The gift of a little knowledge

1879

By J. K. Schmid
AFRO Freelance Writer

Every millenial dreads being found out as corny, but in the spirit of seeking truth and reporting it, here goes:

The greatest gift I ever got was a full set of encyclopedias. I don’t remember the brand, but they were huge, black, hide-bound tomes. Each spine had a red label with gold lettering.

They’d always been there, it seemed. But when I was seven, a lot of things had “always been there.” I know they’d followed the family in the move from Ferndale, Md. to Starbeck, England.

I remember learning to read from a Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles coloring book. In England, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are “heroes” because “ninjas” are too scary for kids. I was late to the literacy club, and reading didn’t really take for me until I was well along into seven. So the encyclopedias were more like furniture in the playroom, filling out the bottom bookshelf just right.

Mom and dad were watching a movie one night, and there was much screaming, yelling and panic coming from the tube. I came downstairs to see what was so terrible.

Probably perfect timing, Alex Kintner had just been devoured by Jaws’ 25-foot shark “three tons of him,” and I missed it. Dad sent me back upstairs. The film was too scary, he said.

I lingered, until Dad ordered me upstairs again. My last look at the screen was Alex’s mangled inflatable raft flapping in the surf.

This would not do.

I went back upstairs to the playroom, and ran my fingers down the encyclopedia spines: A, D, H, J, U-too far, S. Here we go.

S

S-H

S-H-and here we go: Shark.

Well, that’s not so bad. Very smooth, twin-toned, flat featureless grayish brown over that white belly all fish seem to have. Kind of a dull expression in the cat-like eyes. Says underneath it’s a lemon shark. This is it?

One turn of the page and, wham. A mouth the size of a rain barrel coming right out the waves, ringed with huge triangular saw-edged teeth, one huge black eye staring right into the camera. The nose was hideously scarred, and and dangling out of itswell, jaw, was a horse leg.

I was transfixed. A real, literal monster. A great white, the caption said. I wouldn’t let my fingers get near the mouth in the photo, but I was determined to learn everything about them. From there, it was the number of gill slits, nictitating membranes, ampullae of Lorenzini; habitat, diet, range; threats, predators, and competitors.

I didn’t see Jaws for another five years, but in the meantime, sharks were my thing, waiting through whole years of Ranger Rick for more sharks, digging through back National Geographics for more sharks, appointment viewing of Discovery Channel; every new article was a feast.

In between dispatches, it was back to the encyclopedias, and the growing stack of new material on the upper bookshelves, to revel in my cache of what felt like forbidden knowledge.

Sometimes I’d go too far and wind up in “space,” or I’d switch out volumes to learn about the “fossil” in “living fossil” and the Mesozoic Era. And, accidentally, I had this whole tapestry of interconnected points of knowledge that made elementary, middle and high school biology and sciences a breeze.

They proved foundational, and I like to credit the encyclopedias making me the reporter that’s eager to listen, but also as eager to do the research and reading.

Merry Christmas.