A little while ago, I wrote about seeing Bill Clinton speak at Radio City.
About a week prior to that, there was a Moth Slam with the theme "Respect" which inspired a story that I would've told a very short version of had my name been picked...
Little kids are generally pretty open and trusting. I was especially so. I always just assumed the best of people. I mean, the adults in my life were always loving, caring, good and true, protectors, providers and educators. I never encountered physical violence. My needs were always met. I had it pretty darn good, so I just took it for granted that people were honest and nice and the world was "the right way." Obviously, that innocence couldn't last forever, and I think I actually recall the exact moment when it suffered its first blow. It was a minor one in the grand scheme of things, but it was the seed...
My third grade teacher was a kindly woman about 60 years old, who had a reputation among the school kids for being "the best teacher in the school!" This had little to do with her ability to teach math and more to do with the sorts of things that mattered to 8-year-olds: she was fun. She turned almost all her lessons into games, or art-projects, or just wacky special "activities." She really was creative and she clearly loved us. And you couldn't help but love her back. After all, being in her class was like constant play-time! When the weather was nice, we'd go outside and she'd teach us these crazy games she'd invented, most of which made use of that school-yard staple big red rubber ball. The only one I remember was "Kickball-basketball" which actually was a bizarre mash-up of the two normally separate games. And somehow, in the midst of all the goofiness, I'm sure she did manage to expose us to the required 3rd-grade curriculum, as boring as that must've been for her.
One day, a few months into the school year, she was writing something on the chalkboard, and I thought I noticed a misspelled word. The word "challenge." Now, given the fact that she was the teacher and teachers know how to spell words, plus the fact that she was always turning everything into little games, I figured her misspelling of the word 'challenge' was intentional and must have been a challenge to see if we would notice. So I raised my hand and pointed it out.
She played along, pretending not to know what I was talking about. "Oh really? A word is spelled wrong you say? Which one?" She was obviously setting me up for the win, and I was actually kind of excited as I told her which word it was, pleased and proud that I was the one who figured out this latest little puzzle of hers. I expected her to respond with something like "Very good! You figured it out!" But instead, she said that no, the word was correct, and that I was making a mistake.
I really thought I was right and I persisted, but she still said I was wrong. Baffling! It seemed a teacher was intentionally trying to convince us of something incorrect. How can that be? Doesn't that go against the laws of physics or something? Maybe I was wrong after all. But I really could've sworn... Still, she was the teacher, and I was just a little kid. What did I know?
I knew how to spell the freakin' word "challenge" is what I knew, so I started reaching for my dictionary, just to make sure. Seeing this, she said "Yes, everybody, why don't we take this opportunity to look it up in our dictionaries..."
And when everyone's dictionary ended up siding with me on the matter, she reached for the eraser, and fixed the word on the blackboard. And then never called on or spoke to me again for the rest of the school year.
She only gave me the cold shoulder, the occasional frown and some active hostility a few times (after which she always made a point of being extra sickly sweet to the very next student she had to interact with). I guess spending her entire adult life with 3rd-graders, she'd never felt the need to be subtle. She'd obviously been embarrassed by what had happened, but it's not like I'd set out to embarrass her intentionally. I mean, come on... really? An experienced professional school teacher is gonna hold a grudge against a freakin' 8-year-old? For a whole school-year? For not even doing anything! For being a good proofreader! What? The? Fuck?
I gotta say, it did become a pretty miserable year for me, having to sit in that formerly fun classroom, now unable to interact with my teacher in any remotely normal way.
(Pick the one best answer...)
What was 8-year-old Jon supposed to learn from the experience described above?
A) To respect one's elders
B) Not to correct the mistakes of an elder
C) Despite being in positions of authority, adults are only human, have feelings and sometimes make mistakes. Don't take it personally if they disappoint you.
D) Adults cannot be trusted and might not deserve respect.
E) Kill, kill, kill!
Now, it's not like slogging through that year just flipped a switch inside my brain and I instantly lost all respect for authority. But it subconsciously got the ball rolling.
After that, I started noticing more ways in which I felt I couldn't trust "the man." The ball kept picking up steam. I remember consciously deciding that the institution of public school itself was completely suspect -- not really geared toward enriching the lives of students, but merely conditioning them to become docile consumer-worker-drones later in life. I was maybe 12 years old by then.
Puberty hit and I found I could believe less and less of what the adults around me were saying. My disrespect snowballed. I also couldn't believe Americans were stupid enough to vote for the skin-puppet Ronald Reagan. I couldn't believe the shit I was being taught in the religious education (Hebrew School) classes I was forced to take, leading up to my Bar Mitzvah. I lost respect for my country and my family and my religion and whatever else you got.
My personal avalanche continued to slide. I was a stubborn unreachable kid. I couldn't take anybody's word for anything and thus had to learn everything for myself... always the hard way. The conclusions I came to were usually pretty hasty (surly arrogant teenagers aren't exactly known for their foresight and I had less than most). Case in point: I decided dropping out of High School was the way to go. (Though, I'd probably do that again, actually.)
As I grew angrier and more disaffected, I took ever greater pleasure in openly mocking and defying all authority figures whenever the opportunity arose, arrogantly wearing my disrespect like a badge of honor. I never took a steaming dump on the hood of a cop-car, or punched a cop in the face or took a steaming dump on a cop's face or anything, but I certainly wasn't acting with any regard for my long-term future. One might say there was an element of self-sabotage to my behavior in general. In fact, many people did say that. Repeatedly. Of course, I didn't trust anyone but myself because everybody else was so stoopid. I'd like to say that this self-sabotage reached maximum when I dropped out of school (the first time), but that was nowhere near the level of the things that were to come. Regardless, at any given moment, I had nothing but scorn and derision for everyone from my own parents, on up to the leading politicians of the day and every authority figure in between.
