Thursday, May 07, 2009

You Never Know

Barrie Hibbert from Adelaide, Australia wrote to me about a letter to his local paper and how this stimulated a rich vein of insights:

Whoever You Are
I found in yesterday's paper [The Advertiser], among the Letters to the Editor, the following letter:

I am writing this to a man, still unknown to me, who jumped into the duck pond at the Botanical Gardens in mid-October 1983 to rescue a four-year-old boy who had fallen in while feeding the ducks during an outing with his grandmother.

That little boy graduated last week with his PhD, and I would like to say thank you, who ever you are, for that day.
J. Short, Rosslyn Park.

Well done the unknown jumper… and well done the grown-up four-year-old with his doctorate… and specially well done J. Short (who ever you are!) for sharing your joy, pride and gratitude with the rest of us.

You Never Know
Somehow this reminded me of the old school teacher in the German mining village.

Every morning he stood at the school gate and doffed his hat to each student as he or she arrived. Then in the afternoon, he would take up his position at the gate and doff his hat to each departing student.

One day one of the leading citizens of the village asked the old teacher why he went through this rather ridiculous little ritual. The old man responded: “You never know … among that group of children there may be one who will one day do great things for the world.”

Among those children was a village miner’s son, the young Martin Luther.

Miss Finlay
One day in the early 1940’s an Australian teacher, Miss Finlay, decided it was too cold and wet to send the children out into the playground. So she settled them down and read them a story. It was the story told by the Greek writer Homer in the final book of The Iliad.

Miss Finlay must have been a good reader, as she held the attention of the youngsters until the tale was told. One little boy in particular, David, was rapt in the story. Nearly seventy years later, David Malouf, now one of Australia’s most distinguished writers, published his novel Ransom – inspired by his lifelong fascination with that story from The Iliad.

Malouf’s novel is a powerful fictional elaboration of the story of the attempt by Priam, the aged King of Troy to secure the release of his slain son Hector’s body from his killer, the Greek warrior, Achilles.

Malouf uses the original legend to reflect on the nature of human relationships (especially father-son relationships), and also how we establish and define our own individual identity. In the end, Ransom is about what it means to be a human being.

The actual writing is quite superb. Some critics are already suggesting that in the years ahead, Ransom may come to be regarded as one of the truly great Australian novels.

At the time the book was published, David Malouf told the story of his childhood encounter with Homer’s Iliad. Shortly afterwards, at one of the book signings, a little old lady joined the line of those seeking the author’s signature. When she reached the table where he was seated, she pressed an envelope into his hand. She did not attempt to engage him in conversation, but subsequently he made contact with her and they met.

Yes, it was Miss Finlay, now in her nineties and so thrilled that as a young teacher she had imparted something so memorable and precious to that little boy on that rainy afternoon.

As the old German schoolmaster said, you just never know.

Source: Thanks to Barrie Hibbert for these stories.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Martin Luther, David Malouf, The Iliad, Ransom.