Remember the bar scene in Good Will Hunting, when Will berates the obnoxious Michael Bolton look-alike for making fun of his friend Chuckie? After dismissing the grad student’s plagiarized take on colonial American market economies, Will dresses him down by telling him two things: “One, don’t do that. And two, you just dropped a hundred and fifty grand on an education you could have gotten for a dollar fifty in late charges from the public library.” (Expletive deleted. More than one, actually.)
Praise be, I am blessed with a fabulous public library in my neighborhood–one that lets me renew on line! so I get to save that buck fifty! But on top of that civic gift, there’s an even more remarkable perk of living where I do, which is this: the never-ending, all-welcoming, free-to-whoever-shows-up continuing education that is the definition of college town life.
All it takes is a little effort to figure out what’s happening when. There are panel discussions and performances and screenings and exhibits, every day. There’s science and literature and sports and politics, more than you could ever make room for on your calendar. A week doesn’t go by that I can’t find something worth checking in on. I will never tackle multi-variable calculus or organic chemistry on my own, the way Matt Damon’s character did, but I suspect Will Hunting would still appreciate my lifelong effort to educate myself, free of charge.
Here’s just a few of the topics I’ve been schooled in lately, for less than the cost of an overdue library book:
Every year, an extraordinary artist is selected to deliver the Norton Series of lectures at Sanders Theater. This year’s luminary is musician Herbie Hancock. Here he is, delivering a talk on breaking rules: how to, when to, why to. On his short list for great rule-breakers: Igor Stravinsky, directing from the screen above the master jazz pianist. “Don’t break the rules just for the sake of breaking the rules; break them because you have to, to tell a story that couldn’t be told without changing the template.”
My book group chose the book My Promised Land for discussion in early February. I lugged my copy around with me for weeks beforehand, reading and rereading passages and chapters, always with a pencil at the ready. I highlighted hundreds of lines, and turned down dozens of corners, because so much of what I read was news to me. Truth be told, I would never have picked up this book if it hadn’t been thrust upon me. And I am hugely grateful that it was, because it filled a gaping hole in my threadbare understanding of the Middle East. The more I read of modern Israel’s complicated and troubled history, both ancient and modern, the more I wanted to know. And the more I learned, the more I cared. This book moved me to tears. What author Ari Shavit delivered to me, through his decades of research and his poignant interviews and his powerful writing, was an understanding and an appreciation deep enough to weep for a place I’ve never seen and hardly, truly, ever met.
After New Year’s, when college was back in session and I was cramming to get to the end of the story before my book group convened, my younger son texted me to say, “Did you see that the guy who wrote that book you’ve been carrying around since before Christmas is speaking tomorrow afternoon?” No, I had not seen those posters, dear son, thank you for letting me know! I wrote back. And that’s how I got to hear Ari Shavit describe how he came to write this deeply personal history of his homeland, so evocatively and unflinchingly.
I took seven pages of notes at his talk. They’re penciled in my copy of his book, starting on the back inside cover and covering every blank space I could find between the end papers and the final chapter.
Meanwhile, Katherine Boo, gifted writer and chronicler of life in the slums of Mumbai in her Pulitzer prize-winning bestseller, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, was also on my book group’s reading list. Again, my fellow readers put a writer and a topic on my plate that I would never have chosen on my own. Again, I count myself lucky to have had the chance to delve into a work that so massively increased my knowledge about a world I knew not of. And once again, lucky for me, Katherine Boo came to town to give a talk on the subject of her immersion into the granular realities of a world built on monsoon mudflats and un-recyclable refuse, on fear and desperation and hope. That she was speaking to design students was a bonus, as she made brilliantly apparent her profound belief that these worlds deserve the attention of a new generation–one that might be able to make a difference.
As she spoke of her journey into the life of the Annawadi slum, Boo shared images of that world and its inhabitants. Many of the pictures and videos had been taken by the children whose lives she had reported on, youngsters who were quick to master her camera. The images gave a vivid sense of the place she chronicled for three years, as well as the people who claimed her in that process.
Okay, this one wasn’t free. But I’m grateful to have Diane Paulus in my home town, doing the work she does at the American Repertory Theater, and I’m more than happy to open my wallet and discover what she’s been up to. The photo above is from the ART’s recent musical, “Witness Uganda.” The play is based on the real life experiences of a young out-of-work New Yorker named Griffin Matthews (center, above; author, actor and ardent believer in the power of good intentions), who discovered that an act of community service had turned him into a pawn in a Ugandan school-building scam. While still in Uganda, and by way of trying to figure out what to do next, he met children–many of them AIDS orphans–who yearned for the education they were being denied. Matthews’ play was born as a fundraising tool for his own Ugandan school-building foundation. It may well become a Broadway musical, given Diane Paulus’s Midas touch. But whether “Witness Uganda” makes the great white way or not, I suspect the true feat of this work of art will be a greater good, by making some useful noise, shedding some light, and providing help that actually helps.
So, I may never earn an advanced degree to show for my efforts, but I feel a lot more informed, a little bit more a global citizen, every time I check in and show up, right down the street from where I live.