I was a young parent when I first came across the popular board game Trivial Pursuit and I wanted no part of it. I wanted my children to learn important things, not frivolous ones, as the name of the game implied. This disinclination for things trivial has accompanied me all my life.
So what was I to do when the program director of the Chicago nursing home where I volunteer asked me one day to lead a weekly program called Trivia Quiz?
I couldn't say no to her, but how could I lead the program in a way that would seem right to me and still give residents pleasure? Well, I reasoned, I could compile questions on topics that seemed important to me, topics like world history, literature, the arts and see how it turned out. And, actually, it turned out quite well. The residents felt that they were being respected by the questions I chose to ask and I, old teacher that I am, enjoyed the feeling of giving the program more substance.
One day, in a bold burst of enthusiasm, I turned to the program director and suggested we give our program a new name. "And what might that be?" she inquired. "Worldly Knowledge," I playfully suggested. And that's what our program has come to be called.
Over the months and years, our program has also evolved in unexpected ways. Although still based on factual questions and answers, we often enter into the realms of insight and uplift. For example, a question on the author Mark Twain led us to discuss young Huckleberry Finn's decision to help the runaway slave, Jim. Having grown up in a society that considered this a mortal sin, Huck had to make a choice: to follow his heart or to follow the tenets of his society. "All right, then, I'll go to hell" was what he said when his compassion won out.
Another time, when we were on the topic of famous literary detectives, we recalled G.K. Chesterton's mystery series featuring the Catholic priest, Father Brown. In one story, Father Brown relentlessly pursues a criminal whose crimes are substantial. They are sworn foes. But when the criminal unexpectedly enters the church for a worship service and Father Brown catches sight of him from the pulpit, the priest turns to him and softly says, "My son."
Our forays into such places are especially satisfying. Not long ago, we were talking about Jewish American authors. One resident recalled Herman Wouk and his novel Marjorie Morningstar. An audible sigh of recognition arose in the room. Most of the residents had read the book when they were young. The story is about a young Jewish girl who dreams of living an artistic life. But as the years go by and things happen, that dream fades and Marjorie becomes what she once scorned - a conventional, albeit respectable suburban mother of four, and a Hadassah lady. "That's not so bad, is it?" one of the residents asked. And all of us, with perhaps just a trace of regret, concurred.
That's how, in moments like these, trivia became important to me.