Tuesday, December 29, 2009

29 Heaven in the Real World

It was around this time that I really became centered in on the concept of ministering outside the church. I still gave sermons on occasions but that became something less central to my life and I began looking for somewhere to place my energy that was hands-on and worked with more “real people” as I called them then. I began to work with two ministries, Lighthouse at PUC and one at another campus, the University of California in Berkeley.

The one at Berkeley was run by two very passionate but rather different people. The main leader was Will Sutton, clearly a brilliant mind with much zeal for what he was trying to do for the Lord. He had led a group of believers at the university for a while but wanted to take this upstart ministry to be more of a force to be reckoned with both on his campus and elsewhere. I think Will found that calling of a voice in the wilderness to be lonely but didn’t recognize that loneliness was part of the call. He was a married guy with a kid on the way and appeared to take on this responsibility with more vigor and focus than he did his family. At the time at age 19, this seemed to me like a better way. I even argued with a friend back then, Julia, about how the ministry was more important marriage or family because it had more lasting consequences. Because of this, while I didn’t look up what Will was doing necessarily, I saw it as expedient. I had even stated to Shannon that I fully intended to have my family come second to my calling.

His helper was Nicole Chao, also a very sharp girl who seemed to be more attached to the idea of helping Will than the idea of the ministry. She was a girl who struggled to find what to do with all that talent and intelligence and was still trying to replicate other belief’s systems, whether it was her mentors’ religious views or her Asian parents cultural values. She was at that stage the definition of a discipline, a disciplined follower but it was clear she hadn’t absorbed all or maybe any of it completely into herself.

The two of them wanted to cast a big net around the Berkeley campus and bring in more people into the Christian and Adventist fold. Berkeley is the definition of a fringe place; California is already full of all type of strange people and Berkeley embraces the perimeter of the peripheral. There really appears to be no counter culture there because all of the counter culture can be seen on every other corner. To bring Christianity as a force here would be truly a miracle, a true act of God.

They connected with me through a mutual acquaintance and originally there were more PUC contacts trying to help out their cause. An Adventist campus was within 90 miles and Will was smart enough to try to tap into the vast amount of resources that were there but the salt of the earth was still happy to stay in its salt shaker. The people who I tried to encourage to be part of the cause were not interested in doing that type of commute on any kind of regular basis. It was an idea that appealed to them but was never actually held.

In due time, they were able to organize a weekend conference which was attended by people from all over the US and a few people from other countries. Classes were taught, seminars were offered, and prayers were lifted all with the goal of increasing a network of fellowship of Christians at secular campuses. We had hoped for several hundred people but ended up with roughly 200 people throughout the weekend. The weekend itself was success but the follow through from everyone’s parts from us PUC students to the general conference left much to be desired. It became obvious at that point that Christians are very good about what we call retreats and strategies but seem to put more effort into that than we do into attacks and organization. Will tried to continue this energy after the conference but it appeared that the event itself had drained everyone and that it may all have been a little weaker afterwards. His continued efforts to single handedly kept pushing may well have pushed people away and in time it was a great memory but little more.

I went back to my own campus from this and was still trying to figure out how much of my own effort I wanted to put into this when a young man named Jorge Gurrola came along. He was one of these characters that is always smiling and seems genuinely happy but the constant smile itself also makes you question its sincerity while drawing you in at the same time. He was ready to take a ministry he’d inherited, Lighthouse Ministries, and take it to places it had never been and he infused an energy that beamed all over campus and elsewhere. All of the rest of the ministries on campus were very narrowly focused, going to prison, going to feed the homeless, Lighthouse had no such cage and so was free to go anywhere. Jorge found a kid in me who was trying to find his way in the place and we worked together endlessly.

Through some drama that I never understood, Jorge had to leave campus in the middle of the school year and so it was handed to me to be the director. We took that same energy and kept it growing. Shannon was an invaluable amount of help as we worked on it together. What did we do? Everything you could imagine. On any given day, we were likely to be visiting at a hospital, at a hospice, at a nursing home, at a mental facility, at a drug rehab. There were times we worked with kids who were going through therapy at a farm more through horses and being active than they were at talking. We helped rebuild homes, paint up homeless shelters, gave free carwashes (absolutely free), fed the homeless, sang Christmas carols. Once a year, we held an event where we hosted a Kids Day where over 100 kids from Headstart got to have a carnival at our campus. This is what I remember ten years later but it was a very busy, very big organization. Trying to follow Christ’s advice that we don’t go bragging about our good deeds, I refused two or three interviews by the school newspaper and the public relations office much to their chagrin (they snuck one in about kids day). Most of these activities were covertly religious for example if anyone asked why we would wash cars for free we would explain that it was God’s grace (people really struggled with an absolutely free carwash; one man even shoving a $20 out his window and speeding off). However, generally speaking, they were all things that were also helpful in themselves. I referred to them back then as putting a band aid on cancer because if you only help the temporal needs, forever is denied and it may all well be a waste of time.

The frantic pace that it took to keep track of it all fit me well. I’ve always been cursed/blessed with an unusually high level of energy and thrive on less sleep than most people could get by with. While others have tried to diagnose that and one counselor at PUC consistently tried to get me medicated, I have used the energy to get more done than some believe to be realistic (to the lady who tried to get me medicated, I responded that I already had a 4.0, what could she do for me? She jokingly suggested that it was my teachers and everyone else she was trying to help me). We did so much good with that ministry and there may not be anything that I’ve ever done that I’m more proud of.

I went back and forth on whether I wanted to be working more in the wilderness like Will and Nicole had trying to convince the world they needed an oncologist or whether I wanted to be more hands on and put on bandaids and then break the news to patients that I knew one. I am not sure that I ever consciously made a decision but my time ended up focused on Lighthouse that year. It was well suited to me and it really made God and his followers practical to me. I once stated that an atheist who helped work towards humanity was closer to the heart of God than a believer who didn’t do it.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

28 Ride

At the end of my freshmen year, my ambition got the worst of me and I was completely oblivious to the fact that I had made very little impact on campus and was barely unknown. I had never clued in to the fact that this wasn’t high school, that there were 10 students for every 1 in my previous school, that I had lived in a dorm that hosted only 70 or 80, had been in no general education classes, and that the program I had focused on that year, theology was incredibly small. When the dean of my dorm was asked for a recommendation, he said he didn’t know me. I ran for religious vice president and was destroyed in the election. This was the first time I had ever run for an election and lost and the fact that I was a small fish in a bigger pond sunk in. I think the unknown factor wasn’t the only reason I lost, my personality being what it is and my opponent having been a much bigger on campus presence contributed but it still really stung.
I realized I would have to work on many things but my main concern as the year was ending was trying to get Shannon to come and attend school there. She was also valedictorian of her class and was eligible to receive a similar scholarship to what I had. In no time at all, she was on campus a few weeks before school started working with Donica Ward and Craig Philpott a job she held all four years of her college career. Being in the same place helped our relationship a lot. She would meet Natalie and Shelly as well. Eventually they all became friends (independently, Natalie and Shelly weren’t really friends) and we hung out a lot.
I bought my first car that summer for $1200 and Shannon and I had transportation. This ended up being a big deal because shortly after I bought it I was listening to a sermon where the pastor said that the modern version of doing unto the least of these were consistent, random acts of kindness consistently, whether it was giving change to someone on the corner, volunteering at a local organization, picking up hitchhikers etc. For some reason, having just gotten a car, I decided right there and then that I would pick up every hitchhiker I ever saw (a pledge I’ve kept until this day as long as I am alone or the people in the car are okay with it). Some great human interest stories have occurred due to this decision, but most of them are of course non-stories: just someone needing a ride maybe due to car problems or a lack of transportation.
I’ve always appreciated these types of sermons perhaps because it appeals to my nature to do something but also because I love the concept of Jesus calling his believers the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Adventists, for reasons I have never understood, appear to create these very insulated communities, at least with their schools and universities which are overwhelmingly attended by only Adventists as opposed to say Catholic schools or even the Mormon universities which have a much bigger percentage of people who don’t belong to their faith. They become a place to protect the faith, where sharing it often happened only during very intentional evangelistic times, instead creating a quiet force that one couldn’t help but notice. It’s like we keep the salt in its shaker and on occasion when that unusual single grain of salt makes it out, the rest of us salt grains press up against the glass and cheer it on.
There was one weekend where I had been invited to speak to a high school leadership camp similar to many of the ones I’d attended in high school. I was going to give a brief sermonette on Friday night as Sabbath set in. I was headed down the main street to campus about an hour before we were supposed to go out of town. There were going to be several of us going from PUC with different parts of the program and I was in a hurry so I originally bypassed a man on the side of the road, but I did a U-turn determined to keep my pledge. He was a man in his midforties who immediately expressed his gratefulness and had actually noticed that I had turned around. He continued on saying that he regularly hitchhiked in his life and that the hardest time he ever had being picked up was in Angwin; he didn’t know much about the Adventist faith but he knew that it was an Adventist town essentially. I was really bothered by this, wondering why God’s people were the stingiest about giving a stranger a ride.
We continued to talk and he was by far the most fascinating person I had ever picked up. He began to tell me this story about how he was an environmental engineer and had been doing it for over 15 years. A little over 10 years before, he had become homeless because he found that his ability to be mobile and work on certain projects was helped by him not being tethered to many possessions. It was difficult to believe but he was so well spoken and the little that I knew about environmental engineering seemed to match up with what he was saying. I asked him how he took care of himself and very humbly he responded with the fact that God always provided. I sanctimoniously apologized for the fact that he had such a hard time getting picked up in Angwin and then took out the $40 I had taken out of my bank account for the weekend and said “Well today I am God’s providence for you.” He tried to refuse saying things were fine and that the ride was more than enough but I insisted and he finally took it. I then shared with him that I was going this weekend to speak to a bunch of high school teenagers who were leaders on their campus and I was going to give them some tips. A few minutes later, I dropped him off and he walked around to my window and said in an incredibly humble and genuine manner, “When you talk to those kids, tell them that true leadership is about following. It’s about following Jesus because if you follow him and people follow you, you’re all going to the right place.” He shook my hand and walked away.
As I drove back to meet with the rest of the group, I was feeling really shamefaced about how self righteous I had been. I was feeling guilty about having been smug, about having been more Christian than most of my Adventist brethren because I had the courtesy to pick this guy up. I realized that I didn’t want my Christian position to be one of superiority where I was showing you the way but that I wanted to be nobler, like this man who had literally given up house and home because he so passionately believed in the environment.
I shared this story when I was speaking at the leadership conference later that night. I tried to communicate that leadership was a privilege and that we were merely vessels. I told the story of that man and what had transpired that afternoon including what he said at my window. I added “and the man who should be speaking to you today is probably sleeping under the stars tonight and I didn’t even have the courtesy to ask his name.”
I can’t say that I’ve consistently abandoned my occasional haughtiness about the fact that I spend time volunteering to help people, but I did that day decide that I wanted my ministry in life to be a bigger part of my life; to have it be more practical and more to the least of these. I started looking around campus for a way to help more people, to get more actively involved than just preaching. I felt guilty for years about the approach I had taken with that guy and about the fact that I’d never asked his name. If nothing else, with every hitchhiker I’ve picked up since then, the first things I do are to extend my hand and ask, “What’s your name?”

