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Spring 2009

Andy Catlett: Early Education

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Wendell Berry

In grades one and two I was a sweet, tractable child who caused no trouble. I was "little Andy Catlett," the second of that name, the first being my Uncle Andrew who had raised more than his share of hell and mowed a wide swath among the ladies. My own public reputation so far was clean as a whistle. But in grade three I learned of the damage that could be done to a strict disciplinary harmony by a small discord, and I was never the same afterwards.

In grade four, Miss Heartsease, abandoning her premature hope that I might be educable, brought stacks of National Geographics to keep me quiet. In one of them I found several pictures of a chemistry laboratory, and I fell into what I can only call an infatuation. I had no idea what was done in a chemistry laboratory. What captivated me was the intricate plumbing of glass pipes, some of them in coils; the vials, tubes, beakers, and retorts; the neat rows of bottled powders and fluids; the bunsen burners. The thought of working in such a room with such equipment sent me into urgent fantasies. I would be a chemist when I grew up. I would be a chemist before I grew up. I entertained seriously the possibility of becoming a child prodigy. I could see a picture of myself in my white coat in my laboratory in National Geographic, pouring a fuming green liquid from one container into another.

My scientific bent led me in that same year to the discovery of afterimages. One of the bare lightbulbs in the ceiling of our classroom was of clear glass and much larger than the others. Inside it was a filament in the shape of a horseshoe that glowed with a white incandescence. I learned that I could stare at that lightbulb for a while, and then, by blinking, send a flock of brightly colored horseshoes flying all over the room. But my experimental looking around and blinking proved too violent for Miss Heartsease, and she soon forced me back into my chemical fantasies.

I asked for a chemistry set for Christmas, and got one. But it was a disappointment. It was deficient in apparatus and drama, and too obviously intended to be "educational." I mixed up a concoction that smelled bad but was otherwise uninteresting, and gave up chemistry.

I went instead into the business of candle-making. Since it was not long after Christmas, candles were on my mind and the makings readily findable. I made a colorful collection of candle drippings and butt-ends. For good measure I added one whole candle that didn't match any of the others in the pantry, and I knew my mother wouldn't want it if it didn't match. I had read in a book about pioneer days that you could make a candle by dipping a string into melted tallow, and I knew from looking at lighted candles how to go about melting them.

And so I waited until I was at home by myself, to avoid disturbing others, before I started my candle-making business. It was in fact going to be a business, for I fully intended to sell my candles at a profit, and I thought I could count on my grandmothers to buy at least two apiece.

I put my drips and fragments into a small pot, cutting up the nonmatching whole one so it would fit, measured a piece of string to about the right length, and turned on the burner. How what happened next happened I can't say, for I soon found that I didn't have time just to stand around watching a pot, but it did happen that a fairly spectacular tall flame was standing on top of the stove. Pretty quickly it burnt up all my wax and went out, and I soon got the kitchen back to rights and no harm done. There was no sign of fire except for the faintest little cloudy smoke stain on the ceiling that you wouldn't see if you didn't look close. If my parents ever looked close they must have wondered, but they never asked me.

So I went out of the candle business with no profit, but also with no loss except for the burnt wax, which I no longer needed.

My parents were very much afraid that my brother Henry and I would not live to be grown. This fear, when it manifested itself, could be oppressive. But we were fortunate, Henry and I, in having a father who was often busy at his office and a mother whose attention was often required by our two younger sisters. This state of things bestowed upon us boys a latitude of freedom that we knew exactly what to do with.

As a result, a secondary fear haunted particularly our mother—namely that the behavior of her sons would deviate so far beyond the known human range that an apocalyptic embarrassment would fall upon the family. This too could be oppressive. When my mother said to me, "I don't know what's going to become of you!" I could hear the squeak of the hinges of the jailhouse door. In her worst moments, I fear my mother too could hear those hinges, and she also could see in her mind's eye the raw opening of an early grave for a boy drowned or burned or run over by a car or kicked in the head by a mule.

