Words Do Matter—Just Ask Alexander

If you’ve ever been a child, had a child, or visited someone else’s child, you’ve probably heard of Alexander and his Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. It’s a great story written by Judith Viorst about a kid who wakes up with gum in his hair and goes to bed with a belly full of lima beans. There’s other stuff that happens in between: his friend Paul demotes him to 3rd best friend status, there’s no dessert in his lunch bag, the dentist discovers that he has a cavity, the elevator closes on his foot, and his mom forces him to buy plain white shoes at the shoe store (even though his brothers get stripes). To top it all of, his dinner sucks and there’s kissing on TV.

ALEXANDER_TERRIBLE_HORRIBLE

It certainly sounds like Alexander had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Some times, I catch myself feeling a lot like Alexander. It’s funny how life can seem so daunting one moment, and perfectly at ease the next. If I’m anything like Alexander, my perspective is probably slightly skewed. Because, of course, having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day depends on where you live, who you are, and what you’ve done. It’s circumstantial, isn’t it?

My day was not so much a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day…it was more like a rotten, fucked up, stupid ass shitty day. I think that works for me because it just sounds so ridiculous. And, if I were some one else—some one living in another place or time—my ugly days might seem a whole lot uglier than they do now. It’s all about perspective. Sometimes I have it; usually I don’t.

Whenever I have a bad day, I think about that book. I remember reading it in Mrs. Ruth’s first grade class, and I also remember thinking, “Man, this kid is one selfish little prick”! Mrs. Ruth insisted that we write a short essay about Alexander’s horrible day and how it made us feel. Believe it or not, my essay was somewhat critical. In fact, if I recall correctly, it went something like this:

So what if his brothers found amazing prizes in their cereal boxes. The cereal’s the best part, anyway! So the fuck what if he trips over his skateboard! He probably should have put it away in the first place. And, who the hell cares if he didnt get a window seat on the bus? These arent problems; theyre annoyances. Cmon man, pull it together. (Although, it does suck that the teacher didnt like his drawing of an invisible castle—even if it was just a blank sheet of paper.) 

At least, that’s my adult interpretation of what I wrote when I was six. I’m sure I left out some choice words. Even so, Mrs. Ruth didn’t like my response, and she didn’t like ME either. One time, she shook me for talking too much, and another time she made me wait until last to pick out a seashell. She told the class it was because I couldn’t keep my opinions to myself. I was stuck with the ugly cracked shell, and the other kids teased me relentlessly for it, But, later that day, I won a king sized candy bar when I accurately guessed the weight of our class pumpkin. It was 83 pounds exactly. Sometimes I wonder how I ever guessed that. But, I like to think it’s because I went pumpkin picking every year with my brother and all of my cousins.

At some point my brother and I realized that we could only carry a 30-pound pumpkin if we took turns. Later, we figured out that we could each carry a 20-pound pumpkin by ourselves, if we took a break every few minutes, And, If we found a pumpkin that weighed 50 pounds, we could roll that son of a bitch all the way to the front of the farm! But, whenever we tried to roll the biggest pumpkins, they wouldn’t even budge. The 83-pound pumpkin at school looked a little bigger than the 73-pound pumpkin I couldn’t roll. So, I added ten pounds because that seemed like a proper even number. I gave the candy bar away to the other kids, and suddenly they forgot about my opinions and my ugly sea shell.

Either way, not all bad days have to be bad days, right? I mean, Alexander drops his sweater in a sink full of water and it’s like a total game changer. His day is ruined. Does he have any idea how many times I’ve dropped my phone in the bathtub? I wonder what Alexander would think about the time I had to fish out a disemboweled bunny from the toilet after my cat murdered it and my dog hid it in there. Scrubbing those bloody paw prints from the toilet was pretty sucky, but it certainly didn’t ruin my day.

In the end, the book poses this question: what do you do on a day like that? Alexander thinks about going to Australia. I often think about moving to Alaska with Eddie and living in a hallowed out tree. I suppose I am a lot like Alexander. I guess we all are. But I will say this: I am not consoled by the thought that other people have bad days too. In fact, it makes my bad days even worse.

