31 March 2011

My Mock-Candidacy

I had initially planned to take Drama 2 as my self-indulgent elective during my senior year of high school; I'd taken Drama 1 as an arrogant freshman.  My sophomore and junior years, I took Child Care Services, initially on a lark with another classmate who thought it was a clever way to meet girls.  It turned out we were the only boys in the class, but it didn't get either of us anywhere.  Still, I got to read Dr. Seuss to a lot of appreciative pre-schoolers and that was kinda neat (I love me some Green Eggs & Ham).  When the time came to take Drama 2, though, my Drama 1 teacher had left for Texas and I found myself without any enthusiasm for her successor.  I decided, instead, to take political science.

Our main project for the course was to stage a mock election.  We were to organize into camps with presidential and vice-presidential candidates, with campaign managers and organizers and the whole nine yards.  We had nearly free reign of the school for our advertisements, which consisted primarily of poster boards taped to walls. Several of my classmates were pretty popular, but I immediately declared my candidacy for the mock-presidency anyway.  My first--and perhaps only important decision--was to lobby the head cheerleader to be my running mate.  She and I had sparred often over the years, dating back to middle school, but there was a mutual respect of sorts.  To my surprise, she accepted--despite the fact she could have easily been the top of her own ticket.  Why she agreed, I can't say, but I appreciated that she did.

My campaign staff did an enthusiastic job on my behalf, though obviously their own grades in the class mattered at least as much as my own performance in the mock election.  I recall a Letterman-style Top Ten list of reasons why voters should cast their ballot for me went over fairly well in the hallway.  Still, the most prominent poster for my campaign was actually crafted by one of my opponents.  It featured a photograph of cult leader Marshall Applewhite, who had recently led his followers to commit mass suicide believing they could catch a ride to Heaven on the passing Hale-Bopp Comet.  The caption on the poster read, "Vote for Travis McClain - My followers and I did!"  Because of my twisted sense of humor, many students thought I'd created the thing myself and every reaction I ever heard to it took it to be a positive thing for my campaign.

Not only was he crazy, he was dead when he endorsed my campaign.
Photo from ABC News website.
Eventually the time came for the debate between candidates in the school auditorium before much of the student body.  My VP and I had never really discussed any of our views on issues, and it crossed my mind that perhaps we would be exposed as contradicting one another in the course of the debate but I never approached her about it.  I trusted her to speak her mind, and I respected her enough that I figured I would have little problem supporting anything she said.  I was right to trust in her, as it turned out; she was terrific and I had to restrain myself from applauding her more than once.

The pivotal moment, I believe, came when we were asked about gay rights.  There were three Republican candidates (six, including the VPs), who got to respond to that question first.  One of the three offered an articulate, biblical-based condemnation of the LGBT community.  Another made a juvenile "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" joke that got far more laughter than it deserved.  I forget now how the third candidate responded.

I was the first of the Democrat candidates to reply, and I wasted no time blasting my opponents over their immaturity and narrow-mindedness.  I argued that, as a chronically single guy, I was disgusted enough seeing straight couples being affectionate in public (which garnered some laughs and helped get the audience back on my side), and that if I could stomach that, then surely anyone else could suck it up and accept gay couples.  Furthermore, I argued, one's religious beliefs were insufficient in a democracy to marginalize another person.  I still believe that.  Besides which, just being gay and accepted in public didn't mean that there would be gays having sex in public; there were laws against that kind of behavior regardless of orientation, and it was ludicrous to assert that simply being in public with a partner of the same gender was tantamount to lewd behavior.  By the time I was finished, I had turned laughter into applause; it was the strongest throughout the entire debate.