To save us from ourselves—and herself from the anguish she knew she would feel at the shutting of that iron door or the opening of that grave, if she had not done all she could have done by way of prevention—at certain extremities of our self-education and of her tolerance, she resorted to the use of a switch. The switch would be one of the sprouts that grew up from the roots of our lilac bush, and it would be keen, lithe, and durable. Our mother's use of it was fiercely honest. She dispensed the "good whipping" she had promised, no fun for the recipient, though the pain was soon over. What was not soon over was my sense of her own reluctance and regret, which stayed with me and made me sympathize with her as maybe nothing else could have done.

I sympathized with her; in my sympathy, as I can see now, I greatly loved her, and yet her punishments wrought no significant change in my behavior. Her influence over me at that time did not extend many feet beyond the end of her lilac switch, whereas my quest for knowledge extended limitlessly round about.

Probably because of my early gift for science, I was eager to learn in school. But I was not intellectually stimulated by the schoolbooks or the established curriculum. What I wanted to learn was the precise line between what my teachers would put up with and what they would not put up with. And to draw a line of this sort required much experimentation. My curiosity about the limits of, for instance, Miss Heartsease was extraordinarily keen. I probed the coastlines of her patience and sounded its estuaries like an early navigator mapping the New World. When school let out, I shifted my interest to other continents as handily as an astronaut.

It may have been in the fall of my year of Miss Heartsease that I applied myself to a critical textual examination, and ultimately to the scientific debunking, of The Night Before Christmas.

At that time my sisters' upstairs bedroom still had an open fireplace with a grate that, before our time, had been used for burning coal. I had never paid it much attention until one night after supper, when for no reason that I can remember I was loitering in that room, one of my earliest quandaries attached itself to that fireplace as if by magnetic attraction. It was far yet from Christmas, still warm. And by then I'm sure I "knew about Santa Claus." But my quandary was a Christmas quandary of long standing, and it had to do specifically with Santa Claus.

I knew from my close observation of falling bodies, and from having been a number of times a falling body myself, perhaps as much as one needs to know about gravity. And so I saw no great problem in the alleged descent of chimneys on the part of Santa Claus. If the chimneys had been big enough, and if he had no more graceful way of doing so, he could have got down them by falling.

How he got back up them again was my question. I was going, you see, by the book. As a critic, from the beginning I held the text in great honor, and the text did not say that he came down the chimney, left the toys for the children, and let himself out by the door. The text said in plain English: "up the chimney he rose."

In those days I was a true pure scientist. If the subject of my inquiry had been the nature of gravity itself, I would not have minded whether the falling body had been an apple or a bomb, or upon what or whom it might have fallen. I was hard driven in my quest for truth.

And so, being alone, and having therefore full intellectual freedom, I stooped into the fireplace, inserted my head and shoulders into the chimney, and did a passable job of standing up. Such was my objectivity in regard to the chimney that I would not have been surprised if I had been able to go right up it.

But it was not a roomy chimney. I could not raise my arms to feel for a handhold, and except for the grate there was no foothold. And so I absolutely knew something: if I couldn't get up it, Santa Claus couldn't get up it. I wasn't entirely objective at this point, for I was truly sorry. It would have been extraordinarily pleasant to go up the chimney and climb out onto the peak of the roof. From there I could have gone down onto the roof of the back porch, from there into the branches of our big old apple tree, and from there to the ground.

But I accepted disappointment, shrank out of the dark chimney, and stood up again in the lighted room. And that, I think, must have been the occasion upon which I discovered soot. Coal soot is exceedingly black and exceedingly light. I was covered with it, which I only found out by using one of the curtains to wipe what felt like cobweb out of my eyes. I was a living pencil, for on everything I touched I left a mark.

And then I saw that the soot, in addition to being on me, was coming off. It was drifting loose in chunks and flakes and floating to the floor, where it broke into pieces that fled away on tiny currents of the air, insidious little breezes which I also discovered at that time.

The Christmas quandary I had started with, despite its scientific interest and the seriousness with which I had taken it up, began to look like a pleasant sort of ignorance. I would gladly have gone back to it, except that it had now evolved into an insistently present problem for which there was no present solution. In fact, every attempt I made at a solution reliably worsened the problem. Even when I merely rubbed my head the better to study the situation, I loosened more soot. I saw a flake of soot levitate from the top of my head and land on a twin bedspread, white to match the curtains. When I took a swipe at it to knock it to the floor, I made a broad dark streak. It began to seem to me that I needed to be going.

