I’ve been thinking a lot about an old English teacher, Faye Hardin, who passed away in 2019. She was a tough old bag. Some twenty years ago when I had her my senior year, there were students in my class whose parents and grandparents had her as a teacher. She pushed students harder than most–to the point a lot of them hated her until they got to college and hate turned to appreciation.

A teacher who likes to challenge her students is not all that special, though. I’ve had plenty of teachers who pushed us to the point you could almost call it abuse. What made Mrs. Hardin different was why she pushed us, and I think that’s because she saw in us what, at our tender ages, we couldn’t see in ourselves.

My senior year AP English class was a time when I came out of my shell, so to speak, for the first time, and it was also an intensely confusing time for a lot of us. I’ll never forget, as we watched the second plane fly into the tower, the fear we all shared in that little Tennessee classroom.

At one point, when the anchor announced all the planes were being diverted to Canada, the class burst out into laughter trying to find levity amid the shock and horror we were also trying to sort through. Faye, if I can call her that, turned off the TV and began crying.

“You don’t get it. You’re laughing because you have to laugh, and I understand, but you don’t get what this moment means for your lives, and it’s disheartening to watch. We’re just going to sit here in silence for a few minutes until you can take this seriously.”

After graduating, I saw her once, briefly, in a grocery store. She was with her husband. I don’t remember the exchange.

A decade or more later, a family friend had her as a high school senior and complained about how tough she was, and I told them to mention me and thought about dropping by but never did.

I saw her on Facebook, too, and some of her posts made her out to be a different person from the person I’d known, something I think we all have come to feel about each other in some ways in the digital space.

After she died, and as much so now, I told a former classmate that I thought I wished I had dropped by, maybe taken her out for coffee, thanked her for adding something rich and meaningful to my broken little life, but I also worried, even in hindsight, that it would have been disappointing for the both of us as we discovered who we are now, and I told my friend as much, that in some ways, when so much time has gone or goes by, it’s almost nicer in a way to remember who someone was to you rather than having the veil pulled down on who they (or you) are today.

Mrs. Hardin will always have been my teacher. And I kinda like it that way, as if I’ve been able to freeze that relationship in time as it was and not changed by political climates or cultural shifts or even the simple eye-opener that time is. And as much as some people are meant to weave in and out of our lives, maybe others are meant for the moment you were given with them and nothing more.

“Maybe,” my former classmate pushes back, “Or maybe people are more than just the person they become, too.”

Or more than who they were, I consider.

That time in my life was marked, in some ways by this need to start grasping the “serious”–but also in grasping it, to learn how to handle it and cope with it as best we could, sometimes in not so serious ways.

I was always brooding and stone-faced in middle and high school and even before that–one of those kids who already acts like an old man by age eight and a half, and it wasn’t until I was truly confronted with the “serious,” with the concept of death and war and lofty and menial personal or world-defining conflict that I learned how to crack a joke.

Maybe because I needed to be able to in order to keep going.

Coincidentally, it was the same time that I was very hilariously, very passionately a Boy Scout–no, an Eagle Scout, a Den Chief, the Senior Patrol Leader–and taking quite seriously the uniforms, the comraderie, the organization of it all. When I was inducted into the Order of the Arrow, scouting’s secretive service organization, I loved it even more, running for office and rising to a position that oversaw the gatherings of thousands of scouts for annual campouts and jamborees. Simultaneously my first taste of politics and drama, if you could call it that.

I remember being in awe at the time that people had such strong feelings about who was going to be running in the upcoming election for whatever position in the local scouting “lodge,” in awe of all the silly details of something as trivial as who made the camp fire or who went first to eat dinner. Hell people would argue over a certain type of patch for your uniform and could devote hours to trading patches at large conventions.

Even now I’m not sure of anything I ever encountered in my life that was nerdier than that.

One day, around the same time Mrs. Hardin was giving us a hard time about a gerund (that I’ve probably gotten wrong in writing this), I woke up and thought the whole “playing politician” over something so insignificant seemed silly and juvenile and then I went off to college and thought I’d never look back.

