_____The day Sarah Hofstadter got up out of her seat in 7th grade study hall and wrote the word IRONY in big block letters on the blackboard was the day I stepped away from childhood. The year before, John F. Kennedy was killed and through tears that would not stop, Mrs. Taliaferro, our teacher, assigned us an in-class essay entitled “What Freedom Means To Me.” That day was a step away from childhood too. But the difference was this: Sarah Hofstadter’s blackboard graffiti was not an event that rocked the world. It caught no one’s attention but mine. It was the first time I made a conscious choice—a choice all my own—about what was important. This thing called irony added a dimension to language and to life itself. It was important. It was as if I’d poked my head underwater for the first time and exclaimed, “There’s a fish!”
_____A word can do that for us. It can grow us up fast. I remember how proud I felt when I learned to spell antidisestablishmentarianism. On the playground we’d sing out the spelling of it, a rhythmic song. We didn’t have the vaguest idea what it meant. It only went so far in growing us up. It was a baby step in the parade of things, including words, that would eventually make adults out of us. And of these, the word “irony” carried the most weight. “What happens isn’t what you think will happen,” wrote Sarah Hofstadter on that blackboard. The teacher told her to go back to her seat and a few girls snickered. It was easy to be unpopular if you were as smart as Sarah Hofstadter. I gazed at IRONY and its definition and put away my history book—I was reading about Charlemagne—and felt a thrill go through me, an aha! of understanding. Irony meant that life had levels of meaning, not just one, and if that was true then 7th grade wasn’t all there was; there was more. My sudden descent into adolescent awkwardness was just the visible picture, the surface of the sea, while below swam schools of multi-colored fish I could count on. In every situation there was depth of meaning. I understood this that afternoon and it made me more tolerant, more thoughtful, more dimensionally human.
Margaret Erhart’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Best American Spiritual Writing 2005, and many literary magazines. She won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, and The Butterflies of Grand Canyon (Plume), was a finalist for an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. Margaret welcomes responses and conversations at www.margareterhart.com