27 A Maze of Grace

Beginning my career in theology was an eye opening move because before then I had a good view of God but like anything else in high school, it was an adolescent view. My concept of grace had really grown thanks to people like Pastor Elrod (in fact our senior class invited him to be our commencement speaker) but it was still what I would call a very legal perspective. Sin was like breaking the law and hell was the equivalent of prison, Jesus had essentially taken our place on the cross in the way that, if it were allowed, I would take the place of someone on death row.
That was until I took a class from Jean Sheldon, the only female professor of theology. Her view of sin, God and grace were more organic. Sin was more equivalent to eating poorly or smoking or consciously running into a wall over and over. Hell was more like what happens to the body due to poor nutrition, or like cancer from smoking. It was a natural growth, a consequence of sin that couldn’t be reversed and wasn’t arbitrarily assigned. God was not some judge handing out whatever sentence he wanted to place on each of us, as if upset that we had parked somewhere he had designated as a no parking area. It was not subjective but rather the only way it could work, there was no world where you could have murder, coveting, lying etc and have it work (as opposed to anyone being able to decide that you could park on the other side of the street). Salvation was not so much God paying our parking ticket but rather him sticking his hand underneath ours as we were putting it down on a fire. He was taking something that was coming to us as long as we followed that course of action.
This in retrospect does not seem that controversial or that big of a deal but it really revolutionized my view of God. Salvation was literally Jesus saving us from drowning in a way that forced him to drown because we’d jumped in without knowing how to swim, it was him sucking the poison into himself when we had drank it because we thought it’d be fun in the short term. Of course, it wasn’t that fast or simple just like smoking a cigarette doesn’t cause cancer immediately but it was him trading out his lungs for ours after a lifetime of smoking.
Having that idea presented to me reassured me of many of the doubts I was having about my faith then. It made God seem more logical, more reasonable instead of some guy throwing temper tantrums because we didn’t do it His way; His way was the only levelheaded way. Angel Hernandez, another professor at PUC, also made God seem full of grace. He was “trying to save everyone he could” looking for excuses to save people; if God could err, it would be on the side of grace. In a trail of a thousand steps, God had taken nine hundred ninety nine and we just had to take one. Originally, I argued with both of these professors at some length as well. Adventism has so many life details of what they encourage you to do, it couldn’t be quite that simple. There had to be some work into it right, God expected something from me in order to save me? Didn’t God have some merit system? Professor Hernandez presented well the idea that these things we do because we want to, not out of obligation, the same way we want to send our girl flowers because they make her happy. I am really pleased with the fact that I didn’t argue with them too much and quickly accepted that grace was the better way. Sometimes my history and personality didn’t like it and I had a hard time stomaching it but logically I had accepted it.
That year, I was assigned in one of the classes I was taking to go to a different church. Like the church I had attended in my childhood, it was a Baptist one. I attended it with one of the female theology majors, Donica Ward. We went every Sunday and learned much more than when I had been a child. The concept that stuck with me from them was their belief in that once someone was saved, they were always saved. If you had truly accepted Jesus, you were bound for heaven. I can see how that psychological padding would be helpful to many but I just didn’t think it could be true. If this entire mess of a sinful world was based on the fact that God had given us free choice to accept or reject him, it was entirely silly that once we accepted him, he would take away. Not accepting Jesus was more like marriage, a contract that you entered into for life but realistically speaking could fail at miserably. People break up with their soul mates and it was self evident that on occasion people broke up with God.
Interestingly enough, this was playing out in my personal life as well. Shannon and I broke up a couple of times that year; the first being because I was considering pursuing some college girls. I realized this was a serious mistake shortly after I did it and when I went home during the Christmas break, I drove all the way out to her house just to apologize and ask her to fix it with me. I think the gesture moved her and we were suddenly back together. A few months later, she broke up with me to get together with some other guy. At the time these things seemed very dramatic and tore us both up quite a bit, I would call her incredibly angry and I can’t imagine how we made it. Several years removed from it, it was probably just simple high school drama that could have worked itself out had we both moved on and gone our separate ways but I was so convinced that she was my Destiny and I think for her like most people, the first boyfriend you have is always special. In one of those strange twists, Shannon had left me a voicemail to call her back before she broke up with me. I wasn’t quite prepared so I called her back from a classroom inside one of the school computer labs. Apparently, the reaction on my face was not much of a poker face. I don’t know who all was in the room or if anyone else noticed but one person who did was Natalie. She, typical of the way she approached the world, encouraged me to go somewhere and cry about it; we had a Greek test the next day which I had yet to study for and she actively told me to blow it off, to call professor Hernandez and explain to him what was going on. That particular moment, overwhelmed by what had just happened, I actually did call the professor who was incredibly understanding. However, it wasn’t long before I went back to the method I usually take with life and blew off my emotions and went to studying. I took the test the next day and did very well on it.
In spite of this, all of that drama made it into my theology because I kept seeing the relationship with God as being a romantic one, a sacred one, the pains that we caused God were as deep if not more so than the human ones. Sinning was our way of failing our relationship with God, maybe forgetting to take out the trash, maybe having an affair or several points in between. I was and am surprised at how many of my fellow theology majors objected to this, wanting me to see God as more like a King, or like a parent making sure that while the relationship could be personal, there was a definite and wide hierarchy between us. I would argue that when one is in love with someone, there is already an inordinate amount of power over them. One of them vividly said that I was making God too human and was visibly annoyed when I answered that He did it first.

