When you are a child, you are at a disadvantage because you have a limited vocabulary. Everything you hear has to be processed through the relatively few words you know. This leads to grievous, or hilarious, misunderstandings.
When my daughter was very young, had assembled a rudimentary vocabulary and had pounded her first shaky piton into the wall of understanding Time, she grasped the notion that not everything happens Today.
However, the only other day she could both comprehend and articulate was Yesterday.
Thus, she asked questions such as, “Are we going to Grandma’s house today or yesterday?”
Being the sort of parent that I am, I responded, “Yesterday.”
She was happy with the answer because she knew was beginning to understand the world. Or she is a Time Lord.
When I was about 5 years old, my mother said to me, “Oh, I’m so excited. Someone gave us tickets to go see Elephant Gerald.”
I had no idea who Elephant Gerald was, but I loved elephants.
I had elephant stuffed animals, elephant trinkets, posters of elephants, elephant bedsheets.
My favorite book was “Babar.”
Mom said Elephant Gerald was a singer and that there would be music. Mom said Elephant Gerald had sung with Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.
I was impressed.
I only knew who one of those guys was, but I knew that you had to be important to sing with a count, a duke and the first man on the moon.
Plus, this elephant had a name. How many other elephants were important enough to have a name?
Babar and Dumbo were the only elephants I knew by name.
I wondered how elephants even played music.
At the time I thought trombone players were the greatest musicians in the world because I fully misunderstood the mechanics of the instrument and I thought they were swallowing the slide.
But how would an elephant play an instrument? Or did they just use their trunks like trumpets?
Could they stick their trunks out to the side and have another elephant play it like a flute?
Or, better yet, did an elephant come on stage in a kilt, stick his trunk in his own mouth, and then blow really hard while squeezing himself, thus causing bagpipe like sounds to emit from other places?
I was 5 years old. It was a reasonable, almost intoxicating idea.
The big day arrived.
My mother told me to go get dressed. She had laid out an outfit for me, but I had a better idea.
I had a three-piece suit. I had collected it myself. I knew that to have a three-piece suit one needed pants, a vest and a jacket all made of the same material.
I had recently acquired a denim vest. This, along with a pair of Toughskins and a blue-jean jacket, completed the three-piece suit.
I went upstairs and my mother just said, “No.”
We went to the symphony hall and took our seats.
I was so excited. The lights dimmed, the music started, the curtains opened, and what I took for the opening act came on stage.
She was a Rubenesque, middle-aged, African-American woman. She sang a song about a knife named Mack.
When she finished I asked my mother, “Where’s the elephants?” She said, “Shh.”
Every time the lady on stage finished a song, I asked my mother, with increasing urgency, “Where’s the elephants?”
My mother’s shushing became more and more insistent. Then the lady sang “A Tisket, A Tasket,” people stood and applauded, then the lights came on.
The show was over.
I was distraught. I began to sob like only a child can. I was wracked with tears, gasping for air.
“What is wrong with you?”
“I … wanted … to … see … the … elephant!”
“What elephant?” my confused and exasperated mother asked.
“El … e … phant Ger … ald!”
And she burst out laughing in the way that adults do when a child has utterly misunderstood the world.
“No, no, baby, not Elephant Gerald,” she howled, gasping almost as hard as I. “Ella Fitzgerald!”
Sometimes I think, perhaps naively, that most of the problems in the world today occur because we, as individuals and as communities, simply don’t bother to take the time to understand other people.
We hear someone say something about themselves, their culture, their religion or politics, etc., and if we do not have the vocabulary to understand what they are saying, we simply dismiss and marginalize them.
If we would make the effort to learn a few new words or stretch our minds around some new concepts we might be able to smooth some things out in this world of ours.
It is easier to hate than to learn, easier to shun than try to understand, but there comes a time when we have to accept that trombone players don’t swallow the slide.
But I’m still holding out for the elephant in a kilt.
Bil Lepp, of Charleston, is a full-time professional storyteller and the author of four books and nine audio collections. He may be contacted via www.leppstorytelling.com.