I started to the door and only then saw that my mother was standing in it, having just arrived. We paused and looked each other over. I saw from her stance and demeanor that the situation was not as she would have preferred it to be.

I managed to dodge past her, maybe because she was dazed, not having as quick an eye for the truth as I did, or maybe she was reluctant to touch me. She hadn't even thought of anything to say.

Once I was safely past her, I ran to one of the windows at the back of the hall, "threw up the sash" (as The Night Before Christmas says), and flung myself out onto the porch roof. Thereupon, displaying a presence of mind I had never given her credit for, my mother shut the window. I heard her lock it. I heard her go to the window on the other side of the hall and lock that one.

Laying low seemed to be called for, and like Brer Rabbit I laid low. For a long time I didn't make a sound, and I didn't hear a sound. I thought hard, and I didn't come to a satisfactory conclusion. I was safe as long as I stayed on the roof. My mother, I knew, would not climb onto the roof. But then there was a limit to how long I could stay there. There was no bed or blanket on the roof, and there would be no breakfast. I could go down by the apple tree, but where would I go then? I didn't know where everybody else was, but I knew my mother was at home. Sooner or later my father would come home from wherever he was, and that did not brighten my prospects.

The idea of running away from home in case of need had been ready-made in my mind for a good while, but to do that I would have to be on the ground. Once on the ground and safely gone, I would maybe think of a place to go, some place an orphan boy might find welcome and shelter. So I got up ever so quietly, and slowly so as not to make a sound I eased down the slope of the roof. I went so far as to step from the roof into the apple tree before I looked down and saw my mother.

She was sitting on the ground with her back against one of the tree's three trunks. She looked comfortable. A lengthy switch was lying across her lap beneath her folded hands.

She looked strange. I had never before seen her or anybody else look as she did then. It took a long time for my education to catch up with the vision of her I had then, for though she was a Christian woman she was sitting down there looking positively Buddhist. She was sitting perfectly still. She was not going to move in so much as I could imagine of the future. She was not looking left or right, let alone up into the tree where I was. But I knew she knew where I was. I felt illuminated as if by omniscience. She was at peace down there. She was using up all the peace there was. There was none at all up in the apple tree where I was.

Without making a sound I eased back out of the tree and onto the roof again. Though I knew she was not looking at me and was not going to look at me, I moved back out of her line of sight, where at least I was relieved of looking at her.

My mind was breaking new ground and was working hard. It was working so hard I could spare no energy for standing up. I sat down. For quite a while I thought methodically and strenuously. I saw that I did not have many options. I had, in truth, only three options: I could climb down that tree, which, with precise reason, I was afraid to do; or I could kick the glass out of one of the hall windows and go back into the house, which, on second thought, did not seem to be an option; or I could jump off the roof, and then, if able, run.

To avoid thinking again of the tree, I gave a lot of thought to jumping off the roof. If I did that successfully, with no damage to myself, the option of running away would be renewed. But if I jumped it would be a long way to the ground, and I would have a fair chance of breaking a leg. This was a possibility not entirely unattractive, for if I broke a leg my mother surely would feel sorry for me and forget to whip me. On the other hand, I might kill myself, in which case I would lose the benefit.

And so I was driven back by my thoughts to the first option of climbing down the tree. But I lingered on a while to give my mother a reasonable opportunity to depart, an opportunity which she did not receive with favor. When I got up and eased back again to look for her, there she was. She had not moved. She looked exactly as she had before.

I was really getting to know my mother. I am many years older now than she was then, and I can easily imagine how knowingly she was amused. But I could imagine then, for I saw, how perfectly she was determined. It was getting dark. It was time to bring this story to an end.

Making no longer an effort to be quiet, I stepped back into the tree, slid down the trunk, and stood in front of my mother. I felt as if I were presenting myself to a bolt of lightning. It was somewhat like that: inarguable, clarifying, and swift.

Wendell Berry, who lives and works on a 125-acre farm near Port Royal, Kentucky, has published over thirty books of essays, fiction, and poetry. His previous story in Threepenny, "Fly Away, Breath," was selected for inclusion in New Stories from the South: The Year's Best.

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