Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The Election

William Chen. He was my friend and I hated him. It was because William was my friend that I hated him.

Seventh grade. We were stationed in Taiwan. I attended the parochial school because the strict discipline and tough academics were notorious there.

The Beach Boys (their first time around) were cool. Straight blond hair was in. Beatle boots and pegged pants were still in. I.D. bracelets and initials for names were in. T.J. was a guy who had it all – blond hair, bracelet, black pointed-toed boots with zippers on the sides. T.J. got to bring his lunch in a brown bag instead of a cartoon lunch box. T.J. was so cool he went steady. He actually walked with his arm draped over his girl’s shoulder at school right in front of the nuns. The coolest thing of all was when he cried when he heard one of the Beach Boys lost his voice. Real tears he cried, blubbering sobs, and no one, but no one made fun of him. T.J. had it all. K.C. was almost as cool. He had dark hair but his parents let him wear it like the Beatles and he had his blue Parochial School uniform pants pegged.

It was not a very easy thing to be cool at Saint Vincent’s. The uniform was white shirt, dark blue pants purchased from an approved tailor, white socks and black shoes. The Dominican nuns were not given to admiring coolness. The cool guys always seemed to get away with being cool while the rest of us lived in fear of being told to get our hair cut or to go to the office to change into a set of ragged, one-size-fits-all clothes they kept in there to humiliate dress code violators.

William Chen was not a cool guy. Neither was I, for that matter. But William was goofy. He laughed like a chicken. He walked like a half-sprung pogo stick. He stood too close when he talked to people, maybe because he couldn’t see despite the slab of glasses that hung precariously on the end of his nose. His shirt tail hung out on one side, and you could always tell what he had for lunch from the front of his shirt. One sock was always at half mast. William was the Black Plague on whomever’s social life he invaded; you were a dead man if you were infected with his presence. William was so goofy he wasn’t even pitied. William was not cool. William was my friend.

It was not that I solicited his friendship, you understand. I guess I looked vulnerable and he simply fell in step with me one day on the way to recess and I never seemed to be able to ditch him. Perhaps I could have tried harder but I didn’t have the nerve that the cool guys had when it came to William. So it was William and I, with our own table at lunch, last ones picked at P.E., science and bus ride home partners. I didn’t particularly hate him then. But I didn’t enjoy him, either. Not him specifically; I got used to his chicken cackles and quirkiness. I didn’t enjoy what his presence implied about me. You know, birds of a feather. Maybe it was that I was goofy, too. Maybe I was just one rung up on the ladder from him and had gotten social pity that I had always mistaken for acceptance. It was beyond terror to think maybe William was my only true friend.

It came the season for class officer elections at Saint Vincent’s. Before I tell you about the meaning of the election, I must spend a moment explaining the sociology of and the procedure governing the elections.

First the sociology. Everyone knew class officer elections had both everything and nothing to do with the cool guys. It was just innately understood that the cool guys were too cool to be class officers. Thus they never got nominated and got no votes. But they voted. And so did everyone else. If nominated one need not win but just get a respectable show of votes. Votes meant affirmation, votes were a pronouncement of status, and votes were a witness to one’s place in a pitiless society.

Now the procedure. We nominated to candidates, Sister Mary Ellen put the names on the board. We voted by raising our hands. The candidates put their heads down as the vote for their office was counted, thus they would not see how many votes they got. The Sister would write the numbers next to the names and before the candidates were allowed to raise their heads to view the results, the losing candidates’ names and votes were erased so none would know how many votes they got. Of course there was nothing keeping the losers from asking their friends how many votes they got, except maybe embarrassment.

Class officer elections meant nothing more to me than a half of a morning without academics. But this morning they meant everything to me. William Chen nominated me for class president.

I was a realist. I could face the fact that I would not win against the likes of Mike Esmark or Pat Grady. Mike had been class president since fifth grade. His re-election in
subsequent years was insured when he offered to take six swats from Swingin’ Sister Jude so the whole class would not have to do extra homework for a week for being rowdy in the lunchroom. She gave him the swats, we did no homework and Mike was president for three years running. I had no such platform on which to run, so I knew I would not win.

I truly had no desire to win except the crazy “wouldn’t it be great if” that you feel when you have no hopes. I did have a delirious desire to know the vote, an exhilarating fear and dread of knowing where I stood, William Chen notwithstanding, what my true place was, to have my existence acknowledged and affirmed by my peers, yea, even the cool guys, or at least a couple of them.

And it came our turn to put our heads down, foreheads on the forearm, while our names were called and votes were counted for president of the class.

Mike Esmark. A rustle of sleeves, a rumble of shifting postures, a long pause, chalk scuffing and tapping on the board. Double digits.