I’ve thought a lot about those days, though. All of us in matching clothing, like some junior military cosplay. But I thought I would grow up and be a part of a “politics and drama” that mattered. And I think I did and do my fair share of politicking and personal theater that does and doesn’t matter, but I also think as I’ve gotten older, even when it’s time to be serious, there’s something in all of us that seems to take these big-deal issues we’re all struggling to work through and instead we harken right back to our days of arguing over patches and campout details that are all rather silly. Like, we get caught up in the act of the discussion rather than the discussion itself, or in some cases, even twist the discussion into something wholly different than what it is or what it should be about. Or whom it’s about.

And to be clear I’m not just talking about “politics,” as in government and policy decisions or conservative/liberal ideologies. I mostly mean our everyday interactions. The “politics” of the Church, the “politics” of the workplace, the “politics” of a school board or nonprofit or local city council, the “politics” of a family. We take ourselves so seriously, and sometimes the matters we’re discussing are, in fact, quite serious, but the way of our discussions make us look like a bunch of boys wearing bolo ties arguing over who would be in charge of setting up the tents and cots.

I want to say, I’m prone to say, that what I’ve learned is that we’re all just a bunch of kids who have no idea what the hell we’re doing or talking about, and we’re all just pretending like we did when we were kids, in some kind of grown-up cosplay of all the crap we never worked through as children. But that’s not quite fair.

There are people who know exactly what they’re talking about. Think of the doctors and nurses who have been trying to talk to us like we’re adults for months, begging us to take each others’ health seriously.

But I think the point I’m trying to make is that I would bet even those of us who know exactly what we’re talking about have been driven into some kind of hell where we feel as though we have been made to wear the same silly bolo ties the rest of the world is wearing, speaking seriously but in a cosmos where everything is a game–and a zero sum game at that. And the winners are the loudest, the silliest, the bloviators, and the rest of us are forced to play the game if we wish to be heard at all.

So we dress up when we have to, and sometimes, we find and surround ourselves with the people who know better and get a momentary reprieve. But half the time we’re driven into the madness and take it up as a mantle–because we feel we’ve been given no other choice.

I grew up in a place where there were two things you did not talk about: politics and religion. And, as it happened, those were my two favorite subjects.

I’m not sure why the Southern U.S. abhorred those topics. If I had to wager a guess, I’d say that the Bible belt embraces congeniality over all else because you need your populus to be superficial and value superficiality if they were going to be agreeable. The status quo demands a people who are unphased and unengaged, and so the Church praised social niceties even over the betterment of human life. That’s why the Church, at least, avoided politics (and here I do mean governmental policy and ideologies). Other “politics”–the color of the carpet, the type of music sung in worship, the lay leaders and clergy positions–were meant to replace the kinds of politics that mattered.

That’s how the Church also avoided religion, which sounds like a weird thing to say, but what I mean is that the Church didn’t actually engage the subject of “religion” but rather embraced platitudes and social mores that built a culture of appeasement. And not, as it were, some appeasement of some divine expectations, though they suggest as much, but a kind of cultural people-pleasing, or otherwise overly affirming feel-goodery that was thoroughly obsessed with the rugged individual. Put another way, Church on Sunday was just a place to recharge after you’d drained your battery all week being awful to other people, and there was always an emphasis on your “personal relationship” with God, which becomes quite convenient for justifying your behavior and absolving you of having to even think about anyone else.

Frankly, it’s impressive how much selfishness could be glorified within a community, that people could somehow come together specifically to praise isolationism and never see the irony.

I’m coming at the Church, writ large, a bit harshly here as I have elsewhere, and generalizing, because I grew up in the Church, studied it, and know it well, but I’m actually coming down on a particular type of culture that extends beyond the Christian experience and is something uniquely Western, maybe uniquely North American.