Friday, December 25, 2009

26 Both Sides Now

Between the Honors Program, the Psychology Degree, and the Theology degree, I soon began to understand that there were many, many ways to see the world. The theology department started to shape the way I thought, but the Honors program and the psychology program were teaching me how to think. Someone had said to me shortly before I embarked on the two majors that many students began with both but eventually ended up choosing one or the other; part of this was due to the nature of just choosing one as a career path, but another reason was simply because they found that there were too many contradictions. Someone went as far as making the argument that psychology and theology are completely exclusive, one beginning and ending with man - almost by necessity excluding the divine- and the other saying that the mind is not enough without the divine; that if one thought about certain things too much, one would lose their mind. However, if one didn’t think about at all, one would certainly lose their soul.
The psychology department really must be given credit for teaching me how to think. Professors like the Bainums, Greg Schneider, and Aubyn Fulton were brilliant. The department had a practice in almost all their classes of having students participate in debate. However, what was really interesting about the debate was that you did not get to pick your topics or position. They were assigned and you had to present the position no matter your personal belief. The first debate I was assigned to my freshmen year was “Is pornography harmful?” This was something that was so readily self evident to me that I didn’t see why we would be wasting any time on it. The position I was assigned to was ‘Pornography was not harmful.’ This was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard, but I started to do the research academically and honestly. Also, in what really was an academic exercise, I went out and bought a Playboy. I had actually never seen pornography in my 18 years of life and wanted to give this stupid debate a fair position. By coincidence, it was the magazine’s 25th anniversary and they had made an image out of Marilyn Monroe with all the covers the magazine had ever had. I all but turned purple while purchasing it and when I got it back to my dorm room I put it in a plastic bag, in a backpack, in a suitcase, in the back of my closet, not ever wanting anyone to know that I had it. The research shocked me because as it turned out, -and unlike I’d been told – viewing pornography did not make people any more likely to be rapists, adulterers, or radical sexual deviants in anyway. In fact, the only measurable effect that pornography appeared to have was that it was likely to make you rate your significant other as less attractive though not any more likely to leave them. Now, there are people who will read this and have the same reaction that I did. Whoa, hold on a second, so and so got addicted to pornography and it caused this and that. Of course, it did because doing something in excess can be detrimental with anything. Exercise, eating, drinking water, resting, all basic and necessary biological functions if they are taken too far or done too much will damage the body, if not kill it. People who have read the works of the Bible, the Koran, of Shakespeare have gone out and done incredibly destructive things. That does not make Shakespeare the next great Satan. If pornography wasn’t really harmful, why had we made such a big deal out of it?
It would be the first among many of the studies that we discussed in psychology that really bothered me. If you ask the average person what their chances are of getting divorced, of having a heart attack, of having cancer, of having a child die by accident or any number of upsetting terrific things, they will low ball the estimates and be incredibly inaccurate, way underestimating the chances that they actually have. If you ask the average person suffering from depression, the same question they are far more likely to get it correct. Apparently it’s the average person, not the idealist, who sees reality through rose colored glasses. As a group, depressed people see reality much closer to what it is.
More and more of these types of studies kept eating away at me. I read the ones that we had to, and then went back and read the ones cross referenced or even ones mentioned in foot notes. Another study was done where a situation was described where two people met, hit it off, go on a date etc. The scenario essentially ends with them being alone in the girl’s apartment after a date where they had talked, flirted, and had a happy time. Two groups of people were given the exact same story with only the last sentence being different. The last sentence in one of the stories ended with the man proposing and them living happily ever, the other ended with the man sexually assaulting the girl. In both groups, people were asked to measure how much the girl had contributed to the eventual result; essentially asking how much of what had happened was her fault. In both groups, both the group in which the girl was raped and the one in which she was proposed to, both groups found her equally responsible. It was eye opening and absurd to see that people found that the same behavior could merit both of those responses. A few other studies with rather similar results but not quite as dramatic storylines showed that people appear wired to deciding that whatever happened was what was supposed to have happened.
Another statistic that started to dig at me was the fact that the higher your IQ and your education were the more likely you were to be an atheist. Ph.d’s in ascending order were more and more likely to be atheists: Math, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Psychology. Less than 10% of people with a Ph.D. in psychology believed in a higher power or that there was anything outside of our own world exerting influence now. This one bothered me the most of all because it seemed we were talking about the God who created the universe not connecting with the sharpest minds. Either He or His followers had so poorly communicated the message that the person responsible for mass and life had made those who understood it best, shrug him off as unnecessary.
It then struck me that the psychology department was how the devil had snuck onto God’s campus at PUC. One of those teachers, Aubyn Fulton, even apparently argued that the Adventist approach to premarital sex was harmful and apparently ended a lecture by telling students to “Go have sex.” I had never met the guy but when I heard this, I made an appointment to go talk to him about it. His argument essentially was that learning sexual interaction with people of the opposite gender was healthy before committing to one for the rest of your life. Dr. Fulton gave off an interesting vibe. He was a guy with his own style about everything, a dress coat over a questionable shirt with a questionable tie and tennis shoes and slacks. His approach was a quick smile to disarm before using sharp cleverness to show that his argument was more logical but hey even though I’m right, can’t we still be friends? I argued with him in his office for half an hour and that was the first time I walked out of an argument feeling someone had really torn up my argument logically but that somehow because of my morals, I was still right.
The other really bad influence on my life at that point was Greg Schneider. He was actually a sociology professor in the psychology department, and also clearly very intelligent. (The fact that my psychology teachers as a group came off smarter than my theology teachers as a group has always really bothered me.) He had this capacity to talk about how everything was a human invention, whatever else it was. He introduced me to concepts like the sociology of God and how society’s social structure and religion seemed to mirror each other. Both then and now, I thought it was amazing mental acrobatics to hold true to his beliefs and want to be part of the Adventist tradition while proposing the concepts that he did. To me, it was always akin to the guy who has a drinking problem, realizes that drinking is bad for his family, bad for his body, and bad for his mind but because he likes the way being drunk feels, reaches for another beer and dismisses the rest. Upon our first meeting, it was from a desire to cleanse the church of people who were such a bad influence that I thought Professor Schneider should take his inconsistencies elsewhere. It was ironic to me that he more than anyone is with whom I associate Ellen White’s phrase, “the truth has nothing to lose by examination.” He never seemed afraid of the examination of truth, dissecting it and realizing that if it was true, it would hold. However, he often showed me that certain very important things about our faith had huge holes in them but minimized them as the part that showed humanity’s interaction with the divine; however, such an easy argument was to convenient for me. If I ever came to agree with him, all the most important things I’d ever learned would be wrong so initially I just assumed he was wrong in his examination.
Pornography not harmful? No matter what happens, we find a way to justify it? The mentally ill have a more accurate view of reality? The smarter you were the less likely you were to believe in God? The neat categories in my mind were splintering but at least I had my theology major to teach me that which really mattered.

25 California Here I Come

I arrived on campus several days before the school year started and immediately began working for the enrollment office. As is too often my tendency, I walked into the place like I owned it, confident that everything was going to be fantastic and a success. Because I was working in the office that was running registration, it felt like I was back at academy again helping make things happen. This transition appeared so seamless to me that I didn’t do a good job of stepping back and taking in the new adventure. I did take in the beauty of it all. The pine trees and ever greens all over campus were just stunning. The rolling hills were a whole new challenge to someone who had always lived in flat areas.
But I did immediately concern myself with creating my social life making some very sharp friends. I had been accepted into the honors program in its newly formatted method. It was a “great texts” approach where each class revolved around a theme like “Heroes” and we studied great texts like the Odyssey or the story of King David. The classes would be discussion based and the tests idea based. This group met before registration because the full list of who would be accepted hadn’t been formed. I was really hoping to be accepted because the foreign language requirement was going to be Koine (Biblical) Greek and so I could double dip that with my theology degree. Because apparently, the chair of the PE department had missed the final meeting when designing the program, the program also had no PE requirement.( This and the extremely good food at the school cafeteria ensured that I put on over 25 pounds in first two years of college.) Appropriately enough as we discussed the way the program would work using the Greek Language and reading Plato, I met two Greek girls who quickly grabbed my attention.
The first was Shelly, still one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. She had scored a perfect score on her SAT. She was a short quirky blond girl who was immediately suspicious of personalities like mine. During one of, if not the first, conversation she immediately stated and said that someone who was working as hard as I was at meeting people had something wrong with them or was hiding something. Carrying her refrigerator to her dorm room for her somehow increased her suspicion and she quickly told me so. In time, I semi won her over and we became friends. She had a boyfriend back in LA and I had Shannon and we spent much time talking about the nature of a long distance relationship and how to balance that with entering college. She was incredibly honest about everything, telling me how she was judging people and probing topics I’d never really discussed with anyone. She was also a psychology major so I saw her in both honors and program classes. She was bothered by how shallow and superficial guys were in regards to sex and asked me about a conversation she’d had with several guys where they all said they wanted to have a threesome while in college. I’d never honestly knew what it was before then, and when she explained it to me I was completely appalled. Anytime anything shocked her or bothered her, she would ask if I would do something like that. If I agreed with her position, she’d give me an approving smile; if I disagreed, I earned a cute but very stern squint and glare and reminder that this is why she was wary of people with my personality. Though I am sure she was not the first to do so, she would be the first to articulate that people with persona’s like mine should be questioned. This questioning extended to religion and the church essentially her argument coming down to that things with a lot of flash often didn’t have much substance.
The second Greek girl was Natalia, an absolutely stunningly beautiful girl. She had that exotic Mediterranean look and was the kind of girl who was so good looking that when she walked in the room everyone noticed. You’d get better service in restaurants when she was with you. Her father had been a pastor who had a falling out with the church but still tried to minister in his own way. She spoke of God incredibly elegantly and yet personally. She didn’t really fit my mold of a good Adventist almost always wearing very trendy fashionable clothes, lots of jewelry, and clearly put in excessive time into her hair and makeup. I did then as I do now put her in the box that says that girls who put that much effort into their looks can’t have much beneath the make up, in effect making Shelly’s argument about my personality into her looks. Natalie did not fit that mold though but was actually intelligent, deep and emotional. She was always trying to encourage me to be more honest about my emotions and to allow myself to feel them and not dismiss them as is my usual habit. She took this even into church where she was all but dancing during praise music. Feeling her way through life, she wanted her emotions to guide her through relationships, faith, and even intellectual exercises. We played chess on occasion and she appeared to even want to feel her way through those games.
I saw and talked with these two girls on an almost daily basis and they had such different approaches to their view of the world, one was suspicious of the flash, one really flashy. They were fascinating in their own ways and approaches. And like everyone else in the honors program, they were ambitious and very intelligent.
The only problem with getting into the Honors Program was that it was creating an insular college experience. I missed out on actual general education and on PE, on meeting people who were in a variety of degrees or thoughts. Obviously, I still met them because it was college and there were activities but the lion’s share of my classes was going to be 1) people trying to be pastors 2) people studying psychology or 3) people trying to graduate with honors. If there’s anyone who thinks that any of those three groups do a good job of representing humanity, I have a piece of real estate on another planet that I would like to sell them at incredible discount. All of this could possibly be relieved had I lived in one of the two main men’s dorms, Grainger or Newton. These dorms were a stone’s throw, a moment away from the cafeteria, the classrooms, the student center, life as we knew it. But somehow I had been encouraged to apply to go into Nichol. Nichol was a dorm that was 200 yards and up an 80 yard hill from everything else on campus. The nearest building was a good 10 minute walk and getting to campus proper was 15 minutes. It was a very quiet dorm on the back lot of campus. This isolation and this approach that I “had arrived” shortly after I had actually arrived was helping me miss interacting with reality at a time where I was actually thinking about it. I was trying to figure out humanity but having contact with a very limited type of people. Well, at least I was a psychology major that should teach me everything I need to know about humans.

