Losing the wisdom of strangers

Since grade school, I’ve kept a notebook to document the pearls of humor and wisdom dispensed by strangers.

The first entry was courtesy of my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Ronald Jones, who was quick-witted and known for liberal application of corporal punishment.

Although I had long been a member of the “good kid” club, the thought of spending a full school year locked down in his classroom terrified me. There were just so many things that could happen — and not all of them my fault — that would end in an introduction to the business end of his paddle.

Through a strictly followed plan of no eye contact and wallflowerdom, I made it until February, my birthday month. It was tradition for the birthday person to receive “licks” with the infamous paddle. My classmates were silent as I was escorted to the hallway. Trembling, I assumed the position, hands on knees.

“Show me your foot,” Mr. Jones said, a glint in his eye.

I did and he raised the paddle, bringing it down across the sole of my tennis shoe. He smiled and pulled back again. My shoe received 10 licks that day and I was given a stern caution to “make it look good.” Fortunately, tears of relief aren’t difficult to fake.

The experience floored me. I had spent seven months cowering in fear from a gentle giant. How could I have missed that? And, because I had missed it, what else was I failing to notice?

The notebook hobby began the next day when, amid classroom moans about a homework assignment, I wrote Mr. Jones’ name, the date and the following quote: “Like the Good Book says, ‘There’s no rest for the wicked.’”

Over the years I’ve been amazed and disturbed by what people say and reveal.

During college, a friend-of-a-friend, a truly beautiful young woman told me, “I know that everyone thinks I’m pretty. But I’m the one who has to look in the mirror and know all of the things I’ve done.”

At my father’s funeral, a man approached and introduced himself as serving with my dad in the military. He said, “Your dad was always terribly aware of being alive.” My only guess is the statement has something to do with the massive scar on my father’s leg, which he received during war and wouldn’t discuss.

Waitresses, cashiers, bank tellers and otherwise anonymous people on the street have been documented. Statements from interviews, too off topic for a news report, are copied too.

At first I’d scribble notes on whatever scrap of paper was on hand, intending to put them in the notebook. This changed about 10 years ago when several were lost. Since then I’ve carried a tiny notebook in my purse, recording there and transferring later.

Unfortunately, during a recent road trip, I lost the traveling notebook. I’m fairly sure this happened at a highway rest area as I searched for a safety pin. I stopped again on the way home, as well as at gas stations and diners I’d visited, but didn’t locate the book.

I’m left to wonder if it has been found and, if so, what the person must think as he or she reads entries like, “blonde woman, mid-50s, Ped Mall, on her divorce: ‘The more you cry, the less you need to pee.’”

The book’s owner is probably viewed as someone like obsessive-compulsive Rob Fleming of High Fidelity or, worst yet, someone nefarious like the talented Tom Ripley.

But, it’s just me, still battling fifth grade fears of missing something important and needing to capture the wisdom of strangers.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on May 16, 2015.