Our biggest issue is that we don’t see each other anymore, not as human beings, because we’ve been blinded by ourselves. And to be fair, seeing each other is hard to do, especially when we’ve devoted so much time and energy to talking about ourselves in such positive light, and about others in shrouded darkness.

So, let me be fair: I carry in me a deep-seeded anger about the state of this world and the people who are in it. I’ve put on the bolo tie and jumped into the game and the madness and thrown tantrum after tantrum, and sometimes, it’s worked, and I felt heard, and sometimes it hasn’t (which usually made the madness worse). And as much as I want to believe the wisdom of my old classmate as she cautions that maybe there’s more to people than what we know them to be, past or present–knowing full well I want people to see that much of me, to give me the benefit of the doubt and forgiveness and empathy–I also believe there comes a time when you “shake off the dust of your feet and depart,” that not every relationship (that you or they have broken) is meant for reconciliation.

I say that in a country that is deeply fractured and on its way to a bitter, dangerous future, but even knowing that, there are some basic maxims I don’t think we compromise on–because to do so jeopardizes someone else.

There was a time when I was younger that politics was this abstract, philosophical idea–distant and lofty and not worth the fight, especially considering the fighters. Today, though, politics for me is personal, deeply personal.

Today, politics is a dear friend who’s faced threats because of what she wrote and who she wrote for. It’s the face of a colleague whose family is tortured because of how he worships and what he believes about God. It’s a former mentee who decided she would embrace herself as her true self and come out as trans despite knowing all the risks that come with that because there are people who want her dead or injured just because of who she is. It’s an activist I got to know and stood alongside who faces deportation from ICE. It’s an old friend battling anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers trying to keep them alive against their apparent, own wishes. It’s the refugee kid who held her hand out offering me food when she saw I had nothing to eat at the Syrian border with Lebanon. It’s my partner who every six months goes in for a medical procedure that will cost tens of thousands of dollars in this country–but would be affordable in any other civilized country in the world. It’s the countless friends, family, and acquaintances who have been sexually assaulted and stayed silent because that’s the way the world was ordered. It’s the people I knew and loved who endured racist and xenophobic remarks for which there were no consequences or accountability or where, often, the perpetrator was entirely and grossly oblivious to having done anything wrong.

The list goes on and on. These are not “issues.” You can’t call it “identity politics” and wash it away. It isn’t just philosophy, theology, or ideology. It’s people. Lovely people who deserve to be loved. And I’m not able to compartmentalize the faces and hearts of those people when I see or hear politics or religion being discussed. I’m just not able to do it.

You could say, I suppose, that in my long list of people I should love, I’m missing a few–that among my list the bigot and the political opponent and the MAGA hat guy and gal deserve their own spot. And maybe I should have gone and had coffee with Mrs. Hardin and maybe if I put on my bolo tie sometimes just like they do, I should be able to see that we’re not all that different if we’re all playing the game. Hell, for my litany of all the people I’m telling you I love and that you should too, I’m not without my own past where I hurt some, probably many, of them because of what I believed or what I did or said.

You can’t ask for forgiveness for yourself and demand it not be gifted for others, can you?

So maybe you’d be right, in some cases. There’s probably people I’d shun in a heartbeat that I owe them the benefit of the doubt and the chance to hear their full story and offer empathy where it’s due. And, likewise, there’s probably people I’m right to shun, and I don’t have the wisdom or know-how to tell which from which. Mrs. Hardin, someone I once cared deeply for, is much different from, say, some Scout who would argue over his patch collection. We have the tough task to decide who’s worth it in our little worlds and tribes.

Maybe the greatest gift we can ever receive is the ability to know when and to whom we owe our full selves to, or when and to whom we should give our full attention.

Maybe twenty years on, someone will draft up some forty or so paragraphs about that tough old bag who challenged the hell out of them with his ranting and scheming and raging, a guy who somehow managed to be so deeply caring and such a jerk all mixed into one piece, and maybe they took him to coffee, or he took them, or maybe they never spoke again at all, but whatever it was turned out to be whatever it was supposed to be.

And that’s gotta be good enough.

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