24 Think for Yourself

A few days after graduation the Conleys, Pacific Union College Alumni, had purchased a plane ticket for me to go out and visit Angwin, California to see if I could go to school there. Mrs. Conley, the registrar, had been one of the people that had consistently gotten on my case about my failures and arrogant approach. She thought I could really be someone if I could get over those; unfortunately, she was convinced that these were because of my environment and/or friends so she was trying to get me to branch out. I had received really big scholarships for Southwestern in Dallas, Union in Nebraska, Southern in Tennessee and Oakwood in Alabama. I was open to all of them except for Southwestern because I wanted to venture out and get out of the great state of Texas for my college career. PUC had not really entered my brain at all but as soon as I stepped into it, it was amazing. I flew into San Francisco and was immediately impressed with the beauty of the city. Once I arrived onto campus, it didn’t take much to sell me into deciding, the place was in Napa Valley and I was a kid who had never been anywhere except Texas and the deserts of Mexico. It literally was a city that sat on top of a hill, overlooking vineyards and beauty, a place where air conditioning was rarely necessary, where everything was green and gorgeous.
School was out for the year when I visited so it was fairly lonely so I took to walking the campus. In a moment I can’t seem to blur away, as I was overlooking campus from the top of one of the high points, I clearly got an impression that said that there at PUC I would have my last chance. I turned to see if someone was talking to me, my last chance at what exactly wasn’t sure or where it had come from. It was a fleeting moment and I’ve tried to dismiss it as dramatic self talk but it’s a memory that simply won’t fade.
I returned to VGA for a few days and went to church there one last time informing friends that I had decided to go to PUC and that they had offered me a full tuition, room and board scholarship. The elders of the local church congratulated me but warned me to not become like those California Adventists who dismissed things related to purity and wanting to live for themselves. They warned me that out there far too many people didn’t care about things like the purity of women, that they didn’t stay away from jewelry and make-up thus bringing unnecessary sexual attention to themselves; they didn’t’ care about staying away from movies and keeping their mind clean since it was the land of Hollywood. Enjoy your time there, they cautioned, but don’t become like them. With complete sincerity, I assured them that I would absolutely not.
Shortly before the summer was over, I had dinner with Jerry Cates in Odessa as my mom was still feeding him. This was the man that had made it possible for me to attend Christian boarding school; all my friends and my girlfriends and great high school events had been made possible due to his giving. And now I found out that he was not going to be attending church, because he was no longer a church member. Jerry had been on the governing body of the state and now he was no longer a believer.
I don’t know what caused this turn of events but it floored me. We sat and talked; there was no story, no tale of what had happened. He merely made it an intellectual exercise and began to tear up some stories of the Bible and how God’s word itself made God look foolish or mean. Some of his examples were relatively minor: Why did Adventists follow the levitical eating code but not the chapter before or after? Why had Jesus cursed a fig tree for not having fruit when the texts itself points out that it was not the season for fruit? Why were there what appeared to be two separate accounts of creation in Genesis? Why was God as petty as to keep Moses out of the Promised Land for striking a rock? Others however were haunting: why did Paul and Peter seem to have fought over whether the early church would be actively racist? Why had God encouraged, in fact ordered, the genocide of seven different nations after the Israelites entered the Promised Land? Why had God ordered Abraham to kill his own son as some type of pump fake illustration? Those questions were ones I spent much effort trying to figure out, each one taking up a paper or two during my pursuit of my degree; the Abraham one taking up my senior thesis. The bigger question, the one I never was able to answer, is what happened with Jerry. This wasn’t some na├»ve thinking that anyone who ever accepted Jesus automatically kept him for the rest of his life. I had family members and friends who had not attended church; in fact I fully expected that some of the people who had claimed Christianity in high school would abandon it. Jerry was a giant in my book who, along with people like Pastor Gonzales who baptized me and Pastor Cruz who mentored me, were the guys I wanted to grow up to be like. If a guy like that couldn’t keep his faith, who could?
I spent much of the summer thinking about this as I prepared to go to college. Interestingly enough, Sheryl had worked very hard at trying to get me to go to Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. She had been such a good influence on me and such a motherly type the one year I spent with her at VGA, I actually went there just to be near her. I lasted all of two days in a dorm where the view out my window was a brick wall and way too many of the students looked like they hadn’t seen the sun in years and winters had been very kind to their eating habits. Something about the Nebraskan culture and I didn’t click; it was conservative and simple, encouraging people to think in one specific way, the way you do to children, instead of letting them think for themselves. It was intent on giving you something to be grounded in but it was unclear whether or not they wanted you to leave the ground. I went to the enrollment office and told them I’d like to withdraw; they were shocked at someone who had been there such a short time and who they had given such a scholarship to. For some reason, they sent me to talk to the president of the university to talk and let him try to sell me. He asked me to stick around through the weekend, make some friends and let them know what I decided on Monday. The next day the president of the college had the sermon at the church and he preached about Jonah running away from Niniveh saying “it was like God calling you to Union and you running away to PUC.” The crowd got a good laugh out of that one.
Come Monday, they still had not sold me. I dropped out but because Union was on the semester system and PUC was on the quarter system I had two or three weeks to figure out what to do. Sheryl’s husband was a home builder and he hired me to help put up roofs and do all kinds of work. I learned quite a lot and continued to go to church with Sheryl and her family. I argued with her and we often made each other angry but it was one of those relationships where I learned that it was okay to have strong emotions; you could still be friends.
I met a girl there Tanaya, a friend of Sheryl’s, who I clicked fairly well with. A couple of nights before I was scheduled to leave, we went to dinner with each other. I had been staying at one of the houses we were working on and we headed back there. Tanaya was a girl who wanted to do what was right, wanted to follow the path of God and stay as close to it as she could. She was fairly conservative and lived within a box of thinking. The room I was staying in had a window that led to the ceiling where I had spent several nights thinking and praying. Inviting her to go sit and talk on the roof surprised her and it took an unreasonable amount of effort to talk her into it but she finally conceded. We sat out there and talked about the things of God and how to best hear His voice. What was most fascinating about her was that she was attending a class at the local church designed for girls who were going to be pastor’s wives. Being a pastor’s wife requires the political instincts and domestic capacities of a politician’s wife if not higher since each’s constituents often see the pastoral calling as more important than the political one. Taking this type of class before getting into the ministry seemed like the right thing for anyone to do before taking that plunge. There was only one quirky thing about it all: Tanaya was single, not dating or engaged to or even interested in any particular person who was pursuing the ministry. But in her heart, she felt and believed that God had called her to be a pastor’s wife. By this time, I had been “called” to be a pastor for a dozen years and I’d never heard anyone say that before (or since) but at the time it made perfect sense that if God called some people to be a pastor, he had to call someone to be their spouse. I don’t know what happened to Tanaya but I hope her calling went better than mine.
In a day or two, it was time for me to head to California and start college again. I didn’t have any money except what I had made in the last couple of weeks. I was going to college with only a suitcase worth of stuff so carrying my things wasn’t going to be too hard. I took the money that I had made building houses those two or three weeks and bought a greyhound ticket that would take approximately 38 hours to get out to California. Sheryl dropped me off and cried when she did, in her own motherly way. I never had anyone with her strength around regularly when I was at PUC. Maybe if I had I would have been a better person.
38 hours to think about Jerry, Mary, Sheryl, Tanaya, being away from Shannon, starting in a new place without anyone I knew. What drove people like Jerry and Tanaya in such different directions? It was on that ride that I completely committed to the two disciplines which a few days later I would be pursuing as separate degrees: psychology and theology.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

23 Piensa En Mi

One of the problems that I always seem to revert to is the fact that I overfocus on tasks to the neglect of people. I get so consumed on the task at hand that I forget the common courtesies that you’re supposed to have with people. I fail to think of people as people.

Toward the end of our senior year, after Ellen finished working on the yearbook, she came to work at the office. Officially, her and Kim and I all worked for Mr. Kerbs but more practically speaking I was working for Mr. Kerbs and passing on what he wanted done to them. We were working hard everyday on Academy Days, a two day event in which people from all over the state came to check out the academy and the school presented various special programs for them. As was my usual custom, I wanted it to be over the top and better and bigger than it had ever been done before. Kim and Ellen were very efficient at making things happen so I’d run my ideas by Mr. Kerbs and we’d start implementing them. I was not then nor am I now very diplomatic and my approach to getting things done was for all intents and purposes barking orders. One morning, Ellen had enough and she loudly yelled at me and reprimanded me saying “you come in here every morning and tell everybody what to do and you never EVER say good morning.” It was one of those moments where a few people were around and they all had that uneasy look on their face; I didn’t know how to respond so all I said was, “good morning.” I’m not sure why that moment sticks so strongly in my head; it was not the first or last time anyone yelled at me about similar discourtesies but to this day every time I go into someone’s office I remember that and say good morning. I’ve not overcome it but that memory helps me try to remember that people are more than the sum of their roles.

Shortly after that happened, we headed back down to Mexico for another mission trip. This time we were not even taking another preacher along since I was going to be the lead batter. We had decided this time not to bill it as an evangelistic series but rather as a health series. Having a long history of encouraging healthful living, the Adventist church has for over a century endorsed things like keeping the levitical code of clean and unclean meats, abstinence from drugs including alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, encouragement of exercise etc. I was going to be preaching on what Ellen G. White, a prophet in the Adventist tradition, had labeled the eight natural remedies: nutrition, exercise, water, sunlight, temperance, air, rest and trust in God. They would be divided into two categories per night and the last night I was going to present temperance (essentially absence from drugs) and trust in God. As a way to illustrate the old “this is your brain on drugs principle”, I had actually purchased tequila, knowing that an egg steeped in alcohol with a high enough proof appears to cook (it’s a chemical reaction). After having shown that, the plan was to continue about how there was a church that for over one hundred and fifty years had been proclaiming that the body and soul were connected, that the spirit lived in this vessel and both were part of who we were and that God cared about them as a unit. Keeping the temple of our bodies healthier was better for us personally both in health and how we were able to maintain relationships with each other and with God. The altar call would come after that, asking people to join the church that was listening to the entirety of God’s message to us, one that was trying to reach our mind, our body, our soul and restore the balance between them.

The week had gone much better than the previous year since I had received more time to prepare the talks. Shortly after I had shown the egg demonstration, I put the egg down on the floor and was attempting to begin the altar call. Someone in the aisle pointed at me and told me to look at my nose. I reached for it and it was beginning to bleed pretty badly. In surprise I stepped back rather suddenly and knocked the tequila with the egg in it and in moments, the room had a smell of tequila and raw egg. Shannon had come along with us on that trip and she went to get me tissue for both my nose and the floor.

Not really knowing when to quit, I held my nose and continued to the altar call. So in a moment that felt incredibly sacred, I was holding my bleeding nose in a room that smelled of alcohol and raw eggs asking people to come to Jesus. To my surprise and my quiet assurance that this had to do more with the message than the messenger, eight people responded, stepping forward to accept a life of better health with the Lord of the universe. It was one of the most humbling and faith building moments of my life, a keen awareness that Jesus was working through us even when we literally stumbled in his work.

We again gave them the crash course on Friday and that Saturday we baptized those eight people. Interestingly enough, one of the baptismal candidates was a girl not much older than me and she tried to very overtly flirt with me after after her baptism; it was an odd thing to me and after congratulating her, I quickly and quiet slipped away.

