Allegory of the Thumb

Four years ago, the graduating class of 2012 selected me to deliver the commencement address as the faculty representative of Grafton High School. As we see another class of learners through their four years of high school, I pay tribute to students and educators, the survivors of Wisconsin’s proud, public schools, by sharing my speech with the world.


“Allegory of the Thumb”
Written and Presented by Brian Durst

Twenty-four hundred years ago, classical Greek philosopher Plato composed The Republic, an essay of Socratic dialogue examining education, justice, and the human condition. In one famous excerpt—“The Allegory of the Cave”—Plato challenges perception by showing how reality of the visible world is not always as it seems. He shares a story of deception, truth, intellect, and the potential of the human mind, particularly, if released from the shadows of our current existence. In similar fashion, but with far less sophistication, I have crafted an allegorical tale intended to educate as well as entertain. My purpose today is simple: to send you on your path to enlightenment by sharing some rules of thumb with an original piece entitled, “Allegory of the Thumb.”

I invite you to use your hand as a visual aid while you listen to the story…

Thumb’s infancy was full of helplessness, discomfort, and insecurity but he really did not know how to feel. In fact, Thumb spent much of his early days looking sickly, shriveled, and pale. Obviously, life sucked.

Early childhood was not much better. When winter weather attacked the Hand, even the protective Mitten left Thumb lonely, chilly…isolated. And while other digits grew and played silly games, Thumb was often neglected. Thumb could not dance on a piano or partake in finger paints; the clumsy clod could only wrestle or get in everybody’s way. The Fingers were less than impressed and remarked, “This stranger’s weird; he can’t be one of us.” By the time the Fingers learned to count to four, they declared a Thumb war.

Thumb went to grade school, eager to learn and maybe fit in for the first time. However, he soon discovered he was the shortest, thickest digit, unlike Fingers on the Hand. Pointer Finger immediately poked fun at Thumb’s flaws; on the first day of class she pointed out how he looked different than the rest. With merely two phalanges, as opposed to three, Thumb was not normal, and therefore, not accepted. Other Fingers in the class liked to call Thumb names that sounded funny. “Thummy, you’re a dummy!” those mean Fingers teased.

Naturally, Thumb was hurt—a lonesome digit destined for failure—never to fit in with the fabulous Fingers… forever a freak on the wrong side of the Hand. So, young Thumb grew confused and quiet. He refused to use his voice; without communication arts, never knew he had a choice…

Thumb dreaded recess most of all—everyone merrily playing. Classified as awkward, clumsy, and prone to error, he believed what the Fingers were saying. He wasn’t even smart enough to know what it meant to be labeled “all thumbs.” What an idiom! When it came time to organize teams for their playground games, Thumb thought, “Could life get any worse?”

Pointer was blessed with plenty of talents; of course, she typically picked first because she was the best. Pointer’s popular choice was Tall Boy, the center of attention; he was constantly in the middle of the action. The other team captain, and next to choose, was Mary J. Bling. She looked good in gold and liked shiny things. She paired off with Pinkie, her little buddy who was always at her side. Thumb could not understand why she would select a useless Finger, but Mary J swore she saw Pinkie’s promise.

“How can this be?” Thumb grumbled. “I just don’t get it. Pinkie serves a lesser purpose, than Pluto as a planet.”

So by the time teams were selected, and everyone on Hand was drafted, Smelly the Nose and the stubby Thumb were the only losers left. With great difficulty deciding who would fill the final spot, Fingers scratched on Head in contemplative thought. The outcome was most easy to predict.

Yes, you guessed it… Thumb got rejected…and Smelly the Nose got picked.

As more time passed, Thumb got smarter thanks to teachers like compassionate Ms. Heart and insightful Mr. Eye, but even the best could not make him learn; he often struggled to get by. They always preached rules and forced the facts, but could not teach him life. Other nice teachers gave helpful instruction, but bombarded him with worksheets and tests. They constantly compared him to better fingers like Pinkie and Pointer. Consequently, he never learned how to think or function, and relied on the support of his trainer to keep it together.

Thus, continued Thumb’s tiresome searches, wandering, waiting for a purpose. He felt lost–without direction–void of any worth. He pondered, “What gifts do I possess?” Indeed, he had no place to turn and did not know where to look; but now that he could read, he sought answers in a book.

While flipping through the pages, fearful of what he’d see, Thumb soon uncovered evidence of his identity. Carefully reading the words, Thumb discovered he was:

“OP-POS-A-BLE: one capable of being opposed, resisted, or fought.”

