This week’s flash fiction challenge was to tell a story about hope. Hope isn’t really where my creative mind flourishes, though. So, I decided to tell a real story about change, transformation, and hope for a better future. Enjoy.
It was Lord of the Flies for high school conservationists. Our agricultural studies wing was tucked at the back of the school, manicured student garden occupying space between our classrooms and the school’s administration. Shop classrooms lined the hall leading to our department, depositories in which the ne’er-do-well students of our school were held between core curriculum classes. They emptied out with the last bell, leaving our little haven isolated from the rest of the school.
Five students composed the Envirothon team: a soil specialist, a forestry specialist, a wildlife specialist, an aquatics specialist, and one student committed to the rotating subject each year. Each of the core team members had one understudy, meaning that there were ten of us altogether. We had run of the wet lab, dry lab, animal lab, classroom, library, greenhouse, and offices. If you thought a teacher supervised our evening activities, you’d be mistaken.
I was co-chair during my junior and senior years of high school, sharing the title with a freckled red headed boy who I’d met at a county fair the summer before 6th grade. I was showing my Ayrshire cow, Fourleaf. He was showing Holsteins. As is natural for preteens, a late night of playing PG strip poker with some Mennonite kids left us bashful in the morning. He remedied those emotions by trying to throw me in a water trough while I was filling a bucket. I twisted out of his grip, ripped off his ball cap, and trashed him with it, leaving an angry red welt across his pale face. What followed was an acquaintanceship of mutual respect and, I suspect, the suspicion that now matter how tall he grew, I’d still be able to kick his ass.
Not enough lip service is given to rural conservationists, people dedicated to the protection of air, water, soil, and green spaces. Partisan narrative would have you believe that the environment is a liberal cause. While I will concede this in the realm of climate change, conservation activists span the political spectrum. I’ve been in a rod and gun club filled to the rafters with plaid-wearing, big buckle-sporting old white men, clapping and applauding decreased runoff into the Chesapeake Bay watershed, funding biodiversity initiatives, giving out scholarships to students of color who want to study environmental science. There are many who know conservation of and advocating for our natural world must transcend party lines in order to flourish.
As such, the first year I was co-chair, a pair of freshman friends joined our team, bosom buddies from either end of the political spectrum. They maintained a healthy respect for their ideological differences, focusing instead on hunting, fishing, and poultry enthusiasm, avoiding political conversations at all costs.
At the tender age of seventeen, I was a ball-busting, tie-dye and knock-off Birkenstock wearing motherfucker with a pair of John Lennon wire frame glasses and hair past my hips. I read Abbie Hoffman books, scrawled, “Freedom is the right to yell fire in a crowded theater,” on my hand in Sharpie, handed out Richard Brautigan novels to anyone I thought interesting, memorized Phil Ochs lyrics, which still sing in my heart today. I was an out bi-chick in my high school, wrote treatises on premarital sex to share with curious students, and lacked the grace to back down from a verbal altercation. No one believed I didn’t smoke pot.
I didn’t. Still don’t.
I was also den-mother-in-chief, managing a gaggle of teenagers, bringing hot suppers to every meeting, arranging rides, and doling out stern lectures for office chair rides down the ramp leading to the ag wing. I also had an innocent edge to me, raised by college educated parents on an isolated farm, socializing with other moderate liberals on the weekends. Case in point, I thought ‘spic was another term for ‘sped until I was seventeen. It was in that very classroom, listening to two of my team members complain about kids on their bus, that spark finally met bulb. It took me a few years after that to realize wetback and wet-behind-the-ears didn’t mean the same thing. As I said, innocent.
One one end of the political spectrum you had me, a near-anarchist peacenick convinced she was born in the wrong century. The conservative freshman was on the other end of the spectrum, had about 100 lbs on my not-thin frame, and stood a good foot and a half over my head. He wore cammo everything, sported a sunburned neck like it was a political statement, and was violently, unabashedly homophobic.
We’d get into it over everything. Often, his liberal friend would lay the groundwork, then slip out of the room, leaving me to the battles he wanted to fight. Like two goddamn cats ready to rip each others throats out, we’d pose and posture, hiss and spit, ripping into each other over everything from the death penalty to racial equality to abortion. I’m pretty sure the only thing that stopped me from getting a back eye on more than one occasion was my gender.
The homophobia was the worst, though. I remember late one evening, we were pouring over animal track identification. No fighting. No yelling. Just studying. Out of nowhere, he said, “My pastor thinks I need to learn to love a little more. Need to be more forgiving.” He looked down, flipping a page. “But, you can’t tell me, if Jesus was around today, he wouldn’t be out there, beating some fags.”
