snicket, what kind of education did you have?” The person asking me is usually curious, perhaps after I have explained what I do for a living, or incredulous, after they have ascertained that I am easily able to tell a sestina from a haibun but not a square root from a carburetor. The answer is that my education was multi-tentacled, like an octopus, or capitalism. Many crucial lessons were presented to me formally, in a classroom, by people hired to do that very thing for very little money, and other crucial lessons came to me informally, in the pages of a book, projected on a screen, from sounds in the air, or by word of mouth, a phrase which here means “when somebody said something.” I will now pass on thirteen of these lessons to you, as if they are valuable heirlooms or perhaps strains of a powerful virus, so that you too might find yourself embraced by the many tentacles of educational experience.
1. Pay attention.
Something is going on in the front of the classroom. Keep your eyes up front and sit straight in your chair, so that you will not miss the thing that is happening. Pretend that someone has snapped their fingers right in front of your face, which is very rude but sometimes necessary, and if you remember to pretend this has happened, it might not happen to you.
I learned this lesson from Mrs. Abad.
2. Of course, the thing to which you might need to pay attention is sometimes outside the window.
At the very moment you are being talked at, a bird might be on a nearby sidewalk, struggling with some object that is either a mouse or a dropped sock—or perhaps a drop of rain, in its ramshackle but determined way, will be crawling across the pane of glass, tugged by the wind through all of the other raindrops. When this is the case, your eyes should not be up front, nor should you necessarily be sitting straight in your chair, and you should have practiced the right tone of voice—insistent but not surly—in which to say “I am paying attention,” when someone snaps their fingers in front of your face. You will not be lying.
I learned this lesson from Gwendolyn Brooks.
3. Ask questions.
Why should you ask questions, you ask? Because you want to know something, and it has not been satisfactorily explained to you, and despite feeling foolish or self-conscious, you require further explanation in the form of an answer.
I learned this lesson from Mr. Baker.
4. When someone tells you to stop asking about something, ask about it even more.
Replies such as “Why do you want to know?” or “That’s none of your business!” or “Before I answer that, please clean your room thoroughly” are signs that the question you just asked is treading on the edge of a secret that is very likely very interesting. Do not let these replies defeat or distract you. Keep at it.
I learned this lesson from Raymond Chandler.
5. Raise your hand.
The world is crawling with people, and if they’re all talking at once the result can be an incomprehensible and chaotic social mob. If you are interested in participating in a multi-voiced conversation, call attention to yourself quietly with an outstretched limb or, if you prefer, something elegantly haberdasherian, such as a wooden cane or a tall palm frond, so that the conversation can be as orderly as can reasonably be expected. You might not be called on, but nonetheless, just by raising your hand, you will have participated in civilization.
I learned this lesson from Mrs. Parrot.
6. Alternately, lay your head on the table in despair.
Perhaps you find the discussion overwhelming, or simply irritating. Perhaps someone has said something so uninspired that you are overwhelmed with irritation. You may be suddenly reminded of how short life is, and how this moment is passing by in a manner so insipid and bleak that you need to skip ahead to the next morning, or the next, or the next, with a brief respite on your desk. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, if you are dissatisfied with the conversation at large, laying your head on the table is the clearest way to indicate that you would not raise your hand if your life depended on it.
I learned this lesson from Søren Kierkegaard.
7. Take notes.
A piece of paper can often serve as a sort of mirror for your mind, and so, like your mind, should not be blank very often. Find a pen or pencil, or—and here I lay my head on the desk briefly—their digital equivalent, and write down what you notice people are saying or what you find most striking about what you are reading. Do not worry about getting your notes in order—they are only notes. Write them down now, and stare at them later.
I learned this lesson from Mr. Peterson.
8. The notes may not help.
Ghastly happenings and ghastly people are scornful of words on paper. Proving that something happened will not prevent it from happening again, and scrawled truth is no shield from being called a liar. Your notes may alleviate your suffering, but they will not prevent suffering from occurring, the way a bandage might help your bite mark heal but will not scare away the wolverine.
I learned this lesson from Louise Fitzhugh.
9. There is no excuse for boredom.
If you find yourself faced with a mandatory task that fails to excite you, try to remember that excitement is not like a sock, which might be dropped and then kidnapped forever by a bird, but more like a werewolf, which is always nearby but may be hiding. The sooner you find it the better off you will be. Approach a boring thing, such as a page of math problems, or an uncle, from every conceivable angle, looking for any scrap of interest you might fashion into excitement, and soon the work will be done or at least the uncle will be frightened.
