The Saga of Hungry Mungry

Even though I was only six years old, I struggled past the rest of my second-grade class and finished the set of “readers” prepared for elementary school students. My teacher, Ms. Flannery, was delighted, and started me on anthologies geared to junior high school. I loved reading these more complex works, living the lives of the characters, inhabiting each tale in turn. I remember reading and discussing the story “Skippack School” by Marguerite De Angeli and imagining I was the main character Eli, crossing the Atlantic and pioneering Pennsylvania. I talked with Ms. Flannery about how my own family had done the same, and imagined briefly that I lived in that long-gone colonial world.

Ms. Flannery was a pretty woman, with long, brown hair and bronzed skin, and she put in extra time to go over the stories with me, which even at that age I realized was special. On career day during oral presentations, she gleefully took a picture of me wearing a small white lab coat and stethoscope. She counseled me when I became despondent over the “cruel” behavior of a girl in class who I had a crush on. “Now, let’s all put this behind us,” she said firmly but kindly. I think I also had a crush on her, and no doubt this helped urge me past the most intelligent of my classmates to academic achievement.

Near the end of the winter season, the school put on a talent show based on Shel Silverstein’s classic collection of poems, Where the Sidewalk Ends. I knew the poems well, and when Ms. Flannery asked me to read a poem, I volunteered the two-page epic, “Hungry Mungry.” The title character eats all the food in his house, then his parents, and then the entire earth. Unsatisfied, he eats the rest of the universe, and ends by gnawing his own body into nothingness.

“Oh!” My teacher smiled broadly at my suggestion. “Great!”

The night before the show I read and reread the poem, wanting to get the intonation and rhythm just right. My parents looked on with pride. They had tested me early and put me a year ahead in school, and this was a sign they had made the right decision.

During the preparation for the show in the afternoon, I proudly clutched my copy of Silverstein’s poems, ready to show off my command of the English language. Ms. Flannery glanced at the book. “You’ve memorized it all?” she asked.

Memorized? “No,” I said uncertainly. “I thought I was supposed to read it out loud.”

“No!” Ms. Flannery said, her pretty face scrunching with disappointment. “Are you telling me you didn’t do it?”

“I don’t understand,” I muttered. “Memorize the whole poem?”

“That’s what you told me you would do….” She trailed off. “All right. Get into the hat sketch. You can dance with them.”

I slouched off, bewildered. I had never memorized anything, and I was sure that she hadn’t told me to. How could someone memorize such a long poem? I was sure some mistake had been made. Could the other kids do it? I was beyond them in reading, so I doubted it. But maybe I was defective in some way.

I danced across the small cafeteria room stage with a toilet plunger on my head, blankly mouthing the sing-song verse of the tiny poem, “Hat.” After the show, the yellow school bus took me home while I slumped in the seat.

“What happened?” my best friend, Johann, asked.

“She wanted me to memorize it,” I told him.

“That’s crazy,” he said, shrugging.

“I know.” Getting off the bus, I scuffed up the hill, through the garage, and into my parents’ kitchen. My mother was waiting. “How did it go?” she asked, smiling hopefully. “Did you read it?”

“Yes,” I lied dully, realizing that it was my first lie, that I was no longer a good boy, and that some vague hell now awaited me.

A month later my parents came to school for teacher conferences. After a few minutes waiting in the hall, I was called into the room.

“Why did you lie about reading the poem, Eric?” Ms. Flannery and my parents looked at me severely.

“I don’t know,” I said uncertainly. I was sure there was a good reason for it, even though my six-year old mind couldn’t voice it.

“It’s always better to tell the truth,” they told me. “We’re very disappointed in you.”

I stood there, blushing hotly, my shame slowly transforming to anger. I had lied, sure. But it wasn’t my fault. It couldn’t be Ms. Flannery’s fault, either, could it? She was so pretty and nice to me. The anger turned to confusion as we drove home. Had Ms. Flannery told them that she instructed me to memorize the poem? Did my parents think I lied about that, too? I was too confused to discuss it further, and just wanted to forget the whole thing.

I finished out the year with my extra sessions of junior-high material, but my heart was no longer in my schoolwork. Ms. Flannery married over summer break, and my class was invited to toss rose petals outside the church. I can still remember her perfume as she leaned in to kiss me wetly. The next year I read The Lord of the Rings, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and large chunks of the Bible, though not for school. In fact, I rarely ever worked towards academic achievement again, pretending to do homework and reading the next Shannara book instead. I consumed more and more, reading hundreds of books each year, living countless lives, thinking I was filling myself with words. But maybe I was chewing myself into oblivion.

Eric D. Lehman teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Bridgeport, and his essays, fiction, and reviews have been published in dozens of magazines, journals, and newspapers, from Gastronomica to Berfrois. He is the author of twelve books, including Shadows of Paris, Homegrown Terror, and Becoming Tom Thumb.