Patriotically Incorrect

January 9, 2011

In high school, our Government class was given a debate project.  We were assigned partners and would debate another team on one of the issues of the day.  (We reinforced the popular misconception that there are only two sides to any given issue.)

Due to an odd number of students, my team had three people.  One was Mark Bender.  I never called him Mark, just Bender; it was easier to growl “Bender” than “Mark.”  Bender was weird and talked about weird things, if one bothered to speak with him.  He was in most of the egghead classes with me.  His mission in life, as far as I knew, was to best me on tests.  Nothing made him happier than waving his higher test grades in my face.  As long as I kept my test grades higher, I could haughtily ignore him.

The third member of our team was Curtis.  I didn’t remember his last name was Godbey; I had to look it up.  Curtis wasn’t in most of my classes.  He was in special education classes.  I’m not someone who travels well outside my comfort zone.  My chosen approach to not insulting Curtis, and avoiding embarrassment for myself, was to not engage him in conversation.

All told, I didn’t care if I had any partners at all.  I was on my school’s debate team.  I was so good, I could argue with people about what time it was.  What did I need with partners?

Bender and I called off hostilities long enough to prepare for our debate topic.  We kindly (rudely?) didn’t disturb Curtis with the project.  He would get a free ‘A,’ so long as he didn’t say anything to screw us up.  Wasn’t that charitable of us?

Our topic was flag-desecration.  Bender, Curtis and I were to argue against an anti-flag-burning amendment.  Even though I probably would have voted for the sainthood of Ronald Reagan at the time, I knew we had the upper hand on the issue from the get-go.  Certainly there are plenty of passion-driven arguments why flag-burning should be outlawed.   I’m sure I agree with most of those arguments—I pay little heed to people seeking attention by burning a flag.  But it’s inherent to our national value system that peaceful protest must be protected under our laws, in whatever form it takes.

On the day of our debate, I was pumped up and primed.  I would lay waste to their passion and mow down their arguments with the sword-edge of my logic.  I even had props: flags printed on packaging, bumper stickers and baby toys—incidental desecrations that happened every day.

We were supposed to sit on opposite ends of a table to present our arguments.  When it was my turn to speak, I announced that I felt more comfortable standing, conducted my honorable self to the center of the table and leaned my pompous ass on it.

I don’t remember the arguments against flag-burning that day.  I don’t even remember who was arguing it.  But I remember it was puréed by my rhetoric.  “Can you throw away packaging with flags on it?  Can you burn them?  Is it OK to burn fireworks with flags on them?  Where should this line be drawn exactly?”

An obligatory question and answer time was allotted at the end of each debate.  Our classmates stared apathetically at their shoes and watches, waiting for the torture to end.

A small yet determined voice spoke up behind me, “If you bought the flag, why can’t you do whatever you want with it?”

It was Curtis.  I was stunned.  Speechless that he had said something so … right.  Never able to hold a poker face, my expression gave it all away.  As simple and elegant as the question was, it had not been my idea.  Curtis had a different take on the issue—one that I had overlooked.

A gasp swept through the room, “Daaaamn!  Curtis burned ’em!”

I don’t remember whether I said any word of congratulations to Curtis after the debate.   I doubt that I apologized for not including him when we were preparing.

This episode came back to haunt me later in life.  Because I was arrogant.  Because I ostracized someone I considered dumb.  In reality, I was just afraid.  Afraid of talking with someone I had nothing in common with.

Our teacher didn’t give Bender or me any grief for obviously excluding Curtis from the project.  We got our venerated ‘A’; it was unscathed.  But somehow the ideal it was supposed to represent—that students from diverse backgrounds could contribute to a project, learn together and learn from each other—got trampled in the process.

I suppose one could argue that I’m still learning from my high school experience.  That later in life I caught the significance of this story and gained a new perspective.  I did—now instead of avoiding contact with people who don’t meet my superficial standards, I just avoid contact with everyone.

I’ll be pleased to meet Maturity someday.  I hope it speaks intelligently and wears something fashionable.


One comment

  1. :-)

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