During my career in the classroom, I displayed a large poster expressing the wisdom of Mark Twain: “Never let your schooling interfere with your education.” It was my way of telling students that just because your teacher says it, or just because it’s written in the textbook, doesn’t necessarily make it so. All schooling has been filtered through institutions that are motivated by much more than helping young people think. First and foremost, I wanted my students to think for themselves; to take in all that the system had to dish out and reject anything that did not sync with their own experiences.
Indeed, I told them to fear me because no matter how much they might come to like or admire me—not that they always did—I was an agent of the government. I was educated by the government. I was licensed by the government. I was paid by the government. The entire curriculum was designed by the government. That, my friends, is four blaring alarms that should have you running away from me as fast as is humanly possible.
I was the embodiment of the need for the First Amendment. I was the quintessential threat to the fundamental freedoms of a free-thinking society; all the more dangerous because public school teachers are wrapped in the warm blanket of educator, caretaker, nurturer, and all those other cozy things helicopter parents want their children’s teachers to be.
Every once in awhile, a student or their parents objected to my take on things and then took my advice about running away. It sometimes hurt my feelings, but I could hardly object. Running away is fine so long as you do it with purpose. I have run away myself. Mark Twain ran away.
Before the Civil War, Samuel Langhorne Clemens spent roughly four years navigating steamboats up and down the Mississippi River. That’s a lot of running away even if he always ran back. As the war disrupted riverboat commerce, Clemens was forced to find other work. Before becoming the most famous American of his day, he tried soldiering.
As you may know, Sam Clemens’ Missouri was a border state, which meant that it was one of four slave states that remained in the Union while the eleven other slave states formed the Confederacy. Throughout the war any Union decisions made regarding slavery—like abolishing it—might cause these states to quit the Union and join the Confederacy.
President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was issued in deference to the border states. Celebrated for “freeing the slaves,” the proclamation ended slavery only in the states which were in rebellion and preserving slavery in the Union’s border states. It was a gesture that helped to clarify the war, but it didn’t really unshackle anyone.
The actual people from these four border states were themselves divided over the war. Missouri remained in the Union while many Missourians decided to join the Confederacy on their own, including Sam Clemens. This is how he found himself in the rather ridiculous predicament of shooting at his neighbors. They fired back, too, which probably explains more than anything the brevity of his career as a soldier and his subsequent departure to the Nevada Territory.
Yes, he ran away from the Civil War and no matter what you may think about that, I, for one—knowing what I know about that bloody mess—think he made the right move
Clemens first signed off as “Mark Twain” while writing for a newspaper in Nevada in 1863. Since he was technically a deserter, and given that his crime was punishable by death, we can hardly blame him for changing his name.
This seems a good place to confess that I haven’t always been known as Jimmy P. Morgan. Well, yeah, it is my name—James, actually—but most of my life I have been Jim and the P. has only come up when people notice that I am JPMorgan. The Jimmy part comes from childhood, of course, and my adoption of it in the last few years is part of an attempt at re-invention, to distance my current self from that other me that had a boss.
Speaking of running away, my favorite Mark Twain story is about Huckleberry Finn and the slave Jim floating down the Mississippi River on a raft. Huck was running away from an abusive father who drank too much. Jim was running away from an abusive society that pretended all men are created equal.
On shore, Huck and Jim had been assigned roles they didn’t want to play. The river was their escape. Huck’s big revelation on the water was that Jim missed his family, that he loved them. You see, society had tried to teach Huck that this was not possible, that slaves were not capable of such human things. Society can sometimes be funny this way even though the people in it usually avoid this kind of thinking.
This is where Mark Twain made his mark, calling society to account for all of its nonsense; in this case by telling a story of a boy and a runaway slave adrift on a raft. Huck and Jim are part of the biggest runaway story ever, running away from the damage that slavery does to anyone who gets close to it. It was on the raft floating down the Mississippi that Huck learned he and Jim were not that different. It was on the river, away from society, that they became friends.
The sad part is, that once they made it back to shore, society took hold of them again. Like so many runaway stories—and I speak from personal experience—we almost always end up back where we started.
Click here to give it a try: wikihow.com/Build-a-Log-Raft