Chapter 13: Wheelbarrow

As Ishmael and Queequeg walk with their belongings to board a ship for Nantucket, Queequeg relates a funny story about his first experience using a wheelbarrow. Never having seen a wheelbarrow, let alone used one, Queequeg thought to strap the wheelbarrow, full of his belongings, to his chest, and carry the whole load walking upright. When Ishmael asks if people laughed at him for carrying the wheelbarrow this way, Queequeg relates a story from his time living on his home island of Kokovoko. Queequeg tells of a visiting Western merchant captain, a guest of the king himself, blundering his way through a ceremony because he had no experience with or context for the event. Both stories force us to question the universality of custom, both official and unofficial, and the relativity of ignorance in cultural norms.

I thought of this chapter in the book as I talked to my mom one night. I told her that my co-teacher and I were showing our class President Obama’s first-day of school address, and she asked me if we had to send home permission slips. I laughed, but she wasn’t kidding. Apparently, in the school district that reared me and my sister, teachers had to allow for parents to opt their children out of watching the President of the United States tell their children to do their homework.

As I sat Monday morning, watching my students — white, black, hispanic, arab, asian — watch their president speak to them (directly to them!) about the importance of education in their lives, I couldn’t help but think about the relativity of cultural norms. My students idolize President Obama. They relate to his story in a way they can’t relate to to the stories of most, if any, politicians on the national stage, and for many of my students, President Obama’s success signals the first possibility of their own success. I’m not sure my students could even imagine the far away city-on-a-hill where parents keep their children from listening to President Obama’s encouragement and advice, just as I’m not sure those children of white, upper-middle class conservatives could imagine a place where anyone would care to listen at all. And that’s precisely the problem. These worlds don’t meet in America, and so we never blunder through each other’s bizarre ritual, working towards understanding with experience. Rather, we choose to live beyond even the auspices of empathy, so alien are we to each each other’s stories.

Chapter 13: Wheelbarrow

Packing my bags with my best friend.
Walk down the street with my best friend.
People will stare at us always,
Sharing the load!

Don’t be embarrassed,
Because we cherish

Stare at the sea with my best friend.
Happy to be with my best friend.
Closing the gap there between us,
Building the road!

Don’t be embarrassed.
Platonic marriage.
The world’s a joint-stock company!
We help each other be.

People may laugh at my best friend,
Stab at the back of my best friend,
He never holds it against them;
He’ll always help his fellows!

Don’t be embarrassed.
Platonic marriage.
The world’s a joint-stock company!
We help each other be!

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea September 25, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea August 29, 2009