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.