By Sean Dietrich
The sun rose over the Alabamian highway, and it was pure majesty. The sound of birds was music. I was on my way to speak to a book club.
I don’t usually speak to book clubs, namely because I’m no good at it. I’ve found that avid readers are smarter than I am. Most often, it goes like this:
A man in steel-rimmed glasses stands and asks a question like: “What was your subjective motivation within the pretext of the outlined apparatus of your—dare I suggest?—almost quasi-static prose?”
I usually just mumble something about current tax laws, take a sip of water, and say my closing remarks:
“It’s been a bona fide treat, folks. A bona fide treat.”
Then it’s off to KFC for some bona fide supper.
This book club, however, is different. These are 13-year-olds.
A girl named Claire emailed me several weeks ago. She told me their group of friends formed a club that reads books instead of playing with phones.
At club meetings, members store cellphones in a locked safe. Their mothers serve pimento cheese sandwiches and juice boxes. And the kids talk about, say, Leo Tolstoy.
They are smart kids. They read authors like Robert Frost, Carson McCullers, Walt Whitman, and one redheaded writer whose truck has needed new brake rotors since 2002.
I arrived in a residential neighborhood of manicured lawns. I wasn’t sure whether I should wear my tweed jacket with the elbow patches. I decided against it.
Their mother invited me inside. I shook hands with kids and parents. A kid named Brad held his hand out and said, “Cellphone, please, sir.”
He locked my cellphone in a fireproof safe with the other phones, then showed me to the den. The living room was full of kids sitting on the floor.
The round table started by discussing the Mark Twain book they’d been reading, “A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” I sipped a juicebox and listened to them talk to each other like regular kids did before cellphones ruled the world.
It was beautiful. Today, many children use cellphones to communicate more than they use eye-contact. My cousin’s kids, for instance, don’t know how to say “What’s for dinner, Mama?” without thumb-typing it.
Subsequently, after a brief discussion on Mark Twain, it was my turn to speak. I made sure I used the word “subsequently” a few times.
And, I tried my best. But, to be honest, I didn’t know what to say to these young faces. There is nothing more honest than the face of a young person looking at you.
They know when you’re being authentic and when you’re not.
These kids had read four of my books. For crying out loud, I haven’t even read four of my own books. In fact, I’m not even reading what I’m writing at this exact moment. Which is why you’ll find lotz of missspppellings all ovfer tha placee.
After my speech, a kid named Beau started with some author questions and remarks. He raised his hand. He said, “I like your story about the man who leaves twenty dollars at gas pumps.”
So we talked about it.
Another girl raised her hand. “My favorite story is when you pooped your pants while you were fishing.”
All in all, I’m afraid I might’ve disappointed these bright children. They probably expected someone who was smarter than a scoop of room-temperature coleslaw. Instead they got me.
Still, I did my best. What I didn’t tell them was about my failed childhood. It was not the kind of childhood that involved book clubs. I didn’t tell them I was an academic failure in grade school. And if you’ve read anything I’ve written, you know I didn’t attend high school, either.
The fact is, kids, I’m not the kind of man who should be instructing the young minds of tomorrow. I’m just being honest. But I do, however, appreciate a good juice box.
Anyway, before I left, I got twenty hugs in total, and one pimento cheese sandwich for the road.
Young Claire hugged me and said, “I so didn’t think you’d actually come. I kinda thought you’d be way too busy for us. You made my day.”
I didn’t mean to get misty eyed. But you can’t always control these things. If you’re reading this, Claire, there’s something I want to tell you:
It was a treat. A bona fide treat.
And now you know the story of how I lost my cellphone.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.