When I was fourteen years old, I was booed by over 500 people. This occurred during my first year of high school, and my class was in the throes of Student Council elections for the following year. The gymnasium was the battleground for speeches, and in all likelihood, wasn’t the most conducive environment for civil political discourse, but because the school was new and still under construction, we were unceremoniously disposed to that echoing chamber of adolescent combat.
I’d like to think that the informal atmosphere of the gym was responsible for the reaction I received when I rose to give my speech, and it’s likely that had we been in an auditorium, I might not have been met with such rigorous disapproval. But the gym was the setting, and I was the target.
The speeches were, to be fair to the candidates, given in alphabetical order. As an “S,” I was toward the end of the list. The crowd was restless and bored and probably looking for some entertainment. I recall vividly rising from my seat on the stage, wearing a dropped-waist black and white dress, my hair sprayed to mid-eighties New Wave perfection. I recall taking one or two steps toward the podium set up on center court.
And I recall the first ‘boo.’
This was definitely a boy’s ‘boo.’ A matured boy’s voice, not a crack to be heard. A deep, resonant ‘boo’ that was quickly picked up by more and more of my classmates, crashing forward like a wall of sound, drowning me in its aggression. I stood motionless, mortified, as every face blurred of detail but for red angry mouths in the shapes of “O.” I remember my knees shaking, my face growing hot, and my eyes stinging. I remember wanting to sit down, to turn around to run.
But I didn’t. I fell with style.
Something propelled me forward, push-pulling me to the podium, where the silver microphone awaited. Gripping both sides of the lectern for balance, strength, or courage, I said, without thinking, “My name is Deborah, and I am running for Student Council.”
At some point, the booing was quieted down. Maybe the teachers took control of the activity in the stands; maybe my classmates just got bored. That part is a blank. I do know that I gave my speech – the entire thing! – and sat down amongst scattered claps, a lot of whispers, and hostile silence.
That day forever changed me. I was fourteen years old; twenty-six years later, and I still feel sucker-punched when I think about it. What had I done? Who had I hurt? How had I engendered such animosity? I try to leave these questions alone, since they’ll never be answered, and instead focus on the lesson I like to believe I learned that day.
In Pixar’s Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear can’t or won’t accept the fact that he is a toy, that he is not a “real” Space Ranger. He tries to convince all of the toys in Andy’s room that he has all of the powers attendant with Space Ranger-dom, including flight. And at one point, he manages, quite accidentally, to soar over Andy’s room. Woody is furious at the attention he is receiving, and bursts out, “That wasn’t flying! That was … falling! With style!”
Later on, towards the end of Toy Story 2, Buzz flies again, this time in tandem with his friend. The pair is helped by a firework and some lucky wind. Woody is amazed, and cries out, “Buzz! You’re flying!” In a rare burst of introspective insight, Buzz replies, “This isn’t flying. It’s falling. With style.”
That scene in the gym so many years ago was my first real chance to “fall with style.” While I haven’t shared that specific event with my children – or, really, with many people at all! – I know it was instrumental in forging some of my character. And it is the lesson of “falling with style” that I try to impart to my boys.
Life is, as Dave Matthews says, “short but sweet for certain.” And sometimes flying isn’t possible. Not only do I need to remind my children (and myself!) that we’re not always going to soar, but I’m obligated to help them build the kind of character that will allow for graceful losses every now and again, the kind of character that is defined by dignity and self-respect.
This is actually a difficult post for me to write. It has dredged up feelings that, while not entirely forgotten, have been buried in a comfortably dark place in my subconscious for a long time. The agony is certainly less than it was than on that awful day, but the residual sadness and curiosity still resonate. I’m not sure how many people who were in that gym would remember the event; many of these people have become acquaintances, either in real life or in the cyberworld, and I’m certainly not going to remind them of what happened.
I didn’t have a clever Pixar line to use as a point of reference, a pithy quotation to make me grin after the fact. What I did have were parents who commended me for sticking out the day at the school even as they hugged their devastated daughter, all the while, I am sure, wondering what they had done, or what they could have done to prevent such a thing from happening to their reasonably affable teenager. I had parents who praised my courage and who recognized the fact I was learning to be strong and to hold my own.
Through modeling and experience, I am trying to be that kind of parent for my sons, the kind who will honor their achievements of character and heap accolades on their excellent decision-making. But first, I have to let them know we’re not all always going to fly; sometimes we’re going to fall. The trick of it all, I think, is to learn to fall … with style.