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Owed to a Grapefruit
Jim was a sullen fourteen-year-old boy when his aging English teacher in rural Michigan, Donald Crouch, first encountered him. The boy was unnaturally shy, wrapped in a cocoon of self-imposed silence.
It would have been easy to think of his student as dim, disinterested, and backward, except for the way the boy’s eyes lit up whenever the subject turned to poetry. Though subtle, Donald always noticed a slight shift in the boy’s posture—a quiet but unmistakable enthusiasm that accompanied any discussion of the likes of Milton, Chaucer, or Shakespeare.
One day Donald asked Jim to hang around after class. He hoped that he could make some progress toward breaking down the invisible wall surrounding the kid. After a few minutes, Jim opened up to Donald, and at once the veteran teacher understood the problem: Jim stuttered. A lot. Donald listened with the patience of Job as Jim stammered and sputtered, fitfully recalling the humiliation he had experienced all of his life due to his speech impediment. Donald understood why his pupil was so taken with poetry; its elegant lines, its rhythm and cadence, every smooth word laid right in place. And this gave Donald an idea.
The next day, Donald instructed his students to write a poem of their own. The topic was unimportant, so long as it was about something they were passionate about. In Jim’s case, the Muse visited him in the form of a ruby red grapefruit.
This was during the height of the Great Depression, when rickets and scurvy had become a public health issue in Michigan. In response, tons of fruit was sent up from Florida to combat the problem. That night, a welfare worker delivered a box of grapefruit to Jim’s house—and Jim had nearly swallowed his tongue with delight. It was the most incredible, delectable, mouthwatering food he’d ever tasted. So when it came time to do his homework, Jim waxed eloquent in a flowery homage to epicurean bliss in poem called, “Ode to a Grapefruit.”
The next morning, Jim turned in his bit of verse and took his seat at the back of the class as he always did. Then Mr. Crouch startled him. “I’ve read your poems, and for the most part, I’m pleased,” he said. “Some are quite good. Several are excellent. One is… extraordinary. Jim, would you kindly come to the front of the class and read us what you’ve written?”
Jim froze in his seat, eyes as wide as dinner plates. He could feel the eyes of the other students crawling over him. Blood rushed to his face. He felt betrayed. He trusted Donald. “Why would he embarrass me like this?” He thought.
Then he felt doubly betrayed as his teacher continued: “Jim, I think your poem is too good. Frankly, I don’t think you wrote it.”
Jim glared at him in icy silence.
“If the words are indeed your own then prove it. Recite them or admit that you stole them.”
Something flew all over the boy. Jim jumped to his feet like his britches were on fire. There was anger in his voice, but what a voice was! The other students sat in wide-eyed awe at the sight–at the sound. Jim held them spellbound with voice as powerful and clear as polished thunder, booming forth the peculiar glories of a Floridian citrus fruit.
In that moment, it became as clear to Jim as it had to everyone else in the room that he had quite the instrument if he would simply learn to play it. So he decided to hedge his handicap. He realized that he never stammered if he knew what his next word would be. So Jim became a master of memorization. Soon, reciting poetry led to the debate club. Debate club led to the theater. In time, Jim’s newfound vocal prowess took him all the way to Broadway, where he was cast as the lead in Shakespeare’s Othello—a big part but one that he memorized in no time at all.
A Tony Award followed. Then an Emmy. Then an honorary Oscar. The world, it seemed, was too small to contain a voice as big as Jim’s—and so Jim took on the galaxy. A galaxy far, far away…
That’s how the iconic voice of Darth Vader was created—coaxed from the body of a timid boy who might have remained forever mute if not for a gutsy English teacher who understood the power of poetry, and the unexpected arrival of a ruby red grapefruit that tasted too good to be true.
So the next time you are tempted to think that you are destined to mediocrity because of a deficit of gifts or a superabundance of handicaps, I hope you will also remember James Earl Jones and his “Ode to a Grapefruit.”