I remember well reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in 8th grade.
Our teacher, Sandra Starr, asked probing questions that motivated the class to discuss the literature we read that year on a deeper level. I recall a heady excitement in anticipation for each class. Usually a quiet student, I found it quite natural to engage in discussion with confidence.
Who knew we could squeeze so much meaning from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
In a way, these class periods reminded me of some of the evening devotions around our dinner table. We children took turns reading from a slice of bread taken from a little brown loaf on which a Bible verse was printed. Dad encouraged us to expand our thinking beyond the words of the verse we read.
As I look back I realize this was my first introduction to an exquisite way of reading. Rather than simply skimming the typed letters on a page, we held our breath and dove deep below the text – exploring and postulating what the author may have intended to say but had perhaps kept hidden below the surface.
There’s no doubt in my mind that we drew conclusions that were woefully incorrect. Yet, the exercise helped me realize there is so much more to be found between the lines of any written text, be it fiction or sacred scripture.
This was an awkward time for me – a teen trying to sort out who I was, wondering why I didn’t enjoy all the things my female peers did. The serious nature of my childhood is partly to blame. Yet, I tried.
Emulating their behaviors — especially of a friend I dubbed “Wanda Wonderful” — merely frustrated me. Trying my hand at lighthearted conversation frustrated me even more so. I tried, I really did. But I failed miserably, convinced I was hopeless and destined to wander friendless.
Then I read a phrase from Thoreau. You’re all pretty familiar with it, so I’m going to paraphrase it here:
“If a young girl does not keep pace with her companions, perhaps it is because she hears a different drummer. Let her step to the music which she hears, however measured or far away.”
What a relief! We each step to the tune of a different drummer. Not everyone heard what I heard, and that was okay. Even the great Apostle Paul said something like this in his discourse on the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12).
No one tune is that all-perfect pitch we all should follow.
I’m reminded of Robert Browning’s children’s tale The Pied Piper of Hamelin where
“Ere he blew three notes,” luring all the children of Hamelin to follow. “When lo, as they reached the mountain-side, a wondrous portal opened wide, as if a cavern was suddenly hollowed; and the Piper advanced and the children followed, and when all were in to the very last, the door in the mountain-side shut fast!”The Pied Piper of Hamelin, first published 1888
The children disappeared, never to be found, apparently lured to their death by listening to the same tune.
When yearning to imitate our peers, our parents offered us this shrill warning: “So, if everyone jumped off a cliff, would you follow after them?”
Strange, isn’t it that there was a limit to the difference they would allow.
Stay in step to the music of the community and you’ll be fine. Step out of line, well, there’s the issue. What do we do with those who hear a different drum-beat – those who disrupt the community and the norms of society?
Browning’s tale reveals the perils of skipping along to one tune – death for the rats and death to the children.
Could it be that those who hear a different tune are able to teach us to appreciate one another? Does survival of the human species require diversity? I suppose my response at this time would be an affirmative.
But, I’ve learned that it’s not just important – it’s imperative that I listen to the opinions of others – even those with whom I disagree, on the matter. Only then will I learn to value my neighbor, the other, and all God’s good creation.