My mom and I have different versions of the story, but the facts are clear; I gave a speech in Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University when I was eighteen, and the New York chapter of the Model United Nations was permanently banned from meeting there.
MUN was one of many organizations I joined during my senior year in a last-ditch scramble to get everything I could out of my high school education. Even now I can't really tell you what it was about. MUN appealed to me because countries got to pass notes in classrooms while ignoring the speakers, something I'd never done as a studious lad.
It was 1991. Hendricks Chapel - an interfaith facility on SU's main quad - was filled to capacity. While High School teachers and curious college professors stood against the walls looking on, high schoolers across New York state got up and pretended to be delegates from different countries. Everyone got two minutes to speak for his or her temporarily-appropriated country, to talk about what they expected to get out of the two-day affair. It was an endless parade of we the people of Argentina are proud to stand with our fellow nations and the proud people of Belgium are delighted to stand with you and Chile stands proud with it's fellow countries, all of it delivered in the same hand-shaking, staring at the page monotone. Every country was happy to be there. Every country had an agenda. Every country had hope for the future.
East Syracuse-Minoa was assigned Nicaragua and. . . some other country. I ended up speaking for Nicaragua because the guy who was supposed to do it chickened out. Whether he never wrote a speech or destroyed it in his distress, I'll never know.
Somewhere around the H countries, Mr. Parziale came and squatted beside me. Mr. Parziale taught accelerated Social Studies to tenth and eleventh graders, taught economics and political science in summer school, and was in charge of MUN. He was smart, humorous, and fair. He explained that there was no one to speak for Nicaragua and asked if I wanted to give it a shot. No pressure, because they could always just bang the gavel and move on to Nigeria, it would be great if I could say a little something to let the New York MUN'ers know that East Syracuse-Minoa was in the house.
"Look at them," he said, gesturing toward the lectern. "You can do that, can't you?"
"Indonesia stands proudly before you, but gratefully among you, as we work together-"
"No problem," I said.
One thing that's important to keep in mind - MUN is run by students. The teachers guide and educate, but their most important job is getting out of the way. Mr. Parziale told me to talk about rapid population growth, an issue taxing Nicaragua's healthcare system, environment, and educational system at the time.
I wrote furiously, watching the students drone on. I had a semester and a half of Drama Club and had represented the school in a Shakespeare Competition. I could do that, I thought.
Or I wake those people up.
Imagine that picture above filled with high schoolers in suits and dresses, doing their best to reenact a UN meeting. A lot of navy, is what I'm trying to say. I walked on stage sporting a mustard, leopard-spotted jacket from Chess King and a vintage, dark brown, gambler-crown, wide-brimmed hat.
Oh, the hat. The hat's I wore in high school could be a blog in itself, and this particular hat would be a week of posts. I waited until college to do any drinking or drugs, using eighties movies to alter my consciousness instead. The result was that I often left the house looking like an eighteen-year-old pimp. If the beaten western Clint Eastwood wore in Fistful of Dollars fucked the hat Jack Nicholson wore when the played the Joker, you'd get something like it.
My speech was a hit because it matched my look. I leaned over the mic and told the capacity crowd that not only was Nicaragua over-populated, it was under-educated. We couldn't just throw condoms at them and expect the birth rate to level out. It doesn't do anyone any good if people are walking around with condoms on their ears or using them as water balloons. We needed a special committee to travel to Nicaragua, and all the underprivileged nations of the world, and demonstrate proper condom use, over and over if necessary. This Condom Committee would travel the globe, tireless in its efforts to demonstrate proper condom use. The Condom Committee would not leave any country unsatisfied.
Over a chorus of adolescent giggling, a girl behind me madly banged her gavel. I don't know what school she was from, what country she represented, or how many committees she'd "won" to get the honor of chairing the opening the ceremony, but I remember the tremor in her voice.
"Delegate, please bring your remarks to a close," she said.
I paused for a moment. I'd been speaking perhaps thirty seconds, so I was well within my rights to demand my alloted time. I let the air grow thick, feeling the waves of panic behind me from people who took MUN way too seriously. I had no doubt if I tried to continue I'd be gaveled to death, so I made it clear I had only one thing left to say.
