Miss Taggart would be ashamed. My spinsterly high school English teacher taught me better. I can still picture her cold eyes glaring out at our petrified American Literature class through thick black plastic 1950’s style cat’s eye shaped glasses. She had gray brillo pad looking hair. She smiled like a shark, rarely, and only right before devouring some unsuspecting high school junior’s soul. She could smell unpreparedness. Connected parents got their children transferred out of her classes. She was in her mid sixties, had never married, and lived with her mother who was in her late eighties. She would fail students, even if they showed up to all their classes. She was the teacher you did not want.
She gave reading quizzes every day. Every single quiz counted. There was no extra credit. The second semester of my junior year she randomly assigned everyone to groups. My group had five members. The other four were already planning on summer school. Our assignment was to make a presentation about Transcendentalism. Miss Taggart announced that there would be no group switching. There would be a group grade, and she did not want to hear about anything being unfair. My group decided we should all do nothing, a kind of suburban non-violent resistance. This was decided on a vote of four to one. I was the lone dissenter. I was not a particularly diligent student. I just couldn’t fail on purpose. Plus, I had plans for the summer.
I learned about a transparent eyeball and Walden Pond. Emerson and Thoreau penetrated my soul. I discovered words and ideas could be beautiful, not just drivers of a narrative. I gave a presentation about Transcendentalism by myself. I did not complain about my group, but I did not allow them take part in the presentation they had done no work on. Miss Taggart gave me a "B". She told me she thought I could do better.
I didn’t need any English credits my senior year, but I voluntarily took two semesters of Advanced Composition from Miss Taggart. I don’t remember what grades I ended up with, but I do remember that both semesters were spent critiquing and analyzing various media forms. One of the most powerful was about advertising. I never forgot realizing powerful professionals were targeting me for influence. I have (over)analyzed every consumer decision I have made since high school. My immunity to advertising chicanery has been a part of my core identity.
Miss Taggart retired a few years after I graduated. She passed away shortly after retiring. I am sure today she is glaring at me from heaven. English teachers do go to heaven right? Disney got me. My children have taken an increasing interest in iPad gaming. I wanted to get them some content and skill level appropriate games. I searched for Disney and Pixar. I found a game called, “Fix-It Felix Jr.”. It looked like the old eight bit games. It played like a Donkey Kong clone. I wondered why is Disney putting this out? Did they acquire the rights to some obscure 1980’s arcade flop in one of their many corporate mergers and decided to just port it into an app? The game is fun to play. It’s no “Angry Birds”, but it makes the wait at the doctor’s office go by quicker.
Tonight I realized I had been taken. I saw a commercial for the new Disney movie, “Wrek-It-Ralph”. Ralph is the nemesis of Fix-It Felix. The movie looks great. The free game was an interactive commercial. I had let in a Trojan horse. I never saw it coming. I heard the siren song of free apps and I perished on the rocks of viral marketing. Well played Disney, well played.
Miss Taggart warned our Advanced Composition class that corporations and drug dealers exist to make money. If either one wants to give you something for free it is for one of two reasons. They are betting you will be hooked and will come back for more, or they want to use you to bring others to them. I bet my kids would love “Wrek-It-Ralph”.
We live in a world where escapism is easier than ever. We can carry thousands of songs, hundreds of books, and scores of movies with us on our phones. We can be alone and never solitary thanks to orbiting satellites that ensure we never miss a cousin’s cute cat video, or a brother’s daily physical training triumph. Emerson said:
To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime.
All of these conveniences come to us cheaply. We do not pay full retail for our phones or our content, at least not in cash. The real currency we pay is eyeballs. Advertisers pay content providers for our eyeballs. The first one is free, or ninety-nine cents, after that there’s a cost.
I am not immune to the omnipresent advertising. I am as much of a junkie as anyone else. Maybe I just need some solitude instead of all of this alone time. I think I will head outside and look at the stars. Their rays are ancient and free. No download required.
 This is from Emerson’s essay “Nature”, the text of which can be found here: