Sticks and Stones

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. I said I wanted to write about Charter Schools. I even spent fifteen minutes at my Rockridge meeting talking about them this morning. But a piece of paper I’d jotted a dozen different subtopics on has gone missing. In my consternation I grabbed a snow shovel and spent better than an hour trimming away some of the snow and ice that has crept up on my home. Then I started thinking about an old friend and my Mom and a possible series of articles I could write about name calling from my own experience. I might collect them for a book or submit them to Duluth’s own Reader Weekly. Sadly the publisher of the Reader seems to be worried that my writing for his publication might put his publication in a fairness doctrine bind. Other School Board members might demand equal space. Oh well.

I’ll call my old buddy Joe. I got an email from him a week ago which I haven’t read yet.

It contains a long and dry exposition on the looming threat of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan as the US begins its withdrawal. It was published in a foreign service magazine. Joe should know what he’s writing about. He was a State Department economics expert who put in a couple years in Pakistan and Afghanistan during the worst of the IED years. I’m afraid his email is now on my backlog of things to attend to if I ever drain the swamp. Damn alligators.

I met Joe when I was a peripheral kid in junior high. A friend, my only school friend in junior high, talked me into joining the school’s gymnastic team and since I could do a handspring I thought that was just the ticket for me. I lettered in gymnastics several years in a row along with track once or twice making me one of the letteringest kids in North Mankato Junior High. (It was really Garfield Junior but everyone had forgotten the poor martyred President’s name by 1964.)

Despite my “shenile” letters I never got much past a handspring in three years although I added a back to my front which to my amazement required much less energy plus had the advantage of being something you could do over and over like a somersault. I could do eight or nine of them in a row no sweat. If I tried to do it today I’d rip myself open at the belly button. I was simply too tall to be a serious gymnast and probably put on close to a foot of elevation in those years which only hindered my gymnastical skills.

Almost as awkward as me, well a lot more so, was Joe. He attended a different junior high where my school practiced making ours a joint team. I’ll call him Joe (as in Injun Joe) for this anecdote although I’m sure any old acquaintances from my Mankato days would know just who I was talking about.

Joe was as whip smart as he was gawky. He looked one hundred percent native American even with his German last name. For similar reasons we both joined the Debate team when we got to high school. I did it at my Dad’s advice to learn never to have a panic attack in front of people again. Joe did it because he was insecure about his acceptance. He was an A student who caught grief for his grades and his obvious desire to show how smart he was in front of other kids. Debate was one more way he could distinguish himself from the run of the mill.

I was never destined to be a great debater but I did learn to face down panic attacks. Joe never got past his awkward junior high school physiognomy or past his strenuous attempts to achieve the highest academic status in our school. This did not wear well.

Over time I got to know Joe enough to learn a fair amount about him and to remain pretty close friends after high school through college although he traveled much father afield than I did to get an undergraduate Degree at Northwestern in Chicago, and a Masters/Doctorate in Edinburgh Scotland.

Joe was half Sioux Indian and half Norwegian. His family with the German name adopted him and as near as I could tell their very commonplaceness became yet one more obstacle he had to overcome to achieve a satisfying level of achievement. No doubt the harrassment he got for his achievements only goaded him to greater achievement.

In my junior year I joined the Tennis team briefly until a D in Chemistry led my Dad to make me drop the extra curricular. Joe also happened to join the team. He was no more athletic than he had been in junior high gymnastics. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he was a spastic player. Just as he had annoyed kids in class with his over eagerness to earn A’s he managed to do the same with the Tennis players. And the tennis players were no slouches in class either. Most of them were easily in the top ten percent of our graduating class. However, they had the good sense to downplay their smarts as though getting good grades was more of an accident than an intention. In short order Joe got the nickname “Red Cloud.”

I never used it. It was demeaning. More than that Mankato was infamous for holding the largest mass hanging in American history. It followed the Sioux Uprising that took place during the Civil War. As a new resident of Mankato I was taken aback by the memorial to the hanging that rested on the bridge separating the Mankato and North Mankato over the Minnesota River. It said, as I recall, “Here were hanged 38 Indians…”

The sobriquet Red Cloud was not only cruel it was crass and I regarded the latter and I’m not sure which fault I more despised. My Mother had told me, and I had believed her, that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Of course, the tennis elite was not interested in catching any flies. Besides their taunts only served to steel Joe to work his butt off. Despite his spasticity I was amazed to see him improve to the point that he was almost as good as anyone else on the team. Perhaps, as its been suggested, Success is the best revenge.

Before I’m chided for not having called the tennis fraternity at my school on the carpet for their racism I’ll add one last tidbit. In my junior year I was still a debater and sat in the Debate “class.”. Joe was there and so was “Laney.” Laney might not catch anyones attention in school today with our epidemic of obesity but back then she was a behemoth amongst a bevy of knock kneed, skinny girls. For years Laney had endured constant ridicule for her weight. Her coping skill was to laugh it all off and toss off retorts to her attackers that only served to make them nastier.

Our Debate Coach was a real jerk who liked to ogle high school girls and comment on their short skirts as though we debater were his confidants. He was was quite happy to add to Laney’s misery in hopes that she would give up debate. Joe and the other male debaters were happy to hop on the bandwagon. I still recall being appalled when Joe turned to Laney and told her she was America’s answer to jungle rot. Charming. Laney just laughed if off. All things considered, I didn’t feel terribly compelled to tell the Tennis Jocks to clean up their act.

Ten years later Laney would lose a ton of weight and become a spokesmen for a weight loss program. Not long after that Joe would be in the US Foreign Service having learned Mandarin Chinese.