"In conclusion. . ."
Behind me, dozens of high school students breathed a collective sigh of relief. But I wasn't doing it for them, I was doing it for everyone else, for the rest of us who'd had to listen to them all morning.
". . . If you're in an underprivileged country, please walk softly, but cover your big stick."
1,100 formally-bored teenagers overlooked the inherent xenophobia of my speech and leapt to their feet. The hooting, stomping, clapping, and cheering lasted long after I took my seat. The only ones not laughing were the students on stage and the adults lined up against the wall.
Mr. Parziale cornered me as the students filed out.
"What are you doing to me, man?" He asked. He looked like he'd seen a ghost. At the same time, he looked like he was trying hard not to laugh. "People are pissed. Pissed. One teacher said, 'and in a church, of all places.' I didn't even think of that."
I was too busy enjoying my celebrity to worry about the fallout. People stopped me in the hallways to have their pictures taken with me. Girls who had bussed in from out of town for the weekend-long conference slipped me notes in committee, inviting me to their hotel rooms to practice safe sex. For one weekend of my torturous adolescence, I was cool. I stopped being Aaron the loser and became - Condom Man.
Up to that point, it was easily the best two days of my life.
* * *
My mother is a five-foot-eight, silver-haired Mohawk Indian with a voice like a mouse and spine of pure steel.
|Don't mess with this woman.|
She sat in East Syracuse-Minoa's Administration office with Principal Santulli and Mr. Parziale. Syracuse University had already banned the Model United Nations from meeting in Hendricks Chapel, and the MUN wanted me expelled to set an example for any future members. Mr. Parziale didn't want to do it, but it had to be done.
"I know he's just a child and doesn't know what he did," Mr. Parziale said, "But he went too far."
"That's right," mom agreed. "He's a child. He's a child, and you hurt him."
Principal Adams and Mr. Parziale looked confused.
"Do you remember the trip to New York City?" my mom asked.
MUN's biggest conference gathers the best schools from state meetings like the one at SU. It takes place every year in New York City. I don't remember the price tag, but it wasn't cheap. Other parents wrote checks for their children and moved on with their lives. Despite growing up four hours away, I'd never been to New York. I wanted to go very badly, but I told Mr. Parziale I couldn't afford it.
I worked more hours in the deli at Leo & Sons Big M Supermarket, but it wasn't enough. Just before the deadline, my Aunt Jeri stepped in to cover the difference. I told Mr. Parziale I could go to New York City after all.
He told me that he had limited space for the trip. I was a senior, graduating in just a few months, and he decided to send a freshman instead. Over four years, he could groom this freshman to be a real asset to his club. I told Mr. Parziale I understood, but inside I was devastated.
When Mom told him this, Mr. Parziale's face fell.
"I had no idea," he said.
Ultimately, my speech earned me a two-week suspension. When I got back, Mr. Parziale apologized for putting me on the spot in Hendricks Chapel, and for not letting me go on the New York trip.
I don't remember anything but the fun part. When mom told the story last year at Thanksgiving, it was like hearing the plot to a movie that came out decades ago. It sounded awfully familiar, but I couldn't be sure I'd ever seen it.
I was the type of kid no one ever noticed in life, so when I got in front of a crowd I tended to expand. Look at me, my behavior screamed, feeding off finally being seen. I don't believe I gave that speech as some kind of screw you to Mr. Parziale, I was just trying to be funny. But I didn't even remember being suspended, so how can I know? More importantly, what did I do with that money I'd saved for the New York trip? Buy more pimp outfits?
People resent the concept of fate because we like to believe we're in charge of our lives, but what if we don't even need to go as far as Fate with a capital F to see who's pulling the strings, what if all of our actions bubble from some subconscious stew? What if every accidental sleight or unintentionally cruel joke is deliberate on some level? What if all the apologizes and smiles between the thought and the deed are just smoke and mirrors, protecting our image of ourselves?
I haven't posted this one because I don't have a shit-hot ending for it. But some things just end. This will have to be one of them.