EM Reprint: Someone Had to Say It

28 11 2009

(Originally published May 22, 2006)

As the year rolls along, I am doing my best to avoid the standard petty squabbles that flare up either in “real life” or on the internet. There are plenty of things to be outraged by at any given moment, but is outrage a solution unto itself? Or is what I will call “right action” the better option?

I have not tucked myself away into a “bubble” per se, but for example I have structured my web feeds in Bloglines in such a way that mere “squabbles” stay off of my radar screen until they escalate into something more substantial, and presumably worth the calories to fuss over. Or someone else will have fussed over it in such a way as to define the issue and what sort of “right action” might remedy the situation. I am noticing my overall health improving as I am not worrying over what usually amounts to petty bullshit.

This morning I was alerted to the story of a student at the New School who decided to abandon her prepared remarks for this year’s undergraduate keynote address, and instead go “off script” to speak to Senator John McCain, who was present to deliver the commencement speech – which is to say, the speech that he is presently touring on.

More about this story (from the speaker) may be read at The Huffington Post.

Not having been there for this event, and relying on first and second-hand accounts after the fact, I can say from my own experience that it is a tough and gutsy decision to go off the reservation before the entire school and ask the tough questions.

I attended two different high schools, due to my father’s job moving to another suburb mid-way through my high school term. I had to start over at a new school and try to work my way into and around a pre-established social heirarchy that dated back well before my appearance on the scene. I managed to adjust, although I don’t particularly feel any connection to John Hersey High School any more than the school as a whole felt any connection to me. Starting over did have some advantages, and certainly gave me the opportunity to shuck some excess baggage and move on.

As a result of this displacement, I missed out on the requirement to read Hiroshima by John Hersey. Equally so, the rest of the school was spared having to read The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck. Parenthetically, I’m not a fan of “required reading”, especially in High School, when you have a generally contrarian audience that will go to great lengths to reject the material, regardless of how beneficial. I just felt like I dodged a bullet, especially when I heard the horror stories from my new classmates about how much they hated the book.

Sadly, I never took a picture of this, but for whatever weird reason, JHHS featured a rusty metal statue of a naked man (anatomically correct – great idea!) stepping out of a monolith with one arm extended. One teacher told me the statue was supposed to represent “the search for knowledge” or something. Rumor had it that the money was supposed to be spent on a swimming pool. Having come from a school that had a pool, I was quite put out by this rumor. How was a frequently vandalized statue a better investment than a pool? (The statue had since been moved from the front of the school to a locked courtyard by the time I attended school there.)

One day, the school brass announced that John Hersey himself would be coming to give a speech and take questions from the students. What what what? I wasn’t used to the idea of schools being named after people who are still alive, not that there was no precedent for it. I just never attended any schools that were named after the living up to that point.

I wrote out a question, and my favorite art teacher saw me clutching the scrap of paper I wrote it on and advised me that there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that I’d ever get to ask it. He motioned to the first three rows and I saw that one of my least favorite teachers had stacked the deck with “honor students” who showed up wearing suits or dresses. I held on to the question anyway and hoped for a break.

John Hersey gave a speech, the content of which I very dimly recall any utterance thereof. When it came time for the Q and A session, the students kept asking about what he thought about the Rambo movies, or if he approved of Ronald Reagan’s policies. That’s pretty much how it went, person by person. Rambo. Reagan. Rambo. Reagan. Which sums up what that teacher obsessed about instead of say, the subject he was ostensibly hired to teach. (It was a cheap way to stall a quiz or test: Just toss off a headline story about Ronald Reagan that would get him going on a tirade.)

Someone asked Hersey if he was writing anything else. The man was visibly relieved. Yes, he was writing about Galapagos turtles and something else. Something something manuscript something. Back to the Q&A, and more Reagan and Rambo. Hersey’s frustration was palpable.

Finally, he looked past the first three rows and asked, “does anyone else have a question for me?”

I leapt to my feet and strode confidently yet nervously towards the microphone. The teachers who knew me gave me concerned looks as they had no idea what I scrawled on my scrap of paper. They just knew on some level that my urgency to get to the microphone could not have been a good thing.

The prior questions were multi-part, like, “what do you think about Rambo, Del Monte’s operations in Central America, and what do you think Reagan should do about all that?”

I looked around the packed gymnasium and turned to face the podium. “I regret that I only have one question for you, Mr. Hersey,” I said. Laughter from the audience. “What do you think about that statue in the courtyard, and don’t you think the money could have been better spent?”

The gym erupted with laughter and cheering. The administration was horrified. John Hersey himself took a step back and cracked a wry smile. He regained his composure (I was waiting for the hook), and said simply, “well, I didn’t pose for it.”

My art teacher leaned over as I re-took my seat and admonished, “that’s just a rumor, and he didn’t have anything to do with that statue anyway.”

A few months later, I was standing at a bus stop waiting to go to my afterschool job. A guy pulled up at the corner in a beater car and looked like he was going to turn onto the cross street, then paused and rolled down his window. “You’re Ethan Johnson, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Do you need a ride? I will take you anywhere you want to go.”

I got in and told him where my job was. We rode along in silence, and this guy looked like he was about to throw up. Finally, as if it took every ounce of will to say this, he looked straight ahead and said, “I’ll never forget what you said to John Hersey. I hate that fucking statue!”

Glad I could speak truth to power, I figured.

Years later I was bored out of my mind and I bought a copy of Hiroshima. I was incredibly moved by the book. The humanity, the horror, the unspeakable tragedy was so neatly summarized in what seemed like an unthinkably small number of pages. As I finished the book, I reflected on my “disrespect” for John Hersey and thought, this should be required reading. This is an important book. This is a story that should not be forgotten. John Hersey is a great writer and a great man.

I decided to write John Hersey a letter and advise him of my “conversion”. This is no lie: The day I resolved to write the letter, the news radio said that John Hersey had died.

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