I learned this lesson from Mrs. Lewis.
10. There is every opportunity for ennui.
The events of life often feel like a train barreling down the tracks of one’s mind, making an enormous racket, and as with a train, sometimes it is great fun to climb aboard and sometimes it is better to sit and watch it go by. Ennui is often confused with boredom, but boredom is a form of fidgety defeat, and ennui contains an element of contemplative distance that one should practice regularly. Look at the world through weary eyes and you will grasp an understanding that only comes from being thoughtfully exhausted, the way you can’t always tell if you’ve had a good day or a bad day until you get into bed and your head hits the pillow.
I learned this from Marlene Dietrich.
11. Listen to other people.
Throughout history, generalizations have been made about “other people,” but the only true generalization you can say about other people is that they are not you. They have done different things than you have. They were raised differently, maybe, or they have seen or heard things, perhaps, about which you don’t know. They have different thoughts, and possibly they have raised their hands in order to say what these thoughts are. Listen to them, and you may find out what everyone is arguing about.
I learned this from Ms. Corsiglia.
12. Why would you listen to other people? Other people are nightmares.
Everyone knows this already, but Aimé Césaire helped me learn it best.
13. There is no “graduation.”
Education never ends, and thank goodness, because we are not raindrops, tugged across a window pane for no reason. We are people, and we are here to help each other and to make each other feel better and to give each other adventures. We do not always know how to do this, so we must keep moving and keep learning and never stop until we are dead, and before we are dead we might thank those who helped us and made us feel better and gave us adventures. In my case, I am grateful to Mrs. Abad and Gwendolyn Brooks, to Mr. Baker and Raymond Chandler, to Mrs. Parrot and Søren Kierkegaard, to Mr. Peterson and Louise Fitzhugh, to Mrs. Lewis and Marlene Dietrich. I am grateful to Ms. Corsiglia and Aimé Césaire, to Edward Gorey and Vickie Karp, to Professor Meyer and Vladimir Nabokov, to the Reeds and the Goncourt brothers, to Elizabeth Bishop and Annie Lennox, to Virginia Woolf and Prince, and to Charles Baudelaire (of course) and Sun Ra (who would think?), to every librarian who was kind to me and even to some people who weren’t, for all of the splendid lessons they gave me, formally and informally. This is the sort of education I have had, and I am grateful for every gripping tentacle of it.
Mrs. Abad taught second and third grade in San Francisco. Mr. Baker taught high school mathematics in San Francisco. Charles Baudelaire was a French poet whose book The Flowers of Evil is a favorite. Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet whose book Geography III is a favorite. Gwendolyn Brooks was an American poet whose book Annie Allen is a favorite. Aimé Césaire was a French poet from Martinique whose book Notebook of a Return to the Native Land is a favorite. Raymond Chandler was an American writer whose novel The Long Goodbye is a favorite. Ms. Corsiglia taught history in San Francisco. Marlene Dietrich was a German- American actress and singer whose performance in Touch of Evil is a favorite. Louise Fitzhugh was an American novelist whose book The Long Secret is a favorite. The Goncourt brothers were French writers whose journals are a favorite. Edward Gorey was an American artist and author whose book The Blue Aspic is a favorite. Vickie Karp is an American poet and occasional teacher. Søren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher whose incomprehensible book Either/Or is a favorite. Annie Lennox is a Scottish musician whose album Savage is a favorite. Mrs. Lewis is an English teacher in California. Professor Meyer is a professor of Russian literature in Middletown, Connecticut. Vladimir Nabokov was a Russian-American writer whose book Pnin is a favorite. Mrs. Parrot taught first grade in San Francisco. Mr. Peterson taught high school English and writing in San Francisco. Prince was an American musician whose album The Black Album is a favorite. Sun Ra was an American musician whose album Sound Sun Pleasure!! is a favorite. The Reeds were professors of literature and film in Middletown, Connecticut. Virginia Woolf was an English writer whose novel Between the Acts is a favorite.
Copyright © 2020 by Lemony Snicket
LEMONY SNICKET is the author of far too many books for children, including the sequences of novels All the Wrong Questions and A Series of Unfortunate Events, which has been translated into 40 languages and adapted for film and television. He lives at home, except when he is abroad, and is represented in all literary, legal, and social matters by Daniel Handler, a minor writer from California.
Patrick Warburton reads "My Education" by Lemony Snicket
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