let them eat cakeI’ve alluded to my relatively traumatic educational path in previous posts, a path that has residual effects to this day. There was my first day of school spent standing in the hallway, the time I made my French teacher cry, and the shock of learning that the class participation part of the grade required actually speaking up in class. But one of the most embarrassing was the infamous “let them eat cake” incident.

Whereas most high school teachers were closer to the age of my fellow students than retirement, Mrs. Lovely (and yes, that was her real name) was an older woman who had been teaching for forty years. She lived for the joy of stimulating the minds of impressionable adolescents.

In my sophomore year I had Mrs. Lovely for a course called “Contemporary Best Sellers.” Essentially the class was about reading. We were required to read something on the order of 15 to 20 books, which we could choose from a list she provided. Most were in fact contemporary, including a few by John Updike, a town resident at the time (I played soccer with his son), best known for his double-Pulitzer winning “Rabbit” series of books. Besides reading Updike and J.D. Salinger (who also had a salacious connection to the town), we could pick from many dozens of books, all of which were available in the library.

Being more than a little introverted (Translation: “had no social life”), I was quite the bookworm. I blew through the 15 required books and started racking up extra credit. Mrs. Lovely, ecstatic to find someone who enjoyed reading, started feeding me more and more books, enticing me like a drug dealer feeding an addict. Quickly running out of available contemporary volumes, she began suggesting obscure (and slightly more risqué) writers such as Mary Renault. I zipped through the depths of at least three of her historical fiction/Greek mythology based novels, then moved on to plenty of other authors I hadn’t heard of before Mrs. Lovely introduced them to me.

By semester’s end I had read 56 books.

Ah, but we couldn’t just read the books. For each one we had to write a short summary, replete with specific details that proved we had actually read and understood the book. These weren’t onerous – it had to fit on a standard 3″ x 5″ index card – but likely is why I still keep track of all the books I read and write reviews for many of them.

Here is where the difficulty came in. In addition to reading and writing the summaries, we would spend much of class time discussing the books being read. Students would be randomly (or perhaps arbitrarily) selected and had to be prepared to offer insight. Often Mrs. Lovely would pose a question to stimulate discussion.

“Can anyone tell us what Marie Antoinette said when the peasants rioted, complaining they didn’t have enough bread to eat?”

Yes, I know this, fist-pumping in my head. My hand shot up.

“Yes, Mr. Kent, what did she say?” The smile broadened on her face. Her star student was about to speak.

“Let them eat bread!” I exclaimed cheerfully, then immediately realized I had screwed it up.

“Well, close. She actually said ‘Let them eat cake!’ Thank you Mr. Kent.” The smile disappeared as she moved on to the next question. Snickers from around the room screamed decibels in my brain.

This watershed incident kept me silent the rest of high school, college, and into graduate school [See “B+ for A Work“] It was at this moment that I willed myself into invisibility. As the class returned its attention to Mrs. Lovely, I mentally pummeled myself from my seat along the windowed wall of the class, wondering if I would survive the fall (or if I wanted to survive the fall) should I decide to escape my ignominy. How could I have belted out the wrong phrase? Am I really that stupid? No, I knew the correct answer. I had “let them eat cake” on the tip of my tongue. Why did “bread” come out instead of “cake”? What is wrong with me? [This self-interrogation went on for the rest of the class, and probably for the rest of the day and week; in any case, long after the rest of the students had forgotten my existence.]

Only many years later did I come to understand how this had happened, and the reason seemed to explain many of the other issues I had had along my educational path. More on that in a later post.

P.S. Technically, there is no record of Marie Antoinette actually saying “Let them eat cake!” In fact, the original suggestion (likely untrue to begin with) was instead of “cake” she had said “brioche,” which is a luxury bread enriched with butter and eggs. In either case, the idea was that she was horribly out of touch with the plight of the masses, which might explain how she ended up being executed by guillotine along with her husband, the late Louis XVI. Which, ironically, led to the widespread use of a Shakespearean phrase, “Off with their heads!”

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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