Seventh grade history was a class of shame. That was the year I raised my hand to the question, "Who in here isn't Christian?" (A question that today would get a public school teacher fired, or at least kicked out of the coffee clatch). When called on by the teacher, I chirped that I was Protestant. He put his head in his hands and shook it back and forth. I remember the brown pants he was wearing. I can recall the dandruff on the back of a classmate's head. The air in the room was like when a cloud passes over the sun. I sank that day, and spent most of my year in fear of him. His hands were like a gorilla's. He'd hulk between the aisles of our desks while we were taking a test, slow heavy steps, and stop to lean on any student's desk who wasn't answering up to his expectations. "You know number seven. Think harder." He pushed and demanded.
In eleventh grade, I had his brother as my AP European History teacher. He had the same stature, one that demanded respect or tickled the fight or flight response in his student's brains. I remember him asking me if I was a better piano player than my friend Lynn, who was seated right next to me at the time. He was looking for conflict, which I thought was strange, since a few days earlier he told us something I have never forgotten:
Small minds talk about people.
Great minds talk about ideas.
Another reason to sink lower in my chair. As a writer, I like gossip. It's not about spreading it, but hearing it. I love to read tabloids in the supermarket aisles, browse the articles in the cheapest of magazines. I eavesdrop on stranger's conversations. Helen gets sick of me asking her "Any good dirt today at school?" Her friend always used to say "You know I don't like the gossip, but..." and she'd launch into some delicious account of a classmate's conflict. It's not about passing judgment, which is what I think my history teacher's reminder was (he was, after all, working with teenagers). Hearing a good bit of gossip is about catching a delicious idea for plot. It's about the complexities of human nature. Maybe it's the small mind that just talks about people and a medium sized mind that sits and listens and takes notes, then the muscular mind takes those scraps and turns them into something worth reading.
Here's my revision of my history teacher's two-line admonition:
Great minds can figure out a way to justify their gossip-mongering ways.
Just kidding. Really. How about this instead:
Great minds think and then create something from that thought.
Small minds watch television.