The day after the baptisms, we headed back to VGA and we arrived just in time for these famed academy days. I remember they ran without a hitch and it was the best attended academy days during my four years there. Perhaps, the happiest single memory I have from all of high school happened on that Sunday. Shannon and Leandro started to perform as part of the end of year talent show that was always scheduled for then. Leandro started to play something and Shannon timidly sang something. Having only gotten out a few words, the MC’s Josie and Ellen, cut them off and said that it wasn’t good enough. Josie memorably said, “this is for Iram, the VP, come on you have to do better.” In my mind, I thought she was going to just simply pipe up and pick it up but then Ellen suggested, “I know, you need to do it in Spanish.” They quickly dismissed the fact that she didn’t speak Spanish and moments later, she bolted out that song in beautiful Spanish. Moments later, I was simply weeping in the back, overwhelmed by the fact that I was completely in love with this girl all over again; I was wrong all those other times, this girl, she definitely was the one, my Destiny.

The school year ended a few weeks after that and the end was just a flood of activity. I graduated valedictorian and was given tons of scholarships at graduation, apparently having the choice between all the Adventist schools to essentially go for free (I’d also been accepted to Harvard with a decent financial need scholarship; however, since I was completely committed to being an Adventist pastor, an Adventist college was the only choice I had only applied to see if could get in).

The morning after graduation I hugged several friends goodbye and then it hit me. I had spent my entire high school rushing to grow up, trying to be a pastor, the vice principal. There was a keen awareness of the fact that I had missed my childhood and more significantly contact with all of these great friends that I’d had in high school. While crying into Shannon’s shoulder, I made a pledge to myself that I would stay in contact with my high school friends for the rest of my life. I vowed that this mistake of having taken this people for granted would be corrected no matter how long it took. In my typical fashion, it was a dramatic gesture which I fully intended to keep.

Monday, December 21, 2009

22 Razzle Dazzle

Interestingly enough, Shannon and I actually settled into a pattern where we generally accepted what we were doing as normal. We got put on social once early in the year but then never again. I was deeply enamored; I’d never worked harder at impressing a girl. On her 16th birthday, I worked hard to show her how special she was. Leandro and a few other guys set up a serenade outside her window at the stroke of midnight. Alexis actually came to the window first, instantly rolled her eyes, smiled, and got Shannon. The next morning, I had gifts for her throughout the day and I’d arranged for us to go to the Olive Garden for dinner. I essentially never go to chain restaurants anymore but Shannon and I still go back to Olive Garden on occasion just to remember that first birthday. I was completely head over heels for that girl with a greater intensity that I’d had for anyone since Jennifer. I even felt like I finally got over Jennifer with Shannon’s arrival in my life. It was so much so that for reasons even I don’t understand I called Jennifer and asked her to give the shirt back that I had given her. On my way to Shannon’s house for thanksgiving on the school bus, she showed up in San Antonio, gave it back, and that was the first and last time I ever saw Jennifer since we were Freshmen.
I spent Thanksgiving that year at Shannon’s house during which we managed to get caught making out in her room by her parents. It’s been well over a decade since then and I married the girl and I think her father still hasn’t forgiven me about that.
That senior year was a flurry of activity. The student senate wrote the school’s constitution that year (don’t think it’s gotten much use), the student association put on great productions and we generally rocked the world just like we thought we would. We had fantastic weeks of prayer that year with two powerful dynamic preachers, Keith Gray and Van Hurst. We praised with passion, prayed with power, worshiped without worry.
Shortly after getting laid off at the glass factory, I started working for the new principal, Mr. Kerbs. The school had eliminated the vice principal position years back and we didn’t have one. Mr. Kerbs was an ambitious type, instilling a school uniform, giving us more Advance Placement Classes, and wanting to be the most aggressive recruiter the school had ever seen. I ended up working for him very early into the school year and he liked my enthusiasm and obsession with work. Valley Grande Academy was the place where I thought I had learned to live life, love God, and make the best friends I’d ever had. I wanted to make sure it continued to succeed.
In many ways, I was given a blank check. I contacted churches and school for our bell choir to perform at. With help from local churches, we’d crash on couches or guest rooms. We always got to take an extra person or two with us because it was a 15 passenger van and the bell choir only had ten plus the director and an extra faculty member. There may be no better example of the fact that I had way too much influence around the school in that Shannon went on every single one of these trips except one. She was not in the bell choir although I made sure that she got involved in the program with singing or being in a skit but it would be less than honest to say she was an integral part. For a comparison, Leandro with his considerable talent was only invited once (the extra guest besides Shannon was typically someone from the town we were going to). We did a weekend in Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, and West Texas. VGA had never been out to West Texas, but that’s where I had come from and it meant the school was paying for a trip for me to see my mother.
Those tours are the happiest memories I have from high school, a bit of an irony since they were all away from campus. Nonetheless, they were constant activity with church and worship being a big focal point. Socializing was central to it; everyone was there who I loved. All the people who would be bridesmaids in our wedding and our best man were on this group (Kendra, Josie, Alycia, Ellen and Gil). We were meeting new people and telling them about things we were passionate about, Jesus and VGA. The vast majority of the times, I gave worship talks in the beginning, middle, or end of our performances and a small pitch about VGA. One of those times I even got to preach to a camp meeting, several thousand people at once in attendance. I didn’t get along that well with the music director, Elphis. More than once she complained that I had overscheduled the group with too many performances in one weekend, but the scheduling never got lighter so it was clear who was running the show. That small bump was easy to ignore compared to all the pluses.
I was plenty busy when I was on campus as well. I was a Student Association officer, a Boys Club officer, a Class Officer, on the yearbook staff, and the principal’s go to man. I had influence on way too much of the school, so much so that my nickname that year -both in a complimentary way and a derisive way- became the vice principal. The treasurer, Rafael Barboza, was so amused by all this that at the end of the year, he drew a stick figure into the faculty yearbook picture and labeled it as me. It was so much so that at one faculty meeting, I had written all six of the proposals: two on behalf of the principal, four on behalf of student organizations but not one of them had my name attached to it.
This level of influence from a 17 year old kid was resented by a few faculty members who made it very clear to me and/or to Mr. Kerbs. Mr. Kerbs was the kind of guy that was just happy to get stuff done no matter who was doing it so he shrugged it off. (For a guy who I worked so close for and next to for so long, it was completely a professional relationship and we never clicked at all. Coincidentally, a few years out of high school, I ended up assigned next to him and his wife on an American Airlines flight. After a few minutes of catching up, we had nothing to say to each other). People were less than polite and some of the comments stung a lot. I hope and would like to believe that the comments would have been the same no matter who the student was if they had that much influence. However, I knew this wasn’t true; most students would not reach for that much, and even if they had, they wouldn’t have done it so efficiently because they wouldn’t have done it so compulsively. If that weren’t enough, my brusque personality added plenty of fuel to the fire. I retreated and was not ready for the conflict from people I respected. I told Mr. Kerbs that I was going to resign. I knew there was a position on the custodial staff and asked Mr. Barboza if I could be a janitor. Laughing me off, he soon realized I was serious and convinced me that I was doing good work and that people would always misunderstand people like me. He encouraged me to approach the job more humbly and stick with it.
I asked him then, as I’ve asked many people since, how you do that humility thing. How do you do things more humbly while continuing to do them honestly? It appeared to me that everyone who came across as humble had one of two qualities. They were either like Leandro gifted with a personality that I’d never had, or they were being dishonest (you can call this polite if you like) in denying qualities they had. If I told you that you were 5’8 and you were, you would not say ‘No I’m actually five feet,’ but when people refer to you by one of your talents, you were supposed to say thank you and then appear to demur about how it wasn’t true. This was silly or dishonest to me and I could never quite do it. It’s not like I had chosen to be disciplined, or academic, or efficient. These were qualities I was stuck with and they were in many ways a sickness, worrying about making sure details were successful that frankly most people didn’t care about. But admitting then that I had these qualities was as significant to me as saying I had green eyes. It was just a part of me, but people have always labeled me arrogant for knowing my traits.
Some faculty members joked that I would grow up to be the youngest conference president the Adventist church had known. A small but vocal minority thought my responsibilities were keeping me from focusing on the true and significant aspects of growing up. The naysayers at that point and every point in my life have always had far more influence on my emotions and always trying to get people to more universally accept me was an unrealistic goal of mine for a long time.
In the end, I threatened to quit right up until the last moment but never did. The day I was supposed to start as a janitor I went into the office and no one ever said anything and the faculty that were upset with me seemed to have given up on hoping for change. That was the closest I ever got to being broken and it probably would have done me a lot of good.

Friday, December 18, 2009

21 What If I Stumble

Dating Shannon opened a floodgate of emotions in my mind, allowing many things like ghosts that Jennifer had left in me rip open. For some reason throughout the years, I had never been able to quite shake her off. Off all the girls, she was the best looking one, the smartest and had really for better or worse (worse) shaped me for future relationships. Her approach that physicality and emotions set the tone for each other had not been good for me. She’d really helped contribution to my confusion about which was the cart and which was the horse.

Shannon had never kissed anyone before me; I think she’d only ever held someone’s hand. In retrospect, that view that looks so clear after the fact, I wish I could have told you that I had treated that with respect and due diligence, remembering that Jennifer’s approach had not been great for my psyche, I should have been more self conscious but I was not. On the very way back from the beach trip there was a mile long bridge to get off South Padre Island. Students long before my time had devised what was called “The VGA Challenge” which essentially was making out over the course of the bridge. Only an hour or so after I’d asked her to be my girlfriend, we faced and overcame the challenge.

Shannon had all of Jennifer’s best qualities, she was smart (later would graduate valedictorian of her class), capable (went on to be the yearbook editor after Ellen) and had strength of personality (people predicted in my yearbook she would be the first female president while I would be the “First Man” in the white house). She was still growing into her skin though, still shaping to be an incredible woman and I was helping influence that.

