When I was a junior in high school, the class met to nominate candidates to run for Student Council for our senior year. I was nominated to run for vice president, but I turned it down. I thought it might actually carry some responsibility. I was later nominated to run for court clerk, and someone quickly said that I had already turned down being a member of the Student Council. I said that I had turned down VP, but I would accept to run for court clerk. I think I was under the misguided impression that I could somehow use that position to make fake IDs for my friends so that we could buy beer. At any rate, I knew that there was no court and so being court clerk would not be very difficult.
I ran for court clerk and lead a vicious campaign against a kid named Claude Dis, who had recently emigrated from France and was really cool. All I remember about the campaign was that I had posters that had a huge picture of a turkey on them with a caption that read, “Would you vote for a turkey like dis?” For some reason I won the election and spent the better part of senior year unsuccessfully trying to abuse that position to make fake IDs.
Mr. Roberge was advisor to the Student Council.
Toward the end of the year the rising seniors were to hold their own elections for the positions on the Student Council. At a large assembly, outgoing members were to talk about their positions and introduce the new candidates. My fellow officials did their jobs. I think I was last, the lowest position on the Council. Anyway, I went out there in front of everybody and basically said that the court clerk didn’t do anything, that there was no court, and it really didn’t matter who they voted for. Then I introduced the two candidates who were to make their own pitches. I thought I was being truthful and cool.
As I exited the stage, I was met by a very angry Mr. Roberge. He took me aside and, mincing no words, chewed me out, up one side of the block and down the other. I can’t remember how long it took, and I can’t remember exactly what he said. But the gist of it was that he was very disappointed in me. That I had shown a lack of respect for the Student Council, for Bellport High School, for the teachers who had tried to educate me, to the juniors who were looking up to me. And I had shown a lack of self-respect–perhaps the most dangerous and inexcusable sin of all.
I was struck dumb. I was clubbed by the words, but really what burned into me was this man’s passion and emotion. This man—a man who had flown combat missions over Europe during World War II, who had faced death—he was angry about a speech about a low ranking position on the Student Council of a small high school, some place in New York, on a small planet, in a mediocre universe. I was forced to realize that I was missing something, and something fairly fundamental.
This man knew that you needed to care about the small things. If you didn’t care about the small things, you would be unable to care about the big things. Mr. Roberge somehow knew that I had contracted the disease of dismissiveness, the disease of not caring, the cancer of lack of self-respect. I cannot say that Mr. Roberge cured me of that on the spot; it is a very hard disease to cure. But since that day I have been much more aware of my struggles to be respectful and to respect myself. And I am much more aware of the presence of the disease in others.
I think on that day Mr. Roberge changed the itinerary, the arc of my life, by maybe a few centimeters. But that difference has accumulated over time, and I am not the person I would have been.
[Photo credit to Jon Anderson]
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