I share this story as a gift to my classes every year just before Winter Break. It is an engaging tale that has proven to be as inspirational to others as the true events originally were to me. Central to the story is my unique interaction with Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451. This past year, Mr. Bradbury died, so I felt it appropriate to commit my three-decade long oral tradition to writing. The theme of the story is about leaving a legacy. Here is my tribute to a great American legacy.
As we all know there are three phases in life. In high school, cool is sexy; in college, smart is sexy; after college, rich is sexy. Since this true story involves a girl and a holiday gift while I was in college, I have thus dubbed it The Smart is Sexy Christmas Story.
I was a freshman at USC attending a philosophy discussion class. There were seven of us sitting in an arc being led by a young grad student. He was asking us to share out the topic of our term papers. I went first and spoke about Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I didn’t pay much attention to the others after that, because I was too focused on the gal sitting at the other end of the row. She was cute, petite and I had a mullet that tapered to a thin braided pony tail. So hot! (This was the Pat Benatar era after all.)
When it was her turn to finally speak, she shared that she was perplexed by how Socrates handled his own death. Socrates is well-known for being executed for teaching the youth of the day about democracy. His government let him choose his form of execution. Socrates elected to drink hemlock. On the day of his execution, Socrates held up the cup of Hemlock and toasted, “By doing this, you will forever immortalize my teachings!” He then chugged the poison and died.
Socrates meant that if the government had simply let him do his thing and pass on quietly, maybe no one would notice, but since he was being silenced by the powers-that-be, generations of people were going to want to know what he was saying. And here we are talking about him 2,000 years later.
Although this idea eluded the object of my attraction, it was time to join our professor in Mudd Hall with a few hundred others for our philosophy lecture. Although the teaching assistant said we would finish the discussion next time, I saw an opportunity to break the ice.
I was recently reading a book that I thought might help, Fahrenheit 451. It’s author, Ray Bradbury, did a guest appearance at my high school the year before, so I was inspired to read one of his works. The day before, I read a passage that particularly struck me. I thought it might illuminate Socrates’ words for my classmate, so I copied it down on a sheet of scrap paper and handed it to her on the way to class. She was enormously grateful.
The next time I saw her, my new friend said that she was going to have a present for me at the end of the semester. Sure enough, on the day of the final she handed me a framed sheet of paper. I noticed that on the page was typed the passage that I had written down for her. Since my mind was focused on the impending test, I didn’t exam it very carefully, though I did thank her for the sweet gesture.
After I was done writing about the wisdom of men in togas, I picked up the gift to take a closer look. I now noticed that the passage was typed on Ray Bradbury’s personal stationary … and it was signed by the man himself! “Good Wishes, from Ray Bradbury, Dec. 1982”
How?! I approached my benefactor and inquired as to how this came about. She claimed that what I did was the nicest thing that anyone had ever done for her. My first thought was “Yes!” My second thought was, “This girl has had a rough life.” She told her father the story, and her Dad also thought it was the nicest thing that he had ever heard of anyone doing for anyone else. (Dad must have had a rough life, too.) By unbelievable coincidence, her Dad was friends with none other than Ray Bradbury himself (no kidding) who also thought it was the nicest thing that he had heard of anyone doing for anyone else, so he typed up the passage on a sheet of his personal stationary, signed it, and gave it to his friend, to give to his daughter, to give to me.
And that was the last I ever saw of her. I cannot even remember her name, but I have cherished the gift to this day. When I became a teacher, I hung the framed passage on the wall of my classroom and have told that story every year at this time. And that was the extent of my story, for twenty-four years … until I personally met Ray Bradbury.
In 2007, my town built a new library. Ray Bradbury was scheduled to make a book signing appearance to commemorate the moment. The book everyone was promoted to read and bring to the Grand Opening was none other than Fahrenheit 451. I was so pumped. This was my opportunity to finally thank Ray Bradbury in person, so I pulled some strings and got a ticket to the exclusive event.
At the night of the opening, the literary icon’s much-anticipated arrival was delayed by rainy traffic. While two-hundred fans anxiously stood with copies of Fahrenheit 451 in hand, my smart-is-sexy gift drew quite a bit of attention. I must have told the story a dozen times while we waited. Eventually, we were all escorted to the room where Bradbury was to speak to the crowd. His delay was getting longer, so one of the organizers asked me to entertain the crowd with my story. I stood on the platform and reiterated my tale to a room full of Bradbury junkies. They loved it.
Shortly after I finished, Ray Bradbury finally arrived. He was very old and sick, so he had assistants escort him out in a wheelchair. Despite his infirmity, he spoke with humor and passion. For the next two hours, I listened to the greatest storyteller I have ever heard. He told story after story about events in his life that led to the writing or publishing of his various works. Like being a kid working in a carnival and meeting a man with tattoos all over his body, which led to The Illustrated Man. And how a lunch meeting with an aspiring new magazine editor led to the publishing of Fahrenheit 451 as a three-part series in the first few issues of … Playboy. The young editor was Hugh Hefner. The tales went on. We were all mesmerized.
When Ray Bradbury wrapped up his talk, we were instructed to line up for the book signing. This was my big chance, after a quarter of a century, to finally say thank you. I was so excited, but I found myself about 150th in line. It was late; Bradbury was sick; there was no way he was going to be there long enough for me to get to him. Then people around me started to take notice. They had all heard my story so they started letting me take cuts. Over and over again, I was being allowed to stand in front of the next person, and the next, until in a matter of a few minutes I was 10th in line.
I soon found myself face to face with Ray Bradbury. I knew I didn’t have much time. As kind as everyone was, they all wanted their turn as well, so I handed him my treasure and spoke fast.
“Mr. Bradbury, I have been waiting 24 years to thank you for this,” I started. He held the frame in his shaking hands, and as I rambled on about the girl and the friend of his, he read the passage.
Looking up with a smile, he said, ” That’s a really good quote!”
“Yes, it is,” I responded, “You wrote it!” I continued my brief recap of how he typed it up to give to me through his friend, whom I did not know.
To which he said, “I am a really good guy, huh?”
“Yes you are, sir, so I wanted to thank you.” As I showered him with words of gratitude, an assistant helped him pull the paper out from underneath the framed glass. Unbelievably, he autographed it again. I left Mr. Bradbury to the rest of his fans as I walked away with another amazing, unexpected gift from him.
The gift continues to hang on my classroom wall, and I continue to tell my Smart is Sexy Christmas Story each year. It is my Christmas present to my students, because it speaks about living with purpose and leaving a mark on the world. It is in that spirit that I end my story with what is known as the “Gardner’s Passage.” Merry Christmas to all.
Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or house built or a pairs shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn cutter might as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.
— Fahrenheit 451