Steve Robinson. I listened, my ears acute with fear and hope, and nothing save a distant choked laugh from the back of the room. I could not help it; insane with dread, I opened my eyes and peeked over the top of my forearm. Though I could only see two-thirds of the class I knew what the remaining one third looked like. There, grinning like porpoise, sat William Chen. A solitary hand raised high and proud for his best friend. And I hated him.

I don’t recall Pat Grady’s name even being called, so consumed with hate I was, and with the single scratch of the chalk on the board roaring in my ears.

Oh, William Chen, how I hated you that day. Had you not called my name I could have lived gladly, perhaps with suspicions and dread, but blissfully, even willfully ignorant of what I truly was. Had you not called my name I would not be the object of giggling lunchroom derision and the butt of merciless playground hilarity. I would not be numbered with the lowest and least and fools. William, with your hand held high that day, solitary in your acceptance of me, you killed me, and I hated you. You were my only friend and I hated you.

But now, William, I love you I know now you were truly a Christ to me. You were the gospel incarnate, a living word making straight the way of the Lord within me. You see, years later another came to me, one who also despised and rejected of men. He said he came to be the friend of the last and lowest, the sinners and outcasts. Like you, William, he called my name. Mine. He called my name and I could no longer avoid knowing the dreadful truth about myself that I feared. Through him I knew what I truly was. I knew by his call that I, too, was numbered with the lowly and the fools, the rejects and the sinners. He was not cool, nor was I, but this time it mattered not to me because I did not hate him.

This One was Jesus Christ, William. His call is a call of grace. His gospel is the story of a friend like you. It is of God who took on legs of flesh and fell in step with and, yes, fell in love with the outcasts. It is of one who was rejected by all but will not reject any. It is of one who seeks and finds and will not be ditched by those he chooses to befriend. It is of one whose presence means our death in this world but who turns out to be the only life there is. It is of a friend who will endure our hatred of him until we learn to love.

This is of my friend who, even knowing what I truly am, called my name one day. And on that day he raised his hands, nailed high and proud, in solitary acceptance of me.

William, meet Jesus, my other friend. And I love him.


Teri Anna said...

You've taken my perfectly horrible day, and put it in perspective. Why do you have to do that?

Philippa said...

s-p, you make me laugh and you make me cry. you are a gift! thanks.

Anonymous said...

s-p, I forwarded this post to my wife. It really touched me.

You're a great writer. Thanks for sharing.

Fr. Christian Mathis said...

Wow Steve, you are making me want to go back and read through all of your old posts.....or maybe you can keep posting them on Sundays!

Anonymous said...

That Christian is a rascal! Walks them hills like a mad man.

Anonymous said...

David told me Christian survives on fried hog mush and corncob jelly on those hikes. He is a mad man!

Anonymous said...

I been hiking along the Appalachian Trail,
Eatin’ hog mush and drinkin’ my ale.
Flickin’ my Bic and smokin’ all the way,
I been climbing those ridges all the livelong day,

Singin’: “Yo, yo, I’m a hikin’ man,
Hey, hey, I do what I can,
Walkin this trail all the livelong day
I’ll keep on hiking no matter what you say!”

I been hiking from cabin to the old fork road,
Stop every night just to lighten my load,
Puffin on my cigs almost everywhere,
So please don’t tell Smoky the Bear.

Singin’: “Yo, yo, I’m a hikin’ man,
Hey, hey, I do what I can,
Walkin this trail all the livelong day
I’ll keep on hikin’ no matter what you say!”

I’m a Chattanooga man through and through,
Like singin’ that song about the old chew, chew,
Started wearin’ shoes when I was 20 years old,
That’s about the time I hit the road.

Singin’: “Yo, yo, I’m a hikin’ man,
Hey, hey, I do what I can,
Walkin this trail all the livelong day
I’ll keep on hikin’ no matter what you say!”

Anonymous said...

I hail from Tennessee where the corn does grow
Grew up in a trailer and in school I was slow
My daddy was a county deputy man
My momma drunk malt liquor from a bottle or a can

I knew I was different from and early age
One dead giveaway was the need for a cage
My momma told me “Son, you are a hand full!”
And things got worse when I started school

I wasn’t very smart at English or Math
And wasn’t much liked ‘cause I never took a bath
The girls all laughed when I entered the room
I knew then and there I would never be a groom

Things at home were a sorry sight
My momma and my daddy just loved to fight
They broke everything in our double-wide
And if that weren’t enough, they took it outside

Our neighbors would stand and watch with delight
Betting on the winner of this nightly fight
Sometimes it was daddy ‘cause he’s a strong man
But sometimes momma with her fryin’ pan

Yes, I hail from Tennessee where the corn has its spot
Where the days are long and the weather’s real hot
Where trailers and junk cars sprawl over the range
And somehow things just never seem to change