I can’t say that I did a good job in all frankness. Unfortunately, I was still way too interested in making out with her as often as I could. I did try to be a good influence on her as well in my own way; starting Bible studies with her every morning. However, shortly afterwards we would complete them and then sneak into the girls bathroom to make out (hard to get caught and put on social there, the boys bathroom would have been worse but yeah eww). Shannon has often joked in our adult life that she had no chance of having a good vision of God when this pastorly kid was praying with her and then taking her into a bathroom to make out. I struggled with the idea of it all and talked to her about it, essentially asking her to stop me but then trying to make out with her moments afterwards.

Dr. Cruz would invite students over to his house on occasion. On at least one occasion, it was just Shannon and I. He had something come up and left us for a while not unlike his Bible class tests. He made a comment about how he trusted us to behave while he was gone. I failed that trust. The struggle I have with these things is that I don’t think that in high school I did anything particularly bad but I kept having to hide things that were relatively normal and feeling guilty and the act of justifying little things you think are bad makes a crack in the conscience, it dulls the tip.

On one particular occasion, as I was walking around on a Friday morning, I noticed that the home economics room was open. I checked it throughout the day and it continued to be open. This was unusual because it had not been used in years so finally at the end of the day I took Shannon there because frankly it was an upgrade from the bathroom. We hadn’t been in there more than a few minutes when the on duty staff, Mr. Huff was checking all the doors and passed by. Muttering something to himself of wondering why this was open, he locked it. I had two instincts, one was to say something, the other to not. I did not.

Now, one may be wondering why this would be such a problem but it was a huge problem because that particular classroom had only a deadbolt so there was no way to get out without a key. The room had not been used in years so there was no phone in there. The classrooms were a hundred yards away from anything else and there was a whole other row of classrooms in between that row and campus so screaming wouldn’t help. The windows were double paned, twelve feet up and did not open. It was Friday afternoon which meant no one would be around until at least Monday morning. Shannon was in a panic and while I was covering it by being in trouble solving mode, so was I. I dug through the drawers to try to see if there was anything I could pick the lock with but they had long been empty.

Finally, I found a board underneath one of the drawers along the wall. On the other side was outdoors and so I started kicking it out of place. It was bolted in but apparently not well because after a couple of dozen kicks, I’d popped it out of place. In that same cabinet was also the water heater, I started pushing it aside to create enough space for Shannon and I to crawl out. We then began to crawl out, Shannon first and after a few moments, she couldn’t squeeze out any further so I pushed the water heater and it was still not enough. Pushed again and the pipe burst and suddenly there was water everywhere. Talk about opening a floodgate. I found what closed the water and Shannon and I both headed back to our dorm. I found the student janitor who had keys to everything and talked him into giving me the key so that I could go back and clean things up as best as possible.

Friday night was when Leandro, Jeremy and I used to meet. What had originally inspired this group was a sermon by Tony Campolo about having accountability partners and groups, people who you can be honest with. So I told them what had happened and almost simultaneously Leandro and Jeremy both stated to me that I needed to own it and essentially confess to faculty.

This was easier said than done. Ron Huff was the staff member on duty that night. This was the military teacher I’d mentioned a couple of times. He walked like he’d been in the military and bluntly was one of the few teachers I’d ever had who intimidated me. He walked like he’d been in the military, still had that stern look and the same haircut. One of the hobbies he had listed in the yearbook was “making fun of Iram.” This was the draw that I’d gotten. I went and told Shannon that we needed to own it much to her chagrin and mortification. I told him the story during which he had an angry look on his face. Afterwards, there was a silence that seemed to just not end and then, Mr. Huff just started laughing and laughing and laughing. After an eternity of his guffaws, he said not to worry about it and that he would get maintenance to fix it.

It was an incredible act of grace and kindness and I received it as such. Something similar like this had happened when I was a freshmen, the vice principal had found Jennifer and I in the computer lab when we shouldn’t have been. Jennifer worked there and had been issued keys so we were utilizing it. Mr. Duncan had sat me in his office (this was the first time I’d ever been in trouble in school) and he didn’t put us on social or have any consequences at all. Rather, he stated “the problem with people today is that when they do something wrong, they are more worried about the punishment than they are about learning something. Think about this and learn something.”

These men had given me an opportunity to process, to think things through and to realize I’d been given an opportunity. The problem was that each one of these men who trusted me didn’t know about each other. Steve, Dr. Cruz, Mr. Duncan, Mr. Huff, each of these guys plus others had trusted me and said hey you failed that trust but you’ll get it next time. In a complete cop out, I wish that they hadn’t trusted me, that they had given me more direction and less trust at that stage in my life. That, of course, is cowardly; they were in their own way doing the right thing. It was cowardly as having asked Shannon to stop me from making out with her. The problem was that with each opportunity that kept coming but the lesson that was prevailing in my head was that I was somehow exempt from the rules, that the consequences were for other people and by virtue of being one of the good kids or the pastorly type that I had more leeway.

So I didn’t learn the right lesson and I likely passed the wrong one on to Shannon. We kept doing church programs that year, helped a pastor move in that year, we helped Mr. Glass dig a foundation for an extension to his house. While we were driving to all of them, more often than not I would be making out with Shannon on the way to or from them. I don’t know if the proponents of so little contact were right or wrong but some level of reasoning or talking about it would have helped. The only conversation anyone ever had with me about this in my entire life was my mom crying and telling me not to get any girl pregnant.

Ironic that I think the fault I had learned from Jennifer I would now replicate with Shannon. There was, of course, affection behind it. Perhaps, this was actually Shannon’s greatest strength. This history of girlfriends had allowed me to cheapen love. I said I love you to girls without thinking about it. Shannon had never said it to anyone and was committed to having it mean something. It was rather unnerving when for several weeks into dating her, I would say I love you and she would not respond other than a smile or thank you. This made me rethink love and affection and it made me love her that much more. When she finally said it back, it was the most meaningful I love you I ever remember hearing.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

20 An Unexpected Song

On Sabbath the next day, I walked into church and they were both saving a seat for me. I went and sat next to Michael who quickly abandoned me to be followed by Kendra and Josie motioning for me to go sit with them. I had weighed it out and done many pros and cons again and had decided Shannon was going to be the who I was going to try to pursue. I didn’t want to ruin the long standing friendship with Kendra nor, if and when we broke up, have to deal with our social circle having exes in it. Shannon also presented the challenge of having to beat a couple of other applicants to the job. I told Kendra that I thought we would better off as friends and she handled it gracefully.

That night, it was time for the new talent show, a talent show highlighting only new students and faculty. They posted the program around campus that afternoon and to my surprise, Shannon was listed as doing a piano piece. I was surprised that she hadn’t mentioned this in any of our conversations. Jeremy and I went into the school cafeteria to see the stooges gathered around her making quite a commotion. I inquired as to what was going on and Shannon explained that they had asked her if she would play and she had said no so she was really embarrassed to have her name on the program because she had no intention of playing. The stooges proceeded to say they had been trying to talk her into it with no success to which I declared that I was sure I could get her to do it. I then whispered something into her ear and she smiled and said she would do it. The stooges were positively livid. Shortly afterwards, Shannon got her meal and again sat down by herself. Jeremy and I had every intention of sitting with her but the other applicants were trying to pad their resume some more and sat down right before we were going to. Jeremy and I sat down on the other side of the cafeteria and he said he was going to give me a hand with the situation. Jeremy called Shannon over and with great style and poise asked if she would join us for lunch. She said she’d like to but that she felt bad; Jeremy countered with that they had each other. She smiled, Jeremy asked her to sit down and then he went and got her food and brought it to our table.

Shannon and I spent the afternoon together with most of the conversation being about how nervous she was and me providing whatever reassurance I could. A few hours later it was time for the talent show and she was in one of the piano rehearsal rooms practicing. I found her moments before the show was supposed to start and she was still very uneasy. We looked at each other and hugged each other and I told her she would be fine. It was a very long hug.

I don’t remember any other acts from that night but I do remember Shannon getting up there. She was wearing a cute little hat and other than the glasses were still the same, could it be that she had transformed into such a beautiful young lady in just a few days’ time. She began to play “Waiting for You” on the piano, playing it quietly at first but eventually growing slightly more confident and even adding a few variations. As she was playing, one of the stooges, to his credit, goes up and puts up a hibiscus on top of the grand piano. She smiled that smile that still makes my life worthwhile but it was directed at someone else. I’d been upstaged while she was up on the stage. Jeremy was standing next to me and I gave him some money and asked him to go buy me some roses since he was a village student and had his own car.

Afterwards, the stooge tried to talk to her and she patiently waited but eventually came around to talking to me. We went and sat on one of the benches around the fountain. That hibiscus was now in her hair and was really bugging me. I had hidden the flowers under the bench where I took her to so I took the hibiscus from her ear and tossed it behind me. Immediately afterwards, I pulled out the flowers and gave them to her. We laughed and flirted and giggled and I think we were both sold. Maybe just maybe Miguel was right and finally this one was The One.

When I walked into the dorm that night, several of the guys let me know just how big of a douchebag move it was to throw that flower over my shoulder. The presenter was ready for a brawl which was avoided. I couldn’t bring myself to apologize sincerely or not. The next day was the school mall trip and Shannon had needed a calculator and didn’t have money. I bought her one and she was thoroughly impressed (she should have been; I had been spending the very little spending money on her on her flowers and her needs but not acknowledging that I had no money). We flirted over the next week and talked and laughed and giggled some more each day.

The upcoming weekend was the school’s upcoming beach trip. I had planned to ask her to be my girlfriend on Monday, September 8th because well because it had an eight in it. However, after spending the day with her on the beach and remembering she’d grown up in Hawaii and loved the ocean, in the middle of the day I decided that I would ask her to be my girlfriend. There was just one problem: I couldn’t seem to work up the courage. A few hours later it was almost time to head back and I asked her if she wanted to go take a walk before we left knowing this would be my last chance. After walking for a while, I hem and hawed and said:

“I’ve been wondering…I mean I’ve been meaning to ask you…what I wanted to say…it’be good…um…if…um…you know uh…what time is it?”


