I’m looking out the window and I can’t believe my eyes. It’s lush, it’s magnificent, and, most importantly, it’s true. And I can’t decide how I feel about it.
Let me tell you why.
I was six years old when I went to school. I don’t remember if I was particularly nervous on that first day, or if I was excited. I don’t remember if I had to wear smart clothes, but knowing my mum, I probably didn’t. I don’t remember my teacher’s name, but I do remember that she was a harmless looking plump little woman with a lot of blond curls piled up on her head. Let’s just call her Ms. Teacher.
The day began innocently, with us, kids, and Ms. Teacher all sitting on the floor on little cushions. We played a game trying to learn each other’s names, and we talked about what each of us did over the summer. Then Ms. Teacher gave us some paper and crayons and told us to draw something we really liked. I drew a tree because trees were my favorite in those days. I was a fearless climber and I would spend most of my time up in the branches, the higher the better. When I was done drawing, Ms. Teacher came over, gave me a new sheet of paper, and told me to try again. She said that trees were green, not purple, and she threw my old drawing into the bin. I remember being mortified because the girl sitting next to me laughed. She had drawn her family, all of them with yellow hair, standing on a green grass, in front of a house with a red roof, under a blue sky.
I don’t remember what happened the rest of the day. Did we have a lunch break? Did we play in the schoolyard? No idea. I guess that whole purple tree incident really upset me because when my mum came to pick me up, she instantly knew that something was wrong.
I told her what had happened and my mum’s face hardened into that serious look, a mask that she’d put on only very, very rarely. Then she marched over to Ms. Teacher and basically chewed out the unsuspecting woman. Now, I don’t think I understood enough back then to really remember what she said, but knowing my mum it was something about the immorality of institutions, about crippling people’s imagination, maybe about the authorities attempting to mold everyone in compliance with a single formula. I’m sure she used the word bullshit a lot. It was one of her favorite words when talking about institutions and authorities.
On the way out, my mum fished my drawing out of the bin basket and smoothed it out. It still hangs in her kitchen, next to my first rejection slip and the portrait of Amelia Earhart.
That first day at school was also my last. My mum decided to homeschool. I think she got into some trouble about that, but then we moved abroad and escaped the trouble. I thought it was quite adventurous of us, just like escaping the pirates or slave traders in one of my books. Because by then I grew bored with the trees and I was all into books, the more adventurous the better. After that first escape we moved a lot, and my mum insisted that it was part of homeschooling. She said that I was getting geography lessons first hand which was incomparably better than memorizing names of capitals and the image of the world distorted by the Mercator projection.
On the whole, I think she was right. I grew up all right. You could even say that I have achieved a degree of success, and not only by my mum’s standards but by standard standards, too. In fact, I’m in Los Angeles right now, here to sign a contract. They want to make one of my books into a movie. The producer flew me in, booked me into this hotel, and since I arrived late last night, I didn’t notice it. But today, when I woke up and looked out the window, there it was… a purple tree.
I called the reception, and they told me it was a Jacaranda tree. I googled it. Apparently, jacarandas are quite common in tropical and subtropical regions, so chances are you’ve seen one. But how come I’ve never seen one? How come Ms. Teacher has never seen one?
My whole life I cherished that picture of a purple tree as a symbol of my uncurbed imagination, a token of the powers of creativity. A purple tree, to me, meant that the world had no limits and that I could shape my reality whichever way I chose. But now it turns out that I didn’t need to invent the purple tree at all. Turns out it existed all along, on its own. Look, there it is, outside my window. Gloriously, unapologetically purple.
And I can’t decide how I feel about it.
I want to call my mum and tell her about the jacaranda tree, but she doesn’t have a cell phone. She’s got strong feelings about not being reachable at all times.