I started reading before I turned three. At first there were picture books, of course, but as my skills grew, I moved on to old favorites like Berenstein Bears and Dr. Seuss rhymes.
My mom encouraged my reading - sure, she was proud of it, but I secretly think it was also because when I was reading, that was a period of time where she didn’t have to watch me and she could go do grown-up things.
So it’s no surprise that "Matilda" was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. I mean, of course it was. In my head, I was Matilda, minus the telekinetic powers. Occasionally when I was bored, I would stare really hard at an object, willing it to move just ONE CENTIMETER, because I was convinced that if I just tried hard enough, I was smart enough to move things too.
Let’s be clear. I’m not smart enough to move things with my mind.
Matilda Wormwood is a bonafide girl genius who lives in England (and please, let me just apologize now for how enthralled I am with all the English slang I put in this article. I wrote it not only after a fresh reread, but also during a weekend where I had a real live actual Englishman crashing at my apartment and it took a lot for me not to ask him to just keep saying words, any words at all).
Matilda is blessed with a thirst for reading and knowledge, but also saddled with jerk parents who don’t care about her at all. Her father is a crooked used-car salesman with dirty tricks, like mixing sawdust with oil to make the engine sound more robust, and her mother stays at home and watches soap operas all day.
She knows it’s wrong to hate her parents, but Matilda just can’t help it. She wants them to better themselves, to turn off the telly and eat at a table instead of TV trays, to stop snookering people out of their hard-earned money. And it certainly doesn’t help that her parents constantly tell her that she’s ignorant and stupid just because she prefers to read books instead of their choice of leisure time.
After a few particularly poisonous discussions, Matilda determines that she needs to have a couple of victories. I get it, girl. Sometimes when life isn't going your way, you just need ONE THING to go right so you don’t explode into a thousand bits of anger and frustration. So she decides to have a go at her parents. She superglues her father’s rakish pork pie hat to his head, and she wedges a very talkative parrot up the chimney and pretends that it’s a ghost, scaring her whole family.
After her father accuses her of cheating on a math problem (saying that nobody could do that math in their head, especially not a GIRL), she swaps out his “oil of violets hair tonic” for her mother’s platinum blond hair dye. I’m pretty sure this was also the plot of a Full House episode.
Soon it’s time for her first day of school. All over my Facebook these days, there have been loads of photos of tiny beaming children with oversized backpacks and tearful status updates from moms lamenting the passage of time. Matilda’s first day of school was none of that - in fact, her parents forgot to even register her at first. But nevertheless, off she goes to Crunchem Hall Primary School, headed by the formidable and cruel Miss Trunchbull.
God. Those names. Crunchem Hall. Trunchbull. PERFECTION.
Matilda’s teacher is Miss Honey, who is just as sweet as her name. On Matilda’s first day, she totally becomes teacher’s pet by doing maths in her head and reading and making up limericks, much to the astonishment of her instructor. Miss Honey immediately goes to Miss Trunchbull’s office to report this GENIUS ALERT, but Miss Trunchbull, poisoned by made-up stories by Matilda’s father (and also because she’s just generally a nasty person and hates children), believes it’s a ploy by Miss Honey to get the positively beastly Matilda out of her class and says NOPE, NOT BLOODY LIKELY.
Undaunted, Miss Honey takes it upon herself to independently teach Matilda with higher-form textbooks. And Matilda also learns some lessons from her crisps-crunching classmates during recess. Things like what The Chokey is - a tall, narrow punishment cupboard with walls made of cement with bits of broken glass sticking out of them.
SIDENOTE: Broken glass is legit one of my top ten fears. Like any time a glass breaks, I lose all sense of reason and logic, convinced that slivers of glass are going to enter my bloodstream through my feet and travel to my heart, making little cuts in my veins all the way so I bleed out FROM THE INSIDE. I don’t know where this fear came from, I just know I’ve had it for years and years and years, even before I read Matilda for the first time, so The Chokey is TOTALLY a NIGHTMARE CLOSET for me.
Another thing Matilda learns is that The Trunchbull threw the hammer for Britain in the Olympics and likes to keep her arm in shape by throwing children over the fence. And in one of the book’s most famous scenes, she sits in assembly, watching in awe as a boy named Bruce Bogtrotter is punished for nicking a slice of cake. Only he’s punished in the MOST ACE WAY POSSIBLE: he has to eat an entire chocolate cake. Yeah, what a terrible way to punish children, Trunchbull. JOLLY GOOD.
During a lesson taught by Trunchbull, the first miracle happens. Matilda, WITH HER MIND AND FURY, tips a glass of water with a newt inside onto Trunchbull. She’s awed with this display of power and goes to Miss Honey, who goes all Mr. Miyagi on her and helps her understand her newfound ability over tea in her quaint wooded cottage.
Turns out Miss Honey is poor poor poor, and Matilda can tell this because she uses margarine on their bread for tea. My mom bought margarine and for some reason, this snippet has stuck with me for years. The minute I could afford to buy myself real butter, I did (and still do). It makes me feel like my inner Matilda approves.
Anyway, Miss Honey tells Matilda her life story over their twee little tea. Apparently, she’s the daughter of a posh doctor, raised by her aunt and father. A few years after her mother died of illness, her father mysteriously killed himself, and a faux will said the house and money was left to the aunt. Miss Honey was terrified into submission by the domineering aunt, beaten and forced to clean and cook. Even when she was older and became a teacher, the aunt bullied Miss Honey into signing over all of her teacher’s salary into the aunt’s bank account.
We all know where this is going.
YES! AUNTIE TRUNCHBULL! BLIMEY!
Matilda is determined to save her favorite teacher from her life of poverty, and she’s going to use her newfound telekinesis powers to do so. During another lesson taught by The Trunchbull, she uses chalk to write a message from the ghost of Miss Honey’s father, asking Miss Trunchbull to GTFO and give Miss Honey her wages and the house.
The Trunchbull flees and Miss Honey moves into the big house and inherits her father’s savings.
Matilda is moved into a higher-form class where she excels, and she finds she’s no longer able to move things with her massive Krang brain because she’s finally being challenged. The two spend time together drinking tea and hanging out, becoming besties.
And in fact, when Matilda’s family has to jet off to Spain because her father’s used car business turns out to be a stolen car front, she decides to stay with Miss Honey. And they live happily ever after, all tickety-boo.
I’m not one for self-help, new-agey things. But I sometimes feel like the universe knows exactly when we need something, even if we don’t actually know that we need it. I’m not talking about 4 p.m. OH GOD I NEED AN ICE CREAM SANDWICH type of need (though universe, if you want to deliver me an ice cream sandwich every day at 4 p.m., I’m cool with that). I’m talking about straight-up-gonna-fix-your-life help.
Here’s the thing: Miss Honey was squeaking out a tiny existence on four pounds a month, sleeping on the floor and eating margarine. Matilda was frustrated with adults being nasty to her and her scholarly boredom. They met each other at the precise time in their lives to benefit both of them: Matilda’s frustration created her telekinesis powers, which helped Miss Honey get out of her predicament, which helped Matilda shake her boredom.
And then eventually, because of this, they both find a loving family.
Call it the universe reaching down its hand to move players into place, call it fate, call it divine intervention, call it whatever you want. Sometimes all it takes is just one tiny thing (or person in this case) to change your life. Sometimes you should let it.