Most of us can name a Dr Seuss book but how many of you have read my particular favourite, The Eye Book? Written by one Theodor Geisel (who used Theo Lesieg as a pen name) or Dr Seuss, as you might commonly know him, he writes, “Our eyes see flies. Our eyes see ants. Sometimes they see pink underpants” and this utterly barking looking book (with its prescient nod to the modern popularity of Japanese kawaii) pays a hilarious tribute to our eyes, encouraging us to show appreciation for all the wonderful things to be seen and the amazing way they accomplish this.
Spending some of my childhood in Mexico close to the American border meant that I had better access to Dr Seuss than your average British school child in the sixties. He was read in England but not to the extent he was enjoyed across the Atlantic and when we emigrated back to England, our crates were stuffed with my battered collection of books which took a soul-destroying eight months to arrive. The Eye Book (along with One Fish Two Fish), was my favourite and so earned the right to return with us via plane.
My joy at meeting my new form teacher in Suffolk was immense when she started to read Dr Seuss out loud and her American accent rolled over the words. My teachers in Saltillo, the Northern Mexican city we lived near, would sometimes read aloud from the books in heavily accented English with a definite American inflection. Miss Thorne, with her silver hair in a tight bun and possessed of a lofty, aquiline profile, was slightly feared by the other children but not by me and on that first day I nervously offered my copy of Dr Seus knowing, just knowing, that this American teacher would share my most un-English preference for his books.
Miss Thorne was a warm home from home in this strange, land. From that moment on, she was my buddy, a treasured ally in a cold and snow-covered country where Janet & John reigned supreme. Those emotionally constipated post-war drips with their colourless parents were not for me, having been accustomed to the open and effusive warmth of the Mexicans and Americans I had lived among. Janet and John’s brown T-bar sandals, shit-coloured cardigans, pudding bowl haircuts and obsessive repetition of the most boring inanities about running, dogs and balls did not impress.
I suffered a fair bit when I moved back. Eight year old children are not reknowned for their willingness to embrace the new and different and this blonde ringletted girl who spoke in angry Spanish whenever she got emotional and forgot her English, who looked like them but didn’t sound like them, soon became alienated and the butt of jokes. Mrs Thorne helped as much as she could but having a teacher as an ally was more of a disadvantage and I veered from wild fantasies about her being unmasked as my real mother (I had pretty terrible parents too) and other less kindly ones where I vented my anger at her marking me out as teachers pet.
Dr Seuss would have understood. He knew what it was like to stand out and when he briefly broke off from children’s writing to become a political cartoonist, he made fun of isolationists and American isolationism. He mocked the leaders of the Axis powers and railed against the discrimination directed at Jews and African-Americans- all at a time when their estrangement was enshrined in legislation, socially approved of and commonplace. Seuss’s sense of social justice also stemmed from his childhood; when he was asked about the source of his creativity and did it emanate from his youth, he responded tellingly, “I think I skipped my childhood,” but “I used my adolescence.” His own background as the grandson of a Bavarian German who had emigrated from Germany in the nineteenth century and, during the First World War and was teased for being a German-American, became the painful bedrock of a career built upon the capture of youthful minds, before they became distorted by prejudice. His route home from school was accompanied by a rain of brickbats and shouts of “kill the Kaiser.” His college years saw him shunned for being Jewish (he wasn’t) and went on to inspire The Sneetches (1961), a story in which star-bellied Sneetches discriminate against star-less Sneetches. At the story’s end, they learn that “Sneetches are Sneetches / And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.” He might not have been Jewish but he wasn’t going to stay quiet on the subject of anti semitism. “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” says Horton Hears a Who, a book in part inspired by his visit to a post atomic bomb ravaged Japan and an important allegory (although the message isn’t as hidden as your typical allegory). I am in no way aligning my own bullying with that of other groups of people whose marginalizations involve brutality and remorseless, killing punishment but I still saw my own misery and isolation represented in a small way by him. I was that ‘no matter how small and plain little turtle below in the stack‘ (Yertle the Turtle). Dr Seuss understood that a whole lot of ‘smalls,’ added together, would go on to form a whole lot of ‘big.’ He made me realise that I couldn’t avoid being a small, nor was I likely to get a chance to become big, but I could find commonality somewhere. I was not doomed to remain forever alone.
And I was a bookish, owl-eyed child, living my life sequestered and partially protected behind a pile of books, a place of relative safety that nonetheless was regularly invaded by my parents and thus required rebuilding. Hard emotional work but the reward of fantasy lands, of other lives between those pages and the promise, one day, of a life that might be totally constructed by me was a powerful incentive to keep on rebuilding myself after being knocked down. And Dr Seuss invented the word that described me! He invented ‘nerd,’ or was the first person to use it in a book in If I Ran the Zoo. His ‘nerd’ was loving and approving, it was powerful medicine to the nerd word as chanted by the kids at school; a word that had more power to hurt in the seventies than it does now. We hadn’t reclaimed it then. I Wish I Had Duck Feet was a powerful lesson in conformity although I suspect Dr Seuss did not intend it that way. Being bullied (and I was relentlessly bullied all throughout my school years) was very lonely because like a lot of people who experience this, I had a sad and bad home life that the bullies somehow smelt on me. They detected it and homed in, knowing that I had no recourse to support, no angry parent waiting to deal with them at the school gates. My parents didn’t give a damn about it and in those days, most schools didn’t either. In this book, the main character wishes for ducks feet, an elephant nose, a sprinkler on his head (!) and moose horns (among others). ‘If I had two big duck feet, I could laugh at big Bill Brown. I would say ‘YOU don’t have duck feet, these are all there are in town.’ Near the stories end, the character is imaginng the consequences of having all these useful features at once and how he’d actually end up locked up in a zoo, because society will not see the usefulness, only the freakiness. He decides he would rather just ‘be himself’ but this is not a happy settling as far as I am concerned- rather it is a sad accomodation and admission that to conform is to escape the cruel and beady eye of others. How did I try to conform? I started by refusing to speak Spanish, refusing to keep up my bi-lingualism which so virulently marked me out as different to the other kids. On my first day in my English school, I turned to the little girls designated to show me around and asked them why there were tables lined up in the corridors (they were being put out for lunch). I asked in Spanish, was not understood and thus began my career as the strange girl- in those days, foreign speaking pupils were not common in Suffolk. My grandfather begged me to speak in Spanish, told me I would bitterly regret it if I forgot it all. I would not listen and I did, for a while, forget most of it, apart from that time when, in upper school Spanish class, my new schoolmaster told me I spoke Spanish like an ‘uneducated Mexican peasant.’ I replied coolly, “That’s because I grew up surrounded by them” (and they were worth ten of you, I thought). Now it is all coming back as age deconstructs the barriers in my mind and Hollywood starts to allow Latino actors to take on roles other than pool boy/nanny/waitress/slut. As they gain [a few] more speaking roles and gain representation in the arts, I am hearing what was (nearly) my mother tongue. And the memories flood back.