But this, what I’m about to describe to you, was a complete surprise. Was it troubling, infuriating, or weird? No, it was in fact all of those, all at once.
So. Imagine a library containing one author, one teacher-librarian, and fifty 5th Grade boys. Imagine that author explaining to those 5th Graders about how writers use misdirection, much as stage magicians do. That is to say, while we’re telling a story about one thing, we might also be addressing some theme that is ‘bigger’ than the simple story within which it is couched.
‘Because we know that when a magician does a trick, they’re not really being “magic”, don’t we?’ I asked, rhetorically. ‘Because we know that magic isn’t real, don’t we?’
Let me pause to briefly explain something. In that moment, I thought very hard about what I would say next. I really did. That’s because I have a more or less fully developed frontal lobe – the part of one’s brain that projects forward and assesses potential risk. Which is why I didn’t go where you probably thought I was going next – describing the founder of the Christian faith as ‘Magic Sky-Jesus’. Because that’s not what I do. I’m terribly careful to avoid offending people, since I like being invited back to places. I’m there to talk about stories and writing and books, not to make fun of Jesus, Mohammed or anyone else considered sacred by anyone.
So while I didn’t plan to offend anyone, I did think – I actually thought – that I’d be safe to remind this room full of ten- and eleven-year-old boys that magic isn’t real. ‘We know that the Easter Bunny isn’t real,’ I said. ‘Neither is the Tooth Fairy. And as for Santa Claus…’
I know. I know. But come on – these boys were in 5th Grade! 5th Grade! My own kids were still putting out carrots and milk on Christmas Eve right up until their eighth birthdays, and I found it endearing and cute and the stuff of a whimsical childhood. But 5th Grade? Really?
To be fair, none of the boys batted an eyelid. Not that I noticed, anyway. Neither did the teacher-librarian. Until the following morning, that is, when she received five irate parent emails complaining that ‘some guest speaker’ had come to the school and told their boys that ‘Santa doesn’t exist’. It was their prerogative to expose that little bit of dishonesty at a time of their choosing, they claimed, and I guess they’re probably right.
The teacher-librarian thought the whole thing was pretty funny. So did I, to be honest. What I found slightly less amusing was the fact that one of the class teachers (who hadn’t even been in the room at the time) had sent a group letter to all 5th Grade parents more or less apologising on my behalf.
But here’s the thing. Imagine your own ten-year-old coming to you in tears, complaining that some mean man had come to school that day and claimed that Santa was a lie. The way I see it, you’ve two possible courses of action. The first is to quietly utter a prayer of thanks that, as unpleasant as it is to see your child weep, you can now have that conversation. You can now say to your child, ‘Honey, the truth is that we’ve been meaning to talk with you about this for some time. And this seems like a good time to do it. Fortuitous, even.’
The second course of action is to actively promote the lie and, once the tears are largely dried and belief restored, open up the laptop and fire off an angry missive. (To anyone considering Option 2, think on this: how much greater will that feeling of betrayal be when the truth is finally allowed to come out – at, say, twelve or thirteen – and you have to admit to your child that yes, you did lie for a long time, before grasping the opportunity to lie some more.)
All right, so mea culpa. Lesson learned. I still relate my craft to magic versus misdirection, but Saint Nicholas of Myra no longer scores a mention. It’s not that I’m shying away from the truth; it’s more that I understand that it’s not my job to decide when other people let their kids grow up.
That said, let me make one final note on what I now call 'The Great Santa Contretemps of 2012'. I briefly considered sending out my own email of apology to the parents of those 5th Graders, saying the following: I wish to apologise for any misunderstanding over my recent comments to your boys. I suffer from dyslexia*, and actually meant to say that Satan doesn’t exist.
How might that have played out, I wonder?
* NB: I am aware that it is a common misconception that dyslexic people get their letters jumbled up, but to be honest, Anticipatory Coarticulation is simply too much of a mouthful. Happy Christmas, everyone!