I dissented with this assertion in no uncertain terms, though I’m pretty sure every third word was FUCK and every second word was just exasperated sputtering. I was told that, as someone who didn’t attend church, my opinion didn’t matter. “So, you’d just fucking go out fucking there and fucking beat the fuck out of every fucking gay guy and girl–”
He held up his hands. “Now, I didn’t say girls. That’s something else.” His rosy face was bright red. All jolliness gone.
“Oh, so fucking porn is fucking fine if it’s two fucking girls.”
“Cause that’s for me. It doesn’t count.”
If memes or table flipping would have been a thing fifteen years ago, I’d probably have done it.
Now, here’s the worst part. Despite his racism, despite his violent homophobia, despite his assertion that Andrea Yates “should fry,” I liked the kid. Not in a crushing sort of way, but I had a soft spot in my heart for him. An enduring fondness. Take off his cammo, throw on a DBZ shirt, and he’d be like the kids I played D&D with on the weekends. He shared our affects, that geeky uncertainty, air of social awkwardness proving he’d never be accepted anywhere fully. He’d wander around the margins of teenage society, as I did. As my friends did.
My senior year, we were at the Envirothon state competition. As the only girl, I had my own room with an adjoining door between my room and those two friends. On the second night, while the racist guy was sleeping, his friend invited me in to make fun of him. He was sleeping on his stomach in a pair of black briefs, black shirt, curled up with his thumb near his mouth. He looked like 300 lbs of sleeping innocence. I felt maternal, attached, affectionate.
I go to college the next year. Operation Iraqi Freedom began during my second semester. I went to marches. I participated in protests. I had my life threatened on numerous occasions, saw my comrades punched, a future roommate almost lit on fire. I had shit thrown at me. Got spit on. I saw a deeper, more violent racism at the beginning of the war. Drunk kids out in a college down, shouting, “I CAN’T WAIT TO GO KILL SOME BROWN FUCKERS,” as they ran past.
I got involved with women’s rights. Equal rights. The LGBTQ community. Beneath my ribs grew a hot bubble of guilt for tolerating hate in my high school. I fought, but I didn’t fight hard enough. I argued, but I allowed it to be a conversation rather than ultimatum. I really hated myself for it. Wondered what sort of monster I had been. Swore I wouldn’t do it again.
I kept my prickly liberal back up when I returned to farming at the age of 25. I got into a screaming match with a bearded white dude in a Sonoco station who was calling President Obama a Muslim and a radical. In doing so, I lost my favorite place to grab a breakfast sandwich made with a fresh egg, fried in front of me, made to my vegetarian preferences by an old guy working the morning counter.
I’ve gotten into it with the racist teenage subordinates at work, down right-red faced, fist shaking, telling them their language and views are abhorrent. Telling them they’re ignorant little slugs who will never survive in the real world if they insist on hate. I’ve felt righteous. I’ve also felt like an asshole.
A few years ago, I’m slinging cheese sales at the convention center in Philly, hand over fist pulling in bills and doling out dairy products, wearing a low cut maroon shirt and proper long denium skirt, hair tied back with a handkerchief. Someone shouts my last name and I look up to see those two fucking friends from envirothon waving at me from one table down. I bolt out from behind the table, and hug the shit out of them, give them some free chocolate milk, meet the big one’s wife. They went to college together, same college I went to, though I never saw them. They roomed together, moved back to our little rural county, and hangout on the weekends.
Backslapping ensues, reminiscing, and an invitation to catch up with them on social media. I’m glowing by the time I get back to the table, heart light, head happy.
A few days later, my fingers are hovering my laptop as I try to decide if I really, really, want to look up the homophobic racist on Facebook. Distance from our meeting has me reconsidering if I want to invite that kind of hate back into my life.
I do it anyway.
Next morning, my request is accepted. I’m scanning down his wall and I see it. Post after post after post in support of gay rights, spaced between pictures of bass fishing and guns. Support for gay rights. Support for equal rights. Support for free speech. I’m blown the fuck away, wheel of my mouse turning and turning as I read his political life.
He’s a separation of church and state, Bill of Rights touting, libertarian. The election rolls around and he’s a Never Trump supporter, telling his family they’re free to cease associating if they continue harassing him. We don’t agree on governmental theory, that’s for sure, but to see the transition from a violent homophobic teenager to an adult in support of gay marriage is my bubble of hope in this world. I don’t know how much influence I had during those seminal teenage years. I have no idea if the arguments we had planted a seed in his mind. But, I’d like to think that fondness, that respect, that communication we shared at least tilled the land in which a seed of tolerance could grow.
Since then, I’ve stopped trying to shout as much. I’ve started talking more (though, I’m still saying fuck every third word). When a fifteen-year-old coworker asks me why black people are more violent in protests than white people, when a high school junior tells me she thinks gay people shouldn’t adopt because their children will be teased, when a boy tells me transgender people are just confused because a dick is what makes a man… I tell them to clock out and we start to talk about it. It’s my hope, my belief, that opening up channels of dialogue will lay the foundation for future change.