After the debate, I was approached by a fellow student.  I knew her by face and name, but we'd never socialized and I don't even recall us ever having any classes together.  She was known as an outed lesbian (though I never approached her about confirming this, so maybe she was bisexual).  She was visibly shaken, with wet eyes and a quivering voice and she simply said, "Thank you."  It took me by surprise, and it took me a moment to put together why she was thanking me.  She told me that she appreciated what I had said, and that it had been important for her to hear someone say those things.  I am not exaggerating when I tell you that was one of the most powerful moments in my life.  To think that my words--just spoken words, from a high school nobody--could be that important to another person...it gave me chills then, and it does now.
Never underestimate the power of your words.
I can't recall now for certain, but I think we took the vote the day after the debate.  As a candidate, it wasn't my task to run the polling table; that was left to some of my classmates.  I did, however, make sure to cast my own ballot.  It was painfully obvious that one of the popular candidates was stuffing the ballot box, quite shamelessly in fact.  I didn't bother to object; win or lose, my moment with my classmate after the debate had been my personal victory.  My teacher did pull me aside after the votes had been counted and a winner declared.  I had come in second, he made sure to tell me, and he was fully aware how rigged the voting had been and he believed that, in an honest election, I would have won.  My performance in the debate had demonstrated important skills, he told me, that could one day be of real value to me if I decided to pursue politics for real.  I never have run for an office, for a variety of reasons, but a part of me recalls that experience and wonders if there's not an alternate universe out there somewhere, in which that launched a political career for me.

I don't know how conscious my opponents were of our lesbian classmate's presence in the auditorium that day.  Maybe they were oblivious to her, and perhaps they would have spoken more respectfully had they realized she was there.  I don't know.  What I do know is that I'm glad theirs weren't the only words she heard that day, and I'm just a little bit proud that the words she heard that mattered came from my mouth.

I don't recount this experience for the sake of showing off.  Rather, I hope that maybe you've become more acutely aware how important it can be to someone else for you to speak up.  It doesn't have to be about LGBT issues.  Just remember that someone will hear you, and that your words can have an impact beyond your anticipation.

7 comments:

  1. I don't know if your guts would allow it, but I think you would make a great candidate for the local government. If I had to pick a position for you to run for, it would be the local school board. You have intelligence, common sense, and stand up for your beliefs. These are qualities that are lacking in most government offices. Just my two pennies...

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  2. It's nice of you to say all that. You were actually there that day, so I'd love to know how you saw/remember the debate.

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  3. I don't know if your guts would allow it, but I think you would make a great candidate for the local government. If I had to pick a position for you to run for, it would be the local school board. You have intelligence, common sense, and stand up for your beliefs. These are qualities that are lacking in most government offices. Just my two pennies...

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  4. Great essay, Travis ~ I really agree with you on making your words count! As many times as I have been successful with that, I shudder to think of the times I have misspoken.

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  5. Thoughtlessness happens, of course. Even I say things from time to time that are careless and with my dark sense of humor sometimes people who don't know me particularly well can really freak out over my words at face value, failing to appreciate the subtext or context behind what I say.

    All of that, though, is an entirely separate topic from what I combated in that high school debate. My opponents there did not speak carelessly. They spoke ignorantly, to be sure, but they did so with purpose. It is that kind of rhetoric which must be fought, tooth and nail, till it is vanquished. Just knowing what a difference my speaking out had for one classmate proved to me how powerful it can be for someone who is overwhelmed to know that someone else cares enough about their plight to fight alongside them.

    They say "talk is cheap," and they're right in that it doesn't cost a dime to open your mouth. But anyone who thinks this means that words have no value is flat-out wrong. The homophobic jokes of my opponents had the power to hurt our classmate, and I'm grateful I used my voice to fill her ears with words that had the power to encourage her.

    Anyone who thinks this a trivial thing has never made an impact on anyone sufficient enough to elicit the kind of reaction I got that day. When someone else tells you how important your words were to her, it reminds you how connected we all are to one another, and that there are things greater than ourselves. I can think of nothing more humbling or honorable than being told, "Thank you for what you said." It overwhelms me every time I hear it.

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  6. Kim Wilkinson10/30/2011 3:23 PM

    You would be a much better candidate than we have had in office in a long long time. I hope you are doing well.
    Kim Wilkinson

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  7. Thanks, Kim! Just remember you said this when I run for president in 2016! ;-)

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