A Raisin to Be or Not to Be
I have been taken with the expression raison d’etre since I was ten years old. The school system where I lived demanded that all children study a foreign language commencing in the fourth grade. There was no choice about the language; you took what was assigned that year. During my fourth-grade year, the language was French. Our French teacher those first two years was, a diminutive and dynamic Jewish woman we called “Madame” who seemed very old back then. (She was, perhaps, 40.) She took great pleasure in teaching us those great rolling rrrrrr’s and was emphatic about pronunciation. She would teach us a word, reveling in the sound and then on the board she would write the spelling of the word or phrase. Once we got that down, she would define the word for us. I remember having a test and misspelling the word raison. I spelled it raisin. For almost an entire school year, I never used the word raison correctly in any paper or on any test. I would use it incorrectly because in my brain “raison d’etre” meant “eating raisins.”
Madame spoke to us only in French during classes. If she chose to speak after class, it was in English and it was because we did something miserably wrong. She apparently despaired of my intelligence and one afternoon she took me aside. “Mademoiselle,” she said, “will you never get it through your head that raisons are not something to eat?” I guess I looked perplexed because she said, very gently, “Mon petite choux” (which translates into “my little cabbage head,” her term of endearment for our rambunctious group), “do you not have a reason for living, for being?” When I shrugged, she continued, “What is it you wish to be when you grow up?” I told her that I wanted to be a botanist (which I did back then) and she went on to explain how the plants I would study and discover would be my reason for being, my reason for living, and how I would have many reasons as I got older, some large, some small, some in passing and some a passion for life. “Life doesn’t just give them to you, child, you choose them and because you choose them, they are harder to let go of and to give up. Raisins,” she said “are enjoyed in a cookie or in your cereal. They are with you for a short time and enjoyed for only moments compared to your whole life. Do you not understand, chérie?” I did grasp the concept explained in that clean, clear and tender way. We laughed together as she teased me about growing up to be a raisin. Lesson learned.
I was reminded of this story earlier in the week, when I went to McDonald’s for lunch. It was still Christmas vacation and kids were out of school so the place was packed. I had a tiny table across from a booth meant for six people stuffed with nine teenagers enjoying the freedom of an afternoon away from their normal routines. Between the giggling and off-color jokes they were fretting about the assignments they were running out of time to do before going back to school on Monday.
It seemed that English was the class that was giving them the most difficult time. Their teacher was perceived to be a tough taskmaster. Shakespeare was the subject; Hamlet was the book that needed to be read before school resumed just days hence. As one might expect some of the conversation revolved around how to get away with not reading the book.
Unlike the boys of my generation, the young men at the table seemed more interested in reading the book than the girls. Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark fired their imaginations and their curiosity as they imagined the time and the place so far removed from the lives they live. Many of the young women were more interested in movie stars and the latest fashions and could see no reason at all for having to read “some dead guy’s books!” I found myself struggling to keep from laughing out loud and ruining the mood of the conversation upon which I was happily eavesdropping instead of minding my own reading. Finally, one young woman with a long brown braid, green eyes and a diffident smile asked the group if anyone had gotten to Act III, prompting a busty blonde to pause with French fry to her mouth, eyes wide. In a shocked whine, she let everyone know that she only had the first book and ask where she could get the other two, prompting snickers and the question as to whether her hair was naturally blonde.
Once things settled down, the young lady with the quirky shy smile held forth on Act III and Hamlet’s “To be or not to be, that is the question” after pulling the book out of her backpack and reading the soliloquy to the group. For the next ten minutes she held forth in the traditions of the finest storytellers or great leaders, speaking with an eloquence that belied her youth about the truth, beauty, pain and anguish she saw in those lines. She told of an uncle who committed suicide when he was 25 because he had no real reason to be. She told them how much pain the death of her only brother caused her mother about ten years earlier. She said, “Uncle Gene’s death almost caused me to lose my mother in her grief. I became her ‘reason to be.’ She could not leave me behind as her brother left her.”
That young woman related the book written in a style of English these youngsters didn’t understand or care to into an experience far too many young people do understand. She did it with a soft kind of stillness that pulled me back so many years ago to my youth when Madame cared enough about me to open my eyes and my heart. It was beautiful. It was rich, and it was powerful.
I wished I could have stayed and heard the rest of the discussion and questioning that erupted as I left. I departed that restaurant with tears in my eyes, grateful for the experience and feeling as though I had feasted on the finest food instead of a greasy little burger and fries—and so very glad I have a reason to be.
At age 10, Anne realized she was never going to get to be Miss America since reading a book was not an acceptable talent. So she went on to get a job and raise a family. Along the way, she fixed meals, picked up toys, helped with homework, and collected a drawer full of rejection slips for her “great American novel.” It was not all bad, however, since she ended up wallpapering a closet with them. She currently designs and creates greeting cards for her tiny company, The Frog Prints, LLC, and also works full-time as a Training Specialist. Anne is currently tethered to reality by a loving spouse, two dogs, one cat and the occasional hurricane that blows through Florida, although falling headlong and happily into a book is still her favorite “talent.” She can be reached at