When I was in grade school at St. Norbert’s Elementary School I had the great fortune of being in the class taught by Mr. Karem. One might think in a parochial school such a lay teacher would be in charge of teaching us mathematics or history or geography. Nothing so pedestrian! Mr. Karem took it on himself to model the highest art of sarcasm and singular self-importance. If you did not just stumble in here off the streets you might perceive a tiny shard of this demigod in my general attitude.
Mr. Karem would sometimes assign us vocabulary words. He deemed it within the realm of possibility that armed with the correct spelling of a given word that we could manage to turn the pages of our dictionary to its location and plagiarize Webster’s finely crafted definitions and use a pencil to transcribe those words onto a piece of paper of which Mr. Karem himself would copiously admire. It was not his privilege, mind you, but yours. One must know one’s place in Karem’s universe.
Before he dared hope we would grant him the honor of fulfilling his wildest dreams of inspiring us to actually fulfill our homework duty, he would first demonstrate his prowess of the task at hand. The challenge he would pose is this, “There will be no vocabulary assignment for tomorrow if one of you miniature homo sapiens can defeat me. Who is up to the challenge? Who can give me a word which I cannot define through the exclusive use of my own grey matter?” Always someone tried, no one ever succeeded.
One day Mr. Karem threw out his challenge to the class and for some reason he focused on my fellow student Miss Greene. She was shy and the weight of Mr. Karem’s charismatic superiority was focused squarely on her tiny slumping shoulders. Dead silence. Not the tiniest mouse dared make the slightest movement as Mr. Karem’s eyebrows rose and fell and his lips pursed and moved about, towering his lanky frame above Miss Greene. Finally she meekly peeped, “Please define the word . . . ‘the’.” The chorus gasped in unison. Not a gauntlet thrown down but instead a tiny poisoned nugget offered on a silver tray.
At this challenge Luminary Karem inhaled deeply. He began to pace back and forth before his apostles. The sacred bliss, the rapture evident on his face as his hands repeatedly separated and came together as if he were constructing a small universe from the ether and after a period of about two minutes he alit at the front center of the class and delivered his oration.
The confident smile on his face was engaging. His voice rose and fell with glorious reverence to his own well-crafted phrases. It was wondrous to witness this prose that danced like poetry coming from that delighted mischievous face as the self-admiration encapsulated himself in an aura of self-devotion. At the conclusion Mr. Karem invited Miss Greene to please read from her dictionary the definition contained therein. After she finished it was obvious that Mr. Karem was not only correct, but he had vastly surpassed our meager lexicon’s scope and voracity with his prosaic wizardry. It was the performance of a lifetime and we were all enrapt.
I forget why, but I took that moment to throw a crumpled piece of paper at a friend of mine across the room. This curried the favor of Mr. Karem who delighted in getting explanations of the “aesthetic beauty” behind whatever wrongdoing was afoot. It was a common assignment in Mr. Karems domain:
“Mr. Gramze,” he favored me with his bemused displeasure, “You will compose for me, due first thing tomorrow morning, an essay illustrating ‘The Aesthetic Beauty of Throwing a Wadded Piece of Paper During Class.'”
My grade-school hero had appointed me a quest. I had no intention of disappointing him. I toiled through much of the afternoon and night constructing poetic prose favoring Mr. Karem’s manner of speech, quantifying the molding of the paper into a perfect ball, the force, the aerodynamics, the graceful ballet of flight, the startling yet gentle playful nature of the strike, and the olympic skill of the thrower. Surely, I concluded, this demonstration of art and science benefits us all. It was copiously codified in glorious graphite on the wide-ruled lines of loose leaf paper. The next morning before class formally began I proudly handed in my thesis.
“No one has ever done this before,” said an astonishingly deflated Mr. Karem. “I always give out the ‘Aesthetic Beauty’ assignment as punishment and no one ever actually does it. It is supposed to be impossible and meant to serve as a momentary playful reprimand.”
And there I saw it was over. The self-important man was disarmed by taking away his so-called impossible dream-quest. Never again could he assign this punishment with the supreme assurance it could not be done. My grand gesture of admiration was for naught. When the smoke cleared the fire-breathing dragon I unintentionally slew that day turned out to be nothing more than a common windmill.