So imagine my surprise when many years later I found myself covering politics for an extremely prominent TV channel's online division, being flown out to Los Angeles for the year 2000 Democratic National Convention. Just fuckin' crazy.
The second to last night of the convention, President Clinton was delivering the keynote speech, and afterward there was going to be a huge lavish party thrown in his honor -- a fund-raiser for the Democrats hosted jointly by Daimler-Chrysler Corporation and the UAW. My supervisor at work (a great guy named Ethan) had friends in Clinton's White House, and he scored us access to the event.
Now, I knew I'd probably "stick out" a bit at an event like that. I mean, I look like... well... me. Goateee, neck tattoo, t-shirt 'n' jeans, sneakers. I think I looked even more severe that night wearing all black, and extra scruffy. But I pride myself on being able to get along with absolutely anybody, from Kings and Queens to the scum of the earth (to quote an old SNL sketch). Though, given the choice, I might prefer hangin' with the scum than with the Royalty. (Ahh, same thing.) Anyway, upon entering the venue, I turned to Ethan and joked, "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm the only High School dropout here, aren't I." He said, "Haha... yep, probably."
So we mingled, and ate the little crab-puffs, and after a while Ethan found me again in the crowd. Ethan was a bit of a photographer. He'd gotten his camera out and explained that the president was about to arrive. When that happened, a receiving line would spontaneously form by the door, made up of people who all wanted to shake his hand and say hello, just so that they could say they shook the president's hand.
ME: Really? Seems pretty silly. (then under my breath) Ego bullshit.
ETHAN: It is. Do me a favor and get on the line too.
ME: I thought you agreed it was silly.
ETHAN: I did. But I wanna get a picture of you shaking his hand. It'll make a great [and by that I'm sure he meant "hilarious"] snapshot.
ME: Ah! I can get with that. Okay then, here I go!
So I joined the line, already pretty long.
Well, soon enough, in walked the President of the United States. He was just coming off his speech, which I'd watched of course, and was looking pretty haggard, sorta deer-in-the-headlights staring, a bit shell-shocked. I'm sure he'd been working and partying his ass off all week long. Still more to go. And the eager throng of sycophants, you know, thronged at him. Everybody was all: "Mr. President! Mr. President! So nice to see you Mr. President! I don't know if you remember me, Mr. President, I'm sure you don't remember me, of course--"
BILL: No, no... you look kinda familiar--
THRONG: Well, it was a few months ago in Michigan and we talked briefly about blah blah blah!
BILL: Oh, uh huh. Great.
THRONG: Mr. President! Mr. President!
BILL: That's my name, don't wear it out.
THRONG: It's such a pleasure to meet you Mr. President!
BILL: Well, it's a pleasure to meet you too.
THRONG: Mr. President... Just reminding you that I need to tell you about that thing...
BILL: What thing?
THRONG: You know... that thing you wanted me to get from--
BILL: Oh right... the thing. Yes... I'll find you later.
THRONG: Very good Mr. President.
So Bill just keeps shell-shocking his way slowly down the line, clasping hands with everyone, sometimes two people at a time, making eye contact, not making eye contact, too many people, can't pay attention to all of them equally, some are louder and more insistent than others, but he's trying to be there for everybody, and he's slowly approaching my position in line. It occurs to me that I'm probably gonna have to speak to him as I shake his hand, the hand of the President of the United States of bloody America, the ultimate authority figure.
Ooohhhh... oooohhhhh... I could feel the urge to do something totally inappropriate, or at least to speak truth to power, welling up inside me. Oh my god... what was I going to do? In the past, I sometimes had no idea what I was gonna do until I felt myself jump onto the conveyor belt and ride it through the baggage claim area of Logan Airport (yes, I actually did that, including where it went into the wall). So now, faced with such a gigantic opportunity to both make an anti-establishment statement and simultaneously destroy my life, how could I possibly resist!?! It was gonna take all the strength I could muster just to remain even remotely... you know... normal! But normal in this case means addressing him using the proper protocol: "Mr. President." I could keep myself from making a scene, but I didn't think I could bring myself to show him the full and proper respect due his position. I mean, I was fine with Bill Clinton the person, but I didn't particularly respect the office of President (which I imagine was the inverse of the feelings of many people in the country post-Lewinsky).
I decided to be as nice as I could. I had seen his keynote speech. I had liked it. I could compliment him on that and be done with this ridiculous situation that was suddenly stressing me out so much over simply having to behave... properly... erk! Must... not... try... anything... stupid! Secret... service... agents... will... shoot me! Here... comes... Bill...
As he shuffled past me, his hand sort of automatically reached out and shook mine. He didn't even get a chance to look at me. I only said two words: "Nice speech." But I was being sincere. I accompanied the two words with that little tight-lipped almost-smile and slight head nod that generally indicate in the least sentimental fashion possible: "I acknowledge your existence in this moment of our mutual spacetime proximity." It wasn't a fawningly "appropriate" and "respectful" greeting for the President of the United States. Instead, it was exactly the level of genuine respect for our shared humanity that I would show a brother on the street.
Bill didn't respond. I couldn't be sure he'd even heard me, what with so many other people clamoring for a moment of his attention. He continued down the line. But then, several handshakes later, he paused, and to my utter surprise he turned back, looked me right in the eye and answered my two words with two of his own. He said, "Thanks man," (the casual vernacular I prefer) completely sincerely. He accompanied those two words with the same little tight-lipped almost-smile and slight head nod.
Then he turned back forward and continued the greeting and the shuffling and the shaking and the shmoozing.
I couldn't bring myself to address him on his level. But he was perfectly willing to address me on mine. He even went a little out of his way to do so. I was impressed. It was humbling. Much respect.
Much respect, y'all.