There’s a reason I remember reading that particular book in first grade (aside from my mean awful teacher): the message really bothered me. It isn’t until Alexander realizes that other people have terrible days too that he is able to put things into perspective. And, perhaps that’s my skewed view of reality. I don’t really know. But what I do know is that I am not consoled by the fact that it’s not me out there suffering in the streets of Baltimore or living in places like Syria, North Korea, and Iraq.

It’s pretty obvious that I have strong opinions, and I’ve had strong opinions since Mrs. Ruth’s first grade class. That’s part of who I am. I suppose I’ve been apologizing for my opinions ever since. But, as Lindsey and I sat in bed last night with our dying dog lying between us, I thought really hard about what it is I’m apologizing for, and I realized that I can’t do it anymore. I can’t apologize for my opinions, and I certainly can’t apologize for how I feel. Honestly, I shouldn’t have to. I don’t expect other people to apologize for their opinions. And, just because my perspective has changed, doesn’t mean my opinion has changed too.

I was raised to believe that you always stick up for the under dog, the homeless guy with nothing but the clothes on his back, the drug addict who just can’t seem to get it right, the girl without a voice, the kids in South Baltimore who face adversity every single day of their lives. Those are the people who keep me awake at night. And, perhaps it’s time that I simply stop apologizing for what I know in my heart to be true. Perhaps it’s time for me to stop trying to please everyone…to stop exposing my own vulnerabilities, and to stop giving a shit what everyone else thinks.

Mrs. Ruth was never going to like me no matter what I did. And the only person I should apologize to for that is my little brother, because her disgust for me left a permanent stain on his reputation. I suppose she figured we were both annoying little opinionated shits. And you know what, maybe we are. But, I’m proud to be an annoying opinionated little shit. I don’t disregard the opinions of other people simply because I don’t like them. And, I try to formulate an opinion based on my experiences in life. Why should I apologize for that?

We all have no good horrible terrible shitty days. But your no good shitty day might be five times shittier than mine…and vice versa. It doesn’t mean I’m going to change my opinion, but it does mean that I can try to change my perspective. Perhaps that’s the real message Judith Viorst was trying to convey.

You have to admit, it's pretty ironic.

You have to admit, it’s pretty ironic.

The thing is, I don’t want to be the kid who’s upset that her brother got the best toy out of the cereal box. I want to be the kid who gives him the best toy in the cereal box. I want to be the kind of person who takes everyone’s opinion into consideration—without animosity. And, most of all, I want to be the kind of person who respects all lives, who feels the pain of other people’s burdens, and who works hard to see the good in other people no matter how much we may disagree.

So maybe that’s what Judith really meant to say, that today doesn’t have to be a no good shitty fucked up rotten day. Today could be the last day of my life. And, at least I’m lucky enough to have a home. At least I’m lucky enough to have spent time with students in South Baltimore. At least I’m lucky enough that I can afford a new phone every time I drop mine in the bathtub. And, at least I’m lucky enough to have an opinion that I’m allowed to express. Now if only I could just stop apologizing for it…

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2 thoughts on “Words Do Matter—Just Ask Alexander

  1. Wonderful blog. I remember “MOMRuth”. Never apologize or lower your scale to someone else’s hatred by saying your sorry. Obviously, MOMRuth had issues. But there were many mean folks who crossed our paths, Cheryl and Bruce Doerr, and your kindergarten teacher, Ms wats her name. And many more following them, but, as mom mom would say, “stay away from them hon”. Stand up for what you FEEL is right, for the underdog, go with your gut, your 6th sense, despite being called delirious or a rebel. Your heart and soul will tell you what is good, true, honest and what is not.
    Never say your sorry, for how you feel. There your feelings, you own them, God gave them to you, he made you who you are, for this, I am so proud, so grateful, he blessed you with your feelings, good, kind or even indifferent, because, your feelings, your heart, are me.

    Like

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