Updated Nov, 13th 2012
**My final draft is not so final, and I'm having a hard time cutting it down. I'm aiming for about 800 words, and right now its 1400... Any feedback re: what I can jettison would be greatly appreciated.**
Me and Bill
We had just handed thousands of unborn babies a death sentence, and I didn’t even get a vote. It was November 5th, 1996, and a man named Bill was gloating over his victory, grinning at me through the TV.
I glared back.
William Jefferson and I had a lot in common at the time. We loved music and McDonald’s. He dodged the draft, I hid during PE. He was the “MTV President,” I was a passionate No Doubt fan. It was a pinnacle year for us both, what with his decisive victory at the polls and my eventual crowning as Foothill Falcon of the Year— an honor bestowed on one boy and one girl in the entire Foothill Elementary School 6th grade class.
I lived in Santa Barbara, where a girl could wear her Reef flip flops year round. I also lived in a conservative, charismatic Christian home, where a girl could speak in tongues and receive angelic visions. The threat of Bill’s reelection hung in my blue skies like a black cloud I prayed God would pierce.
This is what I knew: something about the electioneering had touched my parents to their battle-ready core. They spoke in escalating tones or exasperated whispers, punctuating their lines with head wagging, fist clamping, and the occasional slap of a palm on the table. We watched everything there was to watch, from the debates and commentary to whatever prayerful admonishments TBN was blasting.
Yet I recall nothing about the issues or candidates’ platforms except the red hot abortion button. Abortion was visceral and high-stakes, and somehow involved my own body. My mom spoke about the holocaust of innocents with hot tears in her eyes. The rest was just slippery details.
Another parallel: He contended with a Republican majority in House and Senate, while I had to play with the hippie children of our blue-state liberal enclave. Like twin stars, when you think about it.
Come election day, we were wakeful and worried. Long before the final counts were delivered, it was a clear win for Bill. Bob Dole didn’t win Kentucky after Bob Dole said, “If Bob Dole wins Kentucky Bob Dole will be president.” California hadn’t closed its polls yet, but we all knew which way it would swing. Mom and Dad were not surprised. God let us choose, and America rejected God. It was as if the earth shifted orbit a centimeter or two; Those on the strait and narrow felt a chill.
I was angry. Some swift mental algebra told me I would be 15 by the next elections: still a voteless hang-wringer. Then, as we watched Little Rock explode in celebration, it came to me. One potent little sentence: AMERICA MADE A BIG MISTAKE.
I penciled this in bubble-letters on a piece of glossy, 11 x 17 poster-board—the leftovers of a class project. I filled them with bright marker and outlined them in black. It was like playing teacher, or grocery clerk, or ponies: I was rehearsing a fantasized adult role. The perfect role for an imaginative introvert who longs to be special. Not president, or politician, or any public servant. I was not beholden; I was a prophet.
Now feverish with inspiration, I took another piece of poster-board and wrote a second, clarifying statement: BOB DOLE SHOULD HAVE WON.
Looney Tunes taught me all I needed to know about the art of sandwich boards. I found a hole punch and ribbon and made shoulder straps. I added borders and flourishes, a few emphatic underlines, and admired my handiwork in the mirror.
That night I was rewarded with a deep and dreamless sleep, my frustration transfigured to a sandwich board resting on the kitchen table.
Maybe I truly believed I could make a difference. Maybe I wanted God’s attention. Maybe I was bored. A child’s desires are hieroglyphic, and memory a poor decipher. I do know there was more at work than pure conviction.
I have a history of embarrassing myself in elaborate ways for the sake of personal entertainment. Exhibit A: The time my friends and I pretended to be a group of visiting Ukrainian immigrants and ambushed the fifth grade classroom draped in toilet paper and speaking gibberish. Does it help if I tell you my Ukrainian friend was in on it? No? That’s fair. See Exhibit B: The time we dressed my little brother in bear ears, apron, and oven mitt, then sent him door-to-door announcing Chef Bear’s book tour: “Coming to a mall near you!” There was a poster for that, too.
Slick Willie had 236 pounds of bulletproof charisma; I had 89 pounds of ignorant pluck. I didn’t think twice about pegging myself as a venomous conservative.
I put on the sandwich board before I left the house. Mom dropped me off in the parking lot, and I followed the outdoor halls to Ms. Kremser’s room. I met no comments, stares, or laughter. Perhaps I was just one more object in a barrage of political spectacle we sixth graders had recently grown accustomed to.
I wore it through the flag salute and morning reading, and through the math quiz and rain forest unit. I wore it when Erin and I stood up to read our Halloween-inspired ghost story to the class. I wore it at recess, running to the ball closet to check out jump ropes. A yard duty gently suggested I consider removing it while on the playground, to avoid any potential altercations. I nodded politely and went back to skipping rope.
I wore it to choir, where I shone brightest. Cheri was my favorite teacher. She was kind and spirited and funny—my very own Maria von Trapp . I could relax in choir, far from the lawless blacktop, or dangling sword of long division. Later I’d learn that Cheri’s dad was the Mayor of Santa Barbara, and a democrat, but for now I was blissfully unaware.
We were assembled on the auditorium bleachers, Cheri tense on the piano bench, ready for our cue.
Then she saw me. Her usual face-splitting smile shrank to a thin, decisive line.
“What are you wearing?” she asked, not waiting for an answer.“Take that off while you’re in my class.”
I was blindsided. It never crossed my mind that I might offend someone. In my own self-absorbed double-play of prophet and clown, I simply hadn’t imagined that part yet. I imagined the looks, the stares, the whispers, but not the backlash. My heart pounded and I went hot with embarrassment. I am, to this day, a world-class blusher.
I guess I hadn’t read the part in the Old Testament where every single prophet is run out of town. Then I might have taken Cheri’s rebuke as further proof that my compass was true. Fortunately, as an 11 year-old who just really liked her choir teacher, I felt bad. I understood in one sharp rush of shame that I’d made her feel attacked. I wanted to toss it off as a joke: “Oh, this thing? Ha! Devilishly funny, don’t you think?”
Children are capable of being utterly earnest and transparently performative at the same time, and childhood is over as soon as you spot the contradiction. My great performance ended abruptly, with a fumbled curtain crash. The last couple hours before the bell passed like any other day.
I went home and thought some more about Bill and Bob, republicans and democrats, good and evil. I wondered how many babies would be murdered that year. I wondered what I’d be like in four years. I wondered if Cheri would ever joke with me again.
She did. She also gave me hugs and let me rest an elbow on her piano. She was a stable, healthy adult, not a petty, insecure, sociopath ready to snub a misguided 11 year-old. Still, our conflicting views troubled me. I wondered how someone so good could be so terribly wrong about things.
I puzzled over this each time I saw her for the rest of that year. My politics of good and evil, once so certain, was now creeping with thorns. Two years later, in the midst of Lewinskygate, I thought, hey, we all make mistakes. And when Bill uttered his famous words to the grand jury—“it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”—I too waxed existential, scribbling lone question marks in the margins of my bible. Should we ever cross paths, I’ll make him play that game where we count to three and see if we can say the same word at the same time. Mind Meld. I bet we’ll be really good at that game.
I don’t know what happened to the sandwich board. I wish I had it still; it’d make a great Halloween costume this year.