Wit are you thinking?

I just knew it was going to happen -well, maybe it was more of a hope than a know, but nevertheless I feel I have been vindicated after all these years. It’s too bad my teachers weren’t still around; but maybe I should be careful what I wish for -I might be in the principal’s office. Despite Oscar Wilde’s observation that ‘Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence,’ it can still get you into a lot of trouble.

Of course I’m not pretending to any advanced form of intelligence, but more of a frequently incontinent mouth. A sesquipedalian mouth. A mischievous mouth. I’d like to think it took work to find the words, perspicacity to see the world like that, and clever deceit to ward off the suspicion of Asperger’s syndrome. Fortunately that condition hadn’t yet been invented in those days. And besides, I’d found most of the more delicious words in Shakespeare -they were his, really, not mine.

But ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks’, as Queen Gertrude says of the actor in the ‘play within a play’ in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Everything sits on a spectrum, doesn’t it? Still, I hadn’t really thought of my youth as being an example of anything other than playful. Impish. I mean, who knew? In fact, I would have remained guileless had I not been Emailed by an old school acquaintance from Winnipeg who had found my name on Facebook.

I’d forgotten all about Paulo; I was surprised he hadn’t forgotten about me but he started Emailing me as if we were old friends. At first it was a lot of the ‘Do you remember when…?’ stuff that I suppose we all do when the embers of ancient memories begin to flare.

But Paulo and I had never been ‘friends’; he was the bully who always ran after me on the playground in grade school; it was him that forced me to learn the ‘border collie run’: the zig-zag escape whose route was hard to predict and impossible to catch. It was for him that I combed the Shakespearean literature for clever insults that could be tossed like spittle over my shoulder as I ran.

After the Emails started that realized I owed a lot to Paulo. And it turns out that he credited a lot of his subsequent path in life to me. Who could have guessed? As Paulo put it, he had been at a great feast of languages and stolen the scraps.

I took a moment for me to remember the quote (it was from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost) but it seemed totally at odds with what I remembered of Paulo. He had been an angry kid, always causing disruption in our classes, cheeking the teachers back and tormenting them with his sarcasm; I think he spent more time in the Principal’s office than in the classroom. The embarrassing thing, though, was that I immediately recognized many of his jibes at the teacher as the ones I’d used on him as he chased me. I say ‘embarrassing’, but really, I think I was proud that he considered them worthy of throwing at the teachers.

He was eventually expelled from our high school in Grade 8 or 9 for breaking a kid’s arm in a fight on the school grounds and I lost track of him after that; there was no reason to remember. There was no reason to care whether or not Paulo was actually a troubled kid.

But I have to admit that I was curious that he’d sought me out -especially his finding those websites searchable through Facebook which I used as a platform for some of my writing. It was the last thing I would have thought he’d be interested in reading, and yet there he was: a fan, I guess.

I certainly claim no particular skill in composition, nor any real talent in expressing my ideas -I write for myself, and if I like it, I post it- but over the years the words came more readily, and anyway, what else is there to do after retirement? Still, Paulo’s sudden re-emergence in my world aroused my curiosity. Was there a story in this? Or, was I actually his story…?

His Emails were well written, and quite humorous, I have to admit. And, although their frequency slowed after a few months, he eventually confessed that he was now a psychologist in practice in a small town in the U.S.A. and a professor in a state college nearby. I don’t know if he’s still reading my stuff, but I was flattered that he made the effort to thank me for my Shakespearean insults. He said that he had never dreamed there was so much more in Shakespeare than we had been taught. At any rate, we still keep in touch occasionally, and I continue to be amazed that a recalcitrant bully like him could ever turn out so well.

Apparently I shouldn’t have been though. I happened upon an article in the BBC Future series that seemed to put things in perspective.[i]  I learned that ‘sarcasm requires the brain to jump through numerous hoops to arrive at a correct interpretation, requiring more brainpower than literal statements. And although it’s often dismissed as juvenile snark, sarcasm is actually evidence of maturity – as it takes years for a child’s developing brain to fully grasp and master it… Sarcasm allows us to add much-needed nuance to our interactions, softening the blows of our insults or adding a playful tease to a compliment. There is even some evidence that it can prime us to be more creative and that it can help us to vent negative emotions when we’re feeling down.’

Paulo had apparently been through a lot of childhood trauma and parental abuse about which I imagine all of us in the class were totally ignorant. Whether the teachers knew what was going on, is also unclear after all these years. At any rate, the abuse only stopped when he ran away from home after he’d been expelled from school.

Perhaps our common sarcasm should have bonded us, but maybe youth is all about survival. Fitting in. Most of my friends were afraid of him, although I seem to remember that I was the only one he chased. I had no idea that in some strange way, he was actually using me.

The whole thing reminds me of a paraphrase of a hymn written by the 18th century English poet and hymn-writer William Cowper: ‘Life moves in a mysterious way, its wonders to perform; it plants its footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm’. But Life’s like that, I guess: although it often seems to work better in retrospect -it’s what teaches us that we sometimes only recognize a problem from a distance; that sometimes sarcasm is just a blanket thrown over a fire.


[i] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20211110-your-teens-being-sarcastic-its-a-sign-of-intelligence

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