“That’s cool, really cool, 4:18. Cool.” Some more walking down the beach “Actually, what I was trying to say…back …over there…where…we uh were…be be before… was…um do you …would you… could you…tell me what time it is?”

With a bemused look Shannon answered, “4:19”

“Awesome. Really awesome that it’s like uh been a whole minute since you know you last um told me…let’s keep walking…no wait…uh we have to get back…no let’s um sit down…um great job on the piano last week…uh how’s the calculator working out…just wondering…would uh, what time is it?”

She takes off her watch and hands it to me “So that you don’t have to ask so much.”
“Wow that’s a pretty watch. Um… what I wanted to know was um…would you, you know, be like um, my…my…girlfriend?”

She smiled and said yes and it was the most excited I’d ever been about having a girl say yes ever. She made my day. I tried to give her back her watch but she told me to keep it. It’s been over twelve years since that day 9/7/97 but each year I still take her out to eat to remember. And the watch? It hangs on the mirror of every car I’ve ever had since then.

19 Oh

The next day was registration and I was working with Michael on creating the id’s and having students fill out some registration forms. The sheet that students had to fill out requested various information points including a birth date. Michael suddenly asked if someone could go find a Shannon Marie LeBlanc. She had put her birthday as November of ’97 and considering it was August of the same year, we figured it was a mistake. I volunteered to go and started searching through the various registration places. I had actually volunteered in order to get out of the office and socialize a little but unfortunately she was in the very next registration station in the history room. It was the girl who Miguel had pointed out. She had on a better outfit but her hair and glasses still were the same. After I found her, she corrected her birthday to the right year. She looked slightly overwhelmed and rather nervous about this adventure of coming to academy. I introduced myself and offered help with anything whatsoever she needed. She smiled up while looking down and I wondered if maybe I had judged this girl too harshly. That awkward moment was interrupted by an even more awkward moment when her father less than subtly suggested that he was ready to move on. I had barely noticed this guy but I suddenly was intimidated. The military background he had came out incredibly clearly; I ineptly said nice to move, I mean meet, you and headed back to the office.

We got all of the students registered and later that evening there was going to be an opening night assembly to get new school year enthusiasm going. However, after dinner there was a couple of hours to kill. The gym was open and a game of basketball was going on. Most students, myself included, were spending time catching up with friends they hadn’t seen all summer, trading stories. I saw Shannon out of the corner of my eye sitting on her own absorbing it all but not really talking to anyone. After having taking a year away from girls, the shyness with which I had approached Nicole and the one I had not been able to overcome with Jane was back. Strangely overwhelmed, I couldn’t get myself to go and talk to her. I went and found a volleyball and got a group of people to get in a circle and just hit the ball around all with the excuse of inviting her to come play. She accepted the invitation and the game lasted for a while. I was next to her in the circle and talked to her and the girl who would be her roommate, Alexis Franklin.

Alexis was a sweet young lady who for a freshman was very confident. She had a presence about her which demanded acknowledgement but a smile which beamed so brightly you knew that it was worth acknowledging. I was talking to them both but clearly wanting to pay more attention to Shannon. Alexis wasn’t catching this and kept interjecting and trying to just be part of the conversation. After the game finally died, I tried to talk to Shannon again but Alexis still came along. Alexis finally grew bored and wanted to meet other people and so it was just Shannon and I finally getting to talk.

She was from Puerto Rican descent, a Junior from Killeen, clearly ill at ease and wanting to adjust to this place, never having lived away from her parents. She had three younger siblings who were only in elementary. It was clear she was smart and that there was some part of herself she was holding back but wanted to show. Shannon wanted to be known but would not push herself onto the scene. I was becoming quickly fascinated with her when someone called out to me. The assembly was about to begin and the student association officers were running it. I muttered an odd comment about how nice it was to have met her and headed on my way. There was no magical moment where I knew she was the one. I hadn’t even decided this was someone to pursue romantically but I’d realized she had an entice all her own.

After the school assembly, I sat and talked with our group of senior friends. Josie, Jeremy, Michael, Leandro, Kisha, Ellen, Alycia were all there and so was one Junior. There was a girl I had known since I was a freshmen and she was in eighth grade, Kendra McBean. She was from the same town as Alycia so there had always been a connection. She was a cute black girl who often was louder on the outside than what was going on inside, evoking drama that I’m not sure she usually felt in order to ensure some attention. She was enthusiastic and passionate about life. She was also talented musically and had been with us in the Bell choir. Despite the fact that she was in a different class, she was a fairly certain fixture in our group. I ended up chatting with her quiet a bit that night. Someone in the group noticed and said something about how cute we looked together. We gave each other an uncomfortable look and moved on.

School started and each day was a lot of fun. I was feeling less pressure as vice president than I had as religious vice and was more at ease. I felt like I’d generally succeeded in staying away from girls the previous year and felt like if I did get a girlfriend this year, I’d be smarter about it. I was spending a disproportionate amount of time with both Kendra and Shannon although only one at a time. With Kendra, it was more than overt flirting but, both of us always having big personalities, it could mean a lot or nothing at all. With Shannon, it was just conversations, getting to know her better, finding out she played piano and sang, had grown up in Hawaii and loved the hibiscuses that were growing on campus. Shannon had never really had a boyfriend, just one boy who was one of those young relationships were you were dating but only talked on the phone and wouldn’t face each other in person. She was innocent and unsullied in part due to her shyness but I think she generally projected purity about her at that stage.

I wasn’t the only one giving Shannon attention nor was I giving her the most attention. Shy as she might have been, there two or three other boys interested in her. She didn’t have an aggressive approach at all. She was always the girl who would sit by her self. At first, it would be Alexis who joined her. Soon though, it seemed that one of the three stooges, sometimes all of them, would join her. She clearly liked the attention, it was a novelty to her and while she was besieged by so much of it, I think the newness to it was welcome to her. She had come from a tiny school where there were only one or two boys her age for several girls and all the boys had been interested in one of the other girls.

High school relationships happen fast; they start fast, occur fast and often finish fast. It’s just the nature of that age and stage of life. In our particular case, everything was even expedited. We lived at the school so we saw these people all day as anyone else would and then we had breakfast, lunch and dinner with them, evening activities and weekend activities; a socializing that was something fierce.

It was the first Thursday of the school year, a mere four or five days since I had met Shannon and since the comment about Kendra. I was coming home from working at the glass factory and on my way onto campus, Josie or Alycia came up to me and said that Kendra had a crush on me and I should think about pursuing it. Flattered, I headed into my room, got dressed and headed to the cafeteria for lunch. As I was about to head in, Alexis pulled me aside and mentioned that although Shannon hadn’t stated as such, she believed that Shannon had a crush on me and wouldn’t it be exciting to be her first real boyfriend and proceeded to sell all of what she thought were Shannon’s high points. In a situation that had never occurred before, I was encouraged to pursue two girls within a few moments time. I simply said "Oh" to myself. That was one of the few lunches I ever had by myself in high school.

While I wasn’t committed to staying away from girls like I had my junior year, I wasn’t quite ready for this. I quickly went through the pros and cons of each girl. Kendra was part of our social group so that would be easy. She was a strong personality and a lot fun. I knew her well and so she knew my baggage but I also knew some of hers. Shannon appeared to carry so little baggage but she had so many unknowns. I had not been able to put her in neat categories as I often do with most people which was both a plus and a minus.

Over the next week, I spent lots of time thinking about this and frankly flirting a great deal with both girls. Shannon continued to just be calm and collected; it was unclear whether she was interested in me or one of the other stooges. Kendra was more assertive and confident, stronger but I’d seen her relationships in the past and was worried about turning out like one of them.

I talked to several friends about this like Leandro, Jeremy and Michael and all the girls. The split was not even but some people favored each one repeating many of the same pros and cons that I had weighed out. Sadly, I must confess, I even made a coin that had Kendra taped on one side and Shannon on the other. Honestly, I can’t recall which side landed up. There was one time where as I went back and forth in my mind I called Shannon (we had payphones in each dorm). After a while, I asked her to put Josie on the phone not so much because I wanted to talk to Josie since I already had her perspective but just so that I could chat with her for a while and then let her get Kendra.

The second Friday night of the year we were having fountain service and I was desperately trying to avoid them both. However, when it was time for everyone to go around and hug each other, Shannon came up from behind me, softly touched my arm and commented on that she’d been looking for me before giving me a soft delicate embrace. Kendra found me moments later, hugged me tightly and kissed me on the cheek and commented on my outfit looking sharp. The group started to gather and both girls were coming towards me and I quickly realized that if this continued I would end up in the prayer circle with one girl on each side. I walked away and headed towards the dorm, thinking it might be better to pray alone that night.

18 Let's Get it Started

After another summer at summer camp, it was now finally our time. We were seniors, the big fish in this small pond. We were by all accounts one of the most promising classes ever to go through the place; smart, talented, and good looking. We were going to rule.

The student association officers arrived a few days early and we were ready to set up registration. Michael was a computer genius type guy and in the days where digital cameras were relatively new he had figured out how to make student id’s essentially on the spot. Jeremy was not as big of a micro-manager as I, nor did he feel compelled to do as much as I did and was signing up volunteers to help run the campus ministries. Alycia was preparing her run for class president; she would succeed in getting elected. She had gone through her own version of dating a few guys her junior year but now she was starting her time of focus. Ellen was now the yearbook editor; her eye for design was already developing as she would eventually get into advertising. She and Gil were still happily dating.

