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How Shel Silverstein Ruined my Life

Every teacher had a copy of it. It was a classroom staple. It won awards and literary acknowledgements at all levels. Anyone born between 1965 and 1980 has read it and had it read to them. Many can recite it. Everyone loved it. And it ruined my life.

The bright green binding of the book jumped out among all of the other more muted, subdued books on the shelf. It was in all of my classrooms from kindergarten to about 5th grade. It haunted me. That stupid, horrid book! The Giving Tree.

I’m quite convinced that hearing this story at the tender age of five planted the seeds that would blossom into an unhealthy suspicion of the intentions of everyone I would ever meet for my entire life. Each time it was read to me, or a teacher gushed about what a wonderful book it was, I would tilt my head to the side and wonder what kind of evil soul lurked within a person who could like such a tragic tale.

For the two people reading this who have never read or heard of The Giving Tree, let me give you a brief rundown. It’s the story of a selfish little bastard who uses his friend, the tree, repeatedly, ultimately sapping the tree of all life. No pun intended.

The horrid, little brat swings from the branches, carves into its skin, and feasts on the tree’s beautiful fruit. People say that the story is a tale of friendship, love and generosity. And I would tend to agree. If the relationship were even the tiniest bit reciprocal. However, not once in the story does the boy water the tree, give it fertilizer or express appreciation. He simply continues to use the tree, chopping off its limbs and leaving nothing but a stump. And to add insult to injury, he then plops his (now old) wrinkly ass atop the stump to rest after a busy life of using and abusing it.

How people can interpret this book as a wonderful lesson for children baffles me. The boy, who becomes a teen, an adult and an old man through the course of the story, is an ungrateful parasite who simply takes what he wants, when he wants it.

Each time the story was shared in a classroom, or at church, or highlighted with a special place of honor at the school book fair, it would reinforce the fact that everyone seemed to believe this sort of behavior was acceptable. I’m fully convinced that the story festered in my mind throughout puberty and had a significant influence on developing me into the paranoid, suspicious and mistrusting adult I am today.

Perhaps I’m giving the book too much credit. Maybe it’s just an excuse I use for sabotaging every relationship with ridiculous assumptions and unfounded fears. But, I must confess that on more than one occasion I’ve fantasized an alternate ending. An ending where the self-centered little rat gets what he deserves.

I’m not proud of this fact. I’m aware it makes me seem like an embittered and vengeful person. But once, just once, I’d love to see that tree drop a limb and smash the selfish ingrate.

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