A student in my Film Studies course suggested we watch Slumdog Millionaire, the independent movie from India that beat out the big studios for Best Picture at the 2009 Oscars. The story was compelling: Jamal, raised in the abject poverty of India’s slums, nonetheless answered every question posed during the nationally-televised Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Slumdog was a great flick. It had drama created by officials who assumed the under-educated Jamal was cheating as well as romance from the love story with his former childhood friend. What fascinated me, however, were the flashbacks to Jamal’s boyhood experiences during which he had learned enough to answer correctly every quiz show question, as improbable as that seemed to most viewers.
I regularly watch Jeopardy! – a nightly ritual that can leave me feeling almost accomplished or downright addled. Occasionally, however, answers have surfaced from distant recesses in my mind as I have experienced my own Slumdog-like flashback moments.
Clue: He will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today. As I shouted my response, my mind traveled back to the moment Wimpy became part of my collective knowledge.
The Cordell kids lived just up River Road from us. The five of them were rowdy and rambunctious, and it was on their living room TV I first saw Popeye of bulging muscle and spinach fame. Whichever channel carried the cartoon that included the Sailor Man’s girl, Olive Oyl, and brutish foe, Bluto, was unavailable in the Scott household; but the repetition of the hamburger lover’s payment arrangement lodged in my brain awaiting retrieval many years later.
Clue: Brothers on the trail of doubloons. The Scott television did carry the station broadcasting the Hardy Boys, who spent an otherwise boring summer solving a junior whodunit, serialized on The Mickey Mouse Club. Frank and Joe followed in their detective father’s footsteps, tracking clues and suspects to a pirate’s chest on the Applegate estate. Who could ever forget the program’s eerie introduction with that gruff voice singing about “Gold doubloons and pieces of eight”?
Clue: German city where you will find the statue seen here. The picture on the screen showed a sculptor’s rendering of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and a swarm of children enchanted by the music he was playing on his pipe.
Most GHS exchange groups visited the picturesque city of Hamelin, not far from our partner school. Every year the kids followed me in fine piper-form from the train station to a beautiful public garden and on to a quaint pedestrian zone filled with shops and cafés. Also popular was the “Rat Catcher Play” – as the Germans translated it – enacted on summer Sundays, complete with dozens of local children costumed as tiny rats. I imagine at least a few former exchange kids still have a souvenir bread rat stashed in a box somewhere.
Clue: Completed in 1791, it was reopened in 1989 after being closed for 28 years. Most of my students could identify the Brandenburg Gate in response to this clue. The Berlin Wall flanked the centrally-located landmark, where JFK peered ceremonially from an elevated stand into East Berlin and Ronald Reagan exhorted Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Exchange groups observed the historic arched gate with its blocked foot and vehicle traffic until 1990 when free travel resumed.
Clue: A line in this short story is “slowly, awkwardly trying out his feelers.” My response of The Metamorphosis was correct, but I shuddered as the Slumdog flashback kicked in.
The literary fame of author Franz Kafka meant nothing to me as a college junior when The Metamorphosis, a classic of modern German literature, appeared on my syllabus. Reading it was downright frustrating: I had to look up every third word in my well-worn dictionary only to feel confusion when most of them referred to insect parts. Back then, I did not possess enough experience or sophistication to appreciate the story’s symbolism. To me, I had simply translated an overly long story about a guy who woke up one morning as a giant cockroach just to learn that life in a chaotic universe is a random crapshoot. Some homework assignments do leave scars…
Clue: He authored “Remembrance of Things Past.” I will probably never read any of the seven volumes of this novel by Marcel Proust, whose name revived memories of an accelerated French course I took one summer at Miami University. Meeting three hours each morning and another three hours every afternoon, we students listened to the professor often mention the 19th century Proust – even as we struggled to pronounce correctly the most basic of French words and phrases.
Memorable in that course was my regrettable, unforgettable contribution to a discussion being held in French. In response to a question about the location of Paris, a single incorrect word changed my answer from “Paris is on the Seine River” to “Paris is on her bosom.” The Proust-loving professor corrected my error – only to comment that my answer was poetic but geographically impossible!
Classes and courses leading to diplomas as well as thousands of pages of reading material form the basis of many of my Jeopardy! answers. However, I am always particularly pleased by correct responses rooted in long-ago moments, experiences, or circumstances far from any school – lessons that Jamal and I learned from life, the best classroom ever.