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Mr. B.'s English Class: "Who is John Galt?"

Hello, students; Mr. B. here with the inaugural Mr. B.'s English Class blog post.

This past weekend, my wife and I had a little dinner party at our house. There were two other couples with us--one of the couples had homeschooled their three children, who are now in college and doing very well, and the mother, who had done most of the teaching, knew that I was an English teacher and interested in English literature, among other things. While we were all having our dinner, the woman turned to me and said, "Wayne, I've been meaning to ask you something. Who is John Galt?"

That might seem like an odd question, but as a matter of fact, I was very happy to be asked that question--and very happy to know the answer, which I'll give in just a moment. But first, with your indulgence, let tell a little story that illustrates why it is so important that you have a solid awareness of English literature before you go out into the world and try to make your place in it.

I often tell my students the story of the woman whose birthday was coming up and whose grown children were puzzling over what to get their mother for her birthday. The woman was older, and as an older person myself, I can certainly vouch for the fact that as you get older, it becomes harder and harder for people to buy you something for your birthday for the simple reason that you pretty much will have everything that you want. And that was true for this woman as well.

The woman's husband--the father--had died a while before, and the woman's children were becoming a little concerned that their mother was going to be lonely. They decided to solve the birthday problem and the loneliness problem at the same time by pooling their money and buying their mother a parrot for her birthday, which would not only be a good birthday present but which would keep her company so that she would be a little less lonely.
You may not know much about parrots, but it turns out that they are not very companionable pets. They tend to be noisy, and they tend to make a mess in their cages. If you let them out of the cage, they fly around the room and make a mess of that too--and nobody wants that. And this particular parrot had been taught to curse somewhere along the way, which made it even worse! The woman didn't really like the parrot, but since her children had given it to her, she felt that she had to keep it.

Well, she happened to be at a card party a couple of days later, and she was talking about this terrible parrot that she was stuck with. The woman at the next table over happened to hear her, and she said "Oh, honey, I had a parrot just like that years ago, and I figured out a way to make it behave. If the parrot is acting up, all you do is you put the parrot in the freezer. Just for a minute, not long enough to hurt it, just long enough to let the parrot know that you mean business."

The woman said she'd try it, and when she got home the parrot was fussing and tearing up the inside of its cage--as usual--and cursing up a storm. The woman opened the cage door, grabbed the parrot, opened the freezer door, put the parrot in there, and closed the door. For a few seconds nothing happened, then she heard the parrot squawking and complaining. After a moment or two of this, the parrot got quiet, and after another moment or two, the woman opened the freezer door.

The parrot jumped out of the freezer onto her arm and said "Ma'am, I'm very sorry that I troubled you. I apologize very deeply for the trouble I've caused you. I just didn't know how good I had it here. If you can give me one more chance, I want to be a better parrot and a better pet, the kind of pet you want me to be. Can you give me just one more chance?" And the woman said, "Why, okay, I guess so."

"Can I ask you just one question?" the parrot continued.

"Sure," said the woman. "What is it?"
"What'd the chicken do?" the parrot asked.

That's a funny story, and that last part is the punchline. But the punchline is only funny if you know the story beforehand, and that's why you must have a good knowledge of English literature before you go out into a world full of educated people. For the rest of your life, people are going to be saying things like "What's the chicken do?" to you--and if you don't know the story, you're going to be the only one in the room that doesn't get it. As a parent, I don't want my child to be the only person in the meeting, or in the boardroom, or in the office, or in the break room, that doesn't have the foundation to understand the things that everybody else understands. This is why you must read English literature--so that you understand what educated people are talking about.

What does all that have to do with the question that my dinner guest asked, "Who is John Galt?" That question plays a very important role in a very interesting and influential book called "Atlas Shrugged" by a woman named Ayn Rand. The book is very complicated, but to put it simply, John Galt is the name of a character who leads some other men on a strike as a way to demonstrate to the world that they are unhappy with the way that the government is taxing them and how the government is using the money.

Who is John Galt? The answer to the question is this: "I am John Galt." As I gave that answer to my dinner guest, we both smiled because we both understood that we both understood the reference and that we both had read the book and knew what it was about. That's important, because it showed that we shared the experience of that book and this is one of the best pleasures in life.
Tune in again next week for another posting in Mr. B.'s English class blog.