Manyu called me from her sister’s apartment to let me know she’d arrived in Taiwan safely. She also told me that she’d read the first half of my new book on the airplane. This is a big deal for both of us. English is not Manyu’s first language, and reading in English is not relaxing for her. The fact that she struggled through a hundred pages of a book written by me was more an act of love than a pleasant way to kill time during a seventeen-hour flight.
She did tell me that there was a passage in the book she did not like. It was a single sentence from an essay about a time I took a group of sixth graders to tide pools in northern California and helped a young boy find an octopus. I compared the event to some of my own childhood memories and wondered whether the boy’s encounter with the octopus was a life-altering experience that led to a career in environmental education or marine biology. I concluded the essay by writing, “If John grew up to major in economics and work as a consultant on Wall Street, I don’t want to know about it.”*
Manyu could not understand why I’d tell a heartwarming story about a child’s relationship with nature and then use it to indirectly insult some of the readers. Putting aside the fact that traders on Wall Street are not my niche audience, Manyu makes a good point. She knows I sometimes think that environmental education is a higher calling than business and finance, but she assumed I was smart enough to recognize this perspective as a character flaw best kept to myself. She said that had she read my manuscript before I sent it out for publication, she would have told me to remove the offensive sentence.
I wish I could say I knew exactly what I was doing when I wrote the sentence, but I did not. It didn’t occur to me that I might be insulting anyone, and I did not notice the arrogance that I now see is there. Had Manyu made her observation before I sent out the final draft, I probably would have changed it. There are times to be offensive, because stating the truth is important. This was not one of those times.
* Simpson, S. 2023. Essays to My Daughter on Our Relationship with the Natural World. Purdue University Press, p. 57.