I was going to be roommates with one of the finest young men I knew: Leandro Bizama. He was a young Argentinean with soft features that reflected his poised approach. Leandro had many gifts. He was a talented musician, the type that can hear a song and then repeat it immediately embellishing on it the very first time he played. He could and did pick up various instruments and mastered them with apparently no effort. Anytime we needed a new piece in the band, he picked it up and found a way to succeed. He was very spiritual; his prayers went up with the same naturalness with which birds fly. People often remarked that when they imagined Jesus, they thought he was a lot like Leandro. We had bonded over the last year as he also came around to the churches and helped with the Spanish programs; we were a pair of significant contrasts on every stage. I was a big ego and he really did appear only to reflect the glory of God. He spoke with an accent that gave him extra allure and there never seemed to be anything disingenuous about him. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, his were always clear. But among all the gifts he had, the one that was the greatest was personality. I am not sure he realized it then or does now but just as some are naturally athletic or naturally academic, he was naturally kind and sincere. He would be hurt and angry and irritated but did so more peacefully than anyone I’ve ever met. I lived with the guy for a year and while he was human, he was less so than most of us, given a calm temperament that made any room seem better when he was in it.

We had many great conversations over our friendships and over the years. We discussed small and large points of religion. He made God look so magnanimous, so big and yet so approachable. We prayed together and studied the Bibles together. Every year of my life it seemed I was having Bible studies with someone. The two most memorable because they were the most sincere were my freshmen year when Alycia and I would study regularly and my senior year with Leandro. Alycia had a simplicity that bordered on gullibility when we studied. We soaked it up like sponges, eagerly taking in God’s truth. But the problem with sponges is they lose the moisture when push comes to shove and when left in the heat, water easily evaporates. With Leandro, his Bible studies were more like that same water reaching soil. Soil absorbs it too, but it is not easily removed once there. It uses that moisture to change, to grow, to feed and give life to things connected to it. Alycia and I had looked upon God’s truths from a distance, amazed in our young minds. Leandro dove in and splashed around in it; dealing with it with more grit and allowing some of the messiness to be part of the essence. Jeremy would join us in some of these studies. Jeremy was a pastor’s son and had good spiritual capacity. He would add things that Leandro and I would both miss. There was a point I thought we’d all grow up to become pastors. Today none of us are.

The class of ’97 had eventually given my class jacket back. They had done so publicly at the end of the year banquet shortly before the announcement of the election results. They had taken turns pretending to spit on it, rubbing it on their armpits or treating it like faux toilet paper over their clothes. I am not sure even today who got the better prank, but I was just so glad that our senior year had arrived that I almost put it on. I hung it on the back of the chair where I was assigned to registration. It was time to be a senior.

I was going to be working in the glass factory along with both Michael and Jeremy, creating beauty that I didn’t really understand. I mean it impressed me but not the way it seemed to move others. What I really did enjoy was that Mr. Conley, the boss, would let me contribute ideas to the design. There were these subtle theological designs for the ones that were going to church. (I’ve always enjoyed things that had hidden meanings or double meanings. My favorite thing was to say things in class or life where I believed something very different than what I was saying but said it with a straight face. So many times no one except Leandro would catch it.) Anyway, a few weeks later the glass factory was having financial problems and they laid me off. I asked Mr. Conley if it was because I was the one who had been working the least time there or because I was the least talented at it. He smiled and commended me on my self awareness.

It was the Saturday before school was supposed to start. Registration was going to be on Sunday but a huge percentage of the dorm and village students were already there. We all went to church together and afterwards as we headed to a potluck I was chatting with Miguel Espinosa. Miguel was one of the young faculty guys, not even 30 yet. He was always smiling and he approached life with vigor and enthusiasm of youth. We were joking around and talking about our summers when all of a sudden he nudged his head in a certain direction, signaling me with his chin.

I looked up and there was this girl with her hair up. She had big glasses on and a less than attractive pink purple dress. In my mind, I thought back to the jokes that Jennifer and I had made about what she would dress like to keep away the guys and this wasn’t far from it. I looked at Miguel questioning why he was pointing my attention to her. He smiled and said, “That girl right there, that’s the one you’re going to end up with. You and her are going to make it. She’s the one for you.” I laughed at his idea that somehow this stranger who needed some fashion and hair advice was going to be my girlfriend. I scoffed that he was so certain that she was my Destiny.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

17 The Windmills of Your Mind

While my junior year was the happiest one I had in high school, it was also where I started to hone the fact that faith in life wasn’t just the beauty of walking on water, but also contained some less than subtle elements.

Those who are faithful would of course try to assume that faith only has pretty elements and that anything that distracts from that is a distortion. That may be accurate, but I contend that when you start the premise of an argument with “I’m right and those who disagree with me are going to hell and be dead forever,” then faith lends itself to an easy distortion.

I got to be more political that year. I had a real study in contrasts. The first of these was Kisha Norris. Kisha was part of our class and had been there since we were freshmen. She was smart but not atypically so. She was musically gifted and while better than average, still not a complete standout. Where she did and does excel is that Kisha is the most political person I’ve ever met. She appeared to never miss an opportunity to say the right thing to the right person. I don’t doubt the sincerity of any of her statements but she seemed to go out of her way to make sure that it was always said in a way that maximized her benefit, to do the right thing and make sure to get the highest potential credit from it. She was the Student Association President that year and did a fantastic job. She ran a tight ship and improved many of the student activities.

However, at the end of that year, it was time for Student Association elections again. For some reason, she decided not to run for re-election. Originally I thought she was holding out for Class President the next year (each one got to speak at graduation). I also did not run for re-election, I thought that a new pair of hands on the work of religious vice might be good. I decided to take about a half notch up and run for vice-president. A few days later Kisha announced she was also running for vice-president. I’ve never been more intimidated by an election. I spent the next few weeks “aggressively campaigning” which meant that I actually got teachers from every grade to let me enter their class and have a “town hall” if you will. In prototypical political fashion, I listened to what they thought could be improved about the school and was genuinely interested. The vice president of the school ran the student senate (representatives from each class and club on campus) and had some ability to make some changes. In less than delicate fashion, I said that Kisha had done a good job as SA president but had only somewhat improved what she had been handed; I, on the other hand, had taken the religious vice responsibilities toba whole new level. Kisha would confront me a few days before the election asking what I had essentially said about her because it had become worse in the telling. Still it was a contest and I had played to win, I wanted to sit on the front desk. I remember being incredibly uncomfortable saying to Kisha that I essentially said that I was better than her for the position, but I believed it.

The guy running for President that year was Michael Johnston. He was a village student and incredibly smart. He was the complete opposite of Kisha. He had no overt political approach but was a pretty straight shooter and said things the way they were. I don’t remember if anyone ran against him but I don’t think it was anyone who had a realistic chance of beating him. He was going to be less frilly than Kisha in many ways and perhaps more substantive. He was also my main competition for academic awards. Alycia, Ellen and a few others had mentioned that they were hoping/trying to be valedictorian but they had not taken the same amount of Advanced Placement and/or Honors classes so it was going to be between us too. I don’t know whether or not he was gunning for Valedictorian (I was) but he ended up being second and I first. Now, he’s a doctor with a medical degree from Loma Linda University and I’m a juvenile probation officer so clearly I won both in the academic wars and in the game of life.

Jeremy Friesen was running for religious vice president. Jeremy was also a day student. I couldn’t quite figure out why so many village students were running for office. They were hardly there and their motivation to be helpful to the students who were literally there 24/7 had to be limited. Jeremy made some crack once about how he had to deal with my aftermath with his girlfriend Mary and now he would have to do the same with the office.

All three of us won our perspective offices. The student association sponsor, Ron Huff, eventually commented to me that it had been by a huge margin. We were the closest thing our class had to alpha males and now we were supposed to serve side by side. We worked together when we had too, but never really clicked as a team the next year.

The whole process of politics felt really dirty to me both then and now. I felt it a necessary evil but even as I say that, it’s not like I worked hard at playing far above the fray. I recognized then that the argument isn’t who people think will do the better job although that certainly plays. The issue of politics isn’t about the answer to the question; it’s about the question itself.

In the midst of this feeling grubby and dirty about having gotten all political, I met the person who I still hold had the purest soul I’ve ever experienced. Her name was Jane Park. Well, her name was something Korean but she went by Jane. She was a beautiful, timid, quiet girl. She had come to the school’s ESL program. I had not interacted much with that program despite having been an ESL student in my elementary. I don’t know how I got started talking to her but I did. Between her shyness and her limited English, our conversations were fairly basic. We never flirted in the way I’d ever flirted with any other girls. We just sat and talked.

I had worked that year at the stained glass shop that VGA had. I had learned how to make the beautiful windows that go up in churches, both the thin type and the thick type. I had not been very good at it because I was and am not very artistic. Like music, I had tried to figure it out, for a lack of a better word, mathematically. Music and beauty then and now only touch me when I associate them with someone. I took a piece of glass and sand blasted the Korean flag for her.

I also used to get my village friends to get ice cream from Dairy Queen for both of us. I don’t remember which type of sundae I used to get but it was something that was covered in strawberries. I got it for her several times and we would eat it and smile. It wasn’t until the last time I would get her one, a day or two before the end of the year, when she told me she actually didn’t like strawberries.

She was a talented violinist and pianist and had played in various school functions. When she played the violin, she could make it sing or cry or whisper. It was like she took her same quiet grace and transmitted it through the strings. Something about the way she played was the first time I remember ever feeling music itself. Because our conversations were so 4th grade shyness level I decided I would try to speak to her in a language she spoke so well. I learned to play a special piece on the trombone for her. I played it for her the day she was scheduled to leave and the smile she gave me after she asked, “For me?” was better than all the kisses of all the girls before her combined.

She was going back to Korea over the summer and then she would not be returning to VGA the next year but rather to an academy somewhere in California. The night before she left I stayed up talking to her till two or three in the morning. I don’t think we said much but I just was heart broken and trying to not let the conversation end. We never did anything other than have shy awkward conversation; she was the only girl who made me feel afraid to speak because she was clearly so pure and so out of my league. It was just words but I had made her this girl I would never forget. She’s the only person I can recall whose presence hushed my piercing ego with overwhelming quiet.

I called her in Korea a couple of times that summer at an enormous expense to me and then completely lost track of her. I don’t know what happened to her or where life has taken her to. But at the end of the year, having won an election and mostly stayed away from girls, I realized that the level of wholesomeness, the clarity of character, that simple loveliness she possessed was more sublime than all my debate, all my preaching and all my politicking. I wish I’d never forgotten.