“What three things do you value most?” was a query posed to the students of Mr. O’Neill’s ninth grade English class. It was a simple question with no qualifiers. Our three answers were anonymously written on a small piece of paper and collected.
Forty-some-odd years later, my memory of this day in class is still impactful. Mr. O’Neill was the hippie of the high school teaching staff. A casual young man in jeans with longish hair, trimmed beard and mustache, whose idea of dressing up was a sports jacket with elbow patches. His curriculum added fun and creativity to the required reading list of To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tale of Two Cities, and Romeo and Juliet. At the end of the school year we listened to the album Tommy, by The Who, interpreting its lyrical story set to music ranging from the intimate to the bombastic, and appreciating the brilliance of the first famous rock-opera.
The question, “What three things do you value most?” started off sounding like a game and we wanted to know the rules. Did Mr. O’Neill mean material things, or people, or abstracts? He wouldn’t answer any of our questions. After a bit of deliberation, all twenty-five of us put down our pens and handed in our answers.
Mr. O’Neill began reading the submissions aloud and prompting us to talk about them. Words like family and home appeared often. A few times “money” or “getting a job” were conveyed. As the class discussed their answers, anonymity was no longer possible, as reasoning was mostly supported by the author. How did I answer?
Peace, love, and marijuana.
What was I thinking? The peace sign was a prolific symbol bolstered by music and culture of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Even if I couldn’t wrap my teenage brain around the issues of the Vietnam War and the protests over its legitimacy, young men not much older than me were drafted and never came home. Some, like our local hero Ron Kovic, author of Born On The Fourth Of July, came home mentally and physically battered. Even at the tender age of 14, I had embraced the peacenik culture, from music, to fashion (remember tie-dye, Earth shoes, and bell-bottoms). Peace, man!
What teenage girl doesn’t think love is important? Oh, to be kissed! Let’s just say my answer, “love”, was all about boys and raging hormones and supported by another iconic symbol.
Not one to take any school assignment too seriously, my inner wise ass got the better of me on number three. My marijuana answer got its fair share of snickers and eye-rolls from the classroom audience. Even in ninth grade, I just couldn’t help myself.
I’ve often thought about my answers and how their intent has changed over time. While striving for world peace was the idealistic goal of a hopeful teenager, feeling inner peace has become part of the boozy lifestyle mantra. My creativity and motivation for productive and positive activities such as writing, playing music, cooking, exercising, and socializing spring from a place of internal calmness. And when my inner peace gives way to turmoil, watch out for cranky Julia!
The value of love has taken on a deeper and broader meaning than the intention of my teenage response. Love is coupled with family, home, and friends. Love is a slow burn and spans decades. Love and forgiveness are for myself as well as others. I try not to beat myself up over things in the past that can’t be changed.
A classmate’s value of truth has taken on a whole new meaning in adulthood. As a teenager, truth sounded like something biblical; be honest and don’t lie to your parents. For older me, truth represents reality. It’s a lifelong learning process to percieve facts without bias. The chaotic din of social media and pundits makes us more prone to falsehoods and propaganda and less able to distinguish factual reality. I didn’t realize how much I valued truth and integrity until I saw so little of them displayed in public.
On a lighter note, in the spirit of my boozy lifestyle, I would change number three from weed to wine (although marijuana has just been legalized in my home state of New Jersey). If peace and love are boozy lifestyle goals, then wine is one of the instruments for attaining them. A delightful bottle of red with a few bits of tangy cheese offers a little taste of heaven in my comfy chair by the fireplace as my drinking buddy and I discuss the latest dystopian science fiction show we’re watching. Oh, wait, that’s not sci-fi, it’s the nightly news. As far as being a wise ass, some things never change.