(Teacher Tuesday is a weekly feature in which I recognize someone who contributed to my education as a writer and human being.)
My first two Teacher Tuesdays were about educators who had touched my life directly. There will be plenty more of those stories; I was fortunate to receive a great public school education, filled with many teachers whom I fondly remember. But this week, I want to write about a different kind of learning experience. This post is about a teacher who never wrote a syllabus; a teacher I never actually met. This teacher is the author, Mr. Roald Dahl.
I’ve pretty much read everything Dahl wrote, but I revisit at least one piece of his every single year. He remains one of my favorite short fiction writers — I think his collected short stories are essential for any aspiring author. I first encountered Dahl’s work when I was six. That was when I read James and the Giant Peach.
Here are three essential facts that Mr. Dahl taught me through this wonderful book.
1. When in doubt, break into song.
I remember being delighted by the Centipede’s musical interludes. They were enjoyable in and of themselves, yes, but more importantly, they gave me a sense that anything goes. (For whatever reason, I found the song breaks themselves to be even more outrageous than the fact that it was a giant centipede wearing 21 pairs of boots singing them.)
2. There are bad grown-ups out in the world.
As a little kid, my parents did their best to shelter me from life’s harsher realities. They are kind, steady people, and I assumed all guardians were like them. The nasty aunts in James really made me rethink that. It made me wonder about my classmates, what things were like at their homes. In short, it made my young self conscious of the possibility that others might not have it as good as I do. Speaking of those nasty aunts, they also taught me this:
3. Stories can be deadly.
This was the very first book I read in which someone died. It happened in a comical way, and those wicked ladies unmistakably had it coming — but nonetheless, it shocked me. It also helped to launch a new period in my writing the following year, which I call my Died in Agony phase. Basically, my stories as a third and fourth grader featured a lot of action, a lot of martial arts, and a lot of characters who, quote, “died in agony.” (I was an odd child.)
Anyhow. Mr. Dahl, thank you a thousand times for these lessons, and the dozens more on craft that I’ve learned from your short stories.