Defined by negativity… And, much as he expected, his existence was inconsequential. Thumb could not handle the thought, nor grasp his great potential.

Thumb trudged along on his meaningless journey–nearly broken by the system–after years of childish games. All the phonies, false and fake, ignorant and blind; note passers with letters, whispers and whiners, the world was so unkind. They never shared the standards on which he was wrongly judged. One simple lesson Thumb did learn: the stubborn would not budge.

At last, he met a teacher, the brilliant Mr. Brain, who engaged Thumb’s mind with hypothetical questions. Though clouded by caution, shrouded in doubt, Thumb wondered suspiciously, “Who is this man? What does he want? Why keep challenging me? And what’s his latest lesson plan? It sounds like Heads-Up-Seven-Up, but it surely couldn’t be…”

      “Clear your desks, close your eyes, heads down, thumbs up!”

Thumb followed these directions but surmised, “Mr. Brain must be killing time until another long day is done. What is the point of this elementary game of which I’ve never won? Sneaky classmates keep putting me down—I ask how is that fair? It’s just as I suspected; he simply does not care…

Or might he perceive what I cannot? What is this teacher’s vision? Will he catch those who try to cheat the game, or is he blindly unaware? Although he has experienced more than me and possesses greater wisdom, even he gets lost at times and seeks a guide on his climb up the mountain.”

Suddenly, Thumb’s thoughts were interrupted. Mr. Brain must have sensed Thumb’s unrest, and called him out by name.

      “Thumb, you have a choice to use your voice and now it’s time to share.”

At that very moment Thumb looked up and with a new perspective of the world, stood inspired and declared, “I may be opposable, and anticipate the worst, but I’m a special digit and deserve to be counted anatomically first! I serve a greater purpose and stand with new found pride—won’t lie beneath the surface, no longer shall I hide!”

That proclamation was all it took to send Thumb on his rightful way. Thumb no longer twiddled to let his boredom pass; with freedom he could hitch a ride or fill a car with gas.

By senior year, Thumb was filled with motivation, versed in literature and composition, and skilled in trades like fixing DIESEL engines. He opened his mind, grew respectful and kind, well-mannered, and mature—unlike simple freshmen Fingers, so easily amused; for, they act crudely, snorting rudely when fools bite on their Thumbs. In fact, at Thumb’s suggestion, Hand reassigned that vulgar gesture as one of Tall Boy’s duties. He, above all other Fingers, could deliver a big statement with an extended metaphor.

As his influence spread, Thumb recognized he possessed the power to judge and rate a Facebook “Like.” Suddenly sexy, they watched as he texted, and laughed at his witty Tweets. Thumb learned to press all the right buttons, unlike Elbows and Feet. With plenty talents to be celebrated, never again would he be degraded.

Later that year while paging through a philosophy book, Thumb read a novel idea. No matter how time dictates trends and society shifts the rules, he would forever be associated with the only word in the English language that never goes out of style. The essence of his identity:

Thumb is the quintessence of COOL.

To complete a hero’s journey, Thumb knew he’d have to make amends with his Finger friends. He made Pinkie swear to meet him halfway, and never do any more harm. There was no more drama with Mary J. Bling; she valued Thumb for his charm. Thumb and Tall Boy worked well together, their friendship was a snap. But no one quite compared to Pointer; Thumb quickly closed the gap. Said eloquent Thumb, smooth and refined, “Let’s get together and pinch a little sugar sometime…” (How’s that for a pick up line?) Together, this pair could now turn a key, spark a match to ignite a flame, and guide a pen to write poetry.

As Hand’s new inspirational leader, Thumb called all four Fingers together, and delivered a gripping speech. His message went something like this:

“Individually, we are merely five; but together, a mighty fist.”

While those words lingered, the world knew no Finger would leave a greater print…

I hope you enjoyed my simple story—even learned some lessons from the allegory, but everything has its limits. For much the same as all your teachers, one hand will never hold six digits.

And for the Big Toes in the graduating class who might be thinking they were snubbed… I did not intend to sound corny or callous, and I empathize. Although life creates friction and rubs you wrong, no one ever deserves to be stepped on or stubbed. So before I get too cheesy, please accept my sincerest praise; graduation is milestone, a most impressive feat.

To all of today’s honorees who have grown much wiser:
you no longer need your class adviser,
but hear these thoughts before I stop.
With one hand we may wave adieu,
but what if we would all use two?
Your warm applause do I invite.
So from your lap with Left and Right,
together at last,
let your hands unite.
And when your name is recognized,
rise from your seat, and receive your diploma with pride.
You earn respect and never forget:
every time you shake a hand,
always ends up on top.


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