There’s a great diner in Watertown, the Boston burb where I eat & sleep when I’m not coaching debate or paying homage to the ancestors back in Fitchburg. I discovered that the ownership’s opened a new location, in Newton Center in an old train station. The menu is mostly the same, and the food’s just as good.
I had dinner there a few Sundays ago with Wild Bill, who’s a Team Palmer alum from my second forensics stop, Newton South. WB was one of the first debaters I’d coached in a long time, after a long run doing purely speech events. He switched over from extemp to PF and never looked back, foreshadowing my doing the same.
He graduated just three short years ago, and headed to Delaware for college, and is about to graduate from there a year early. He’s not quite 21; so while I had a hot toddy — it was cold out and my throat was sore — he stuck to water. He did most of the talking, which is good, because he had some great stories to tell.
WB comes across as old, which is jarring, because he looks so young; he has that blue-eyed blonde-haired fresh look that means he’ll get carded until he’s 35. He’s conservative in his manner, if not his politics. He maintains a brash, over the top and loud public persona to hide a deeply private inner life. In normal conversation, when he’s not playing the dictator, he comes across as sad; he speaks slowly, and with little affect. Sometimes he is sad, sometimes he’s just being quiet; I figured out the difference a long time ago, through coaching him. He got overlooked a lot, and could sometimes be hard to deal with. But he was always worth dealing with, I thought.
Much of his story involved a somewhat typical bout of college relationship angst whose details are important to the actors and their friends, and unimportant to anyone else. The other half of the story was the traditional Plans After College. These were less typical.
Next year, WB is going to spend a year that he could have spent in college instead working on the Delaware Right to Marry PAC, a non profit group agitating for full marriage rights for gays and lesbians in Delaware. WB himself founded it a few years ago, and now he’s going to take his tuition dollars for his nonexistent fourth college year and use them to make a serious go of effecting a big change within a small state.
It’s ordinary for college kids, especially former debaters, to go off and try to get involved in politics after college. Usually they take a much safer route; finding an internship in some Washington office where their work is dull but they can suck up to the right big names and hopefully increase the size of their own. These types run up a spiral of increasingly lofty titles, but ultimately end up doing different types of clerical work all their lives and calling it power. Liberal or conservative, they usually just become agents for the status quo, finding more difficulties than opportunities and calling that experience.
WB’s doing it better. He’s going to spend a whole year living on ramen fighting a thankless battle for equality in a state that may not yet be ready for it. If it fails he’ll have gotten nearly nothing. If it succeeds, there’s a good chance a better-connected figure will swoop in and claim much of the credit. But if he can move the lever and be the difference, he will be. He made it abundantly clear — through action, not words — that he’s doing this because it’s right, not just because it’s right for him. He can, he should, and therefore he is.
He’s straight, by the way.
For graduation, I gave WB the 2nd volume of Robert Caro’s excellent biography of Lydon Johnson, Means of Ascent, whose second half is a hugely entertaining tale of how LBJ engineered a stolen election against an entrenched Texas legend. I wrote a note in the cover, which WB apparently re-reads often; I remember taking care to tell him the 2nd half of the book was not to be treated as an instruction manual; but more to the point, to remind him that power is to be used, not simply gained. I told him I had faith he could be a rabble rouser and a big name someday, but if he didn’t harness it to a real cause or a real purpose, it’d be hollow and dry.
Mitt Romney fails to inspire because nobody knows why he wants to be President beyond having his name in history books; Barack Obama likewise has disappointed by conserving power instead of maximizing its effect. Power conserved is power wasted; especially if it’s conserved for so petty a goal as re-election. WB is better than both; underlying his sadness and sometimes anger, his occasional abrasiveness, and his aggressive public demeanor is a moral compass that puts most of our high leaders to shame; he’ll tweak Important Personages wherever he can find them, but the thing that surely must annoy them most is that he’s usually right; he’s shining light on areas they’d prefer to keep dark.
I can hope I had a small part in writing this story instead of simply hearing it. If I taught him something about moral philosophy, political theory, or general causticness that nudged him onto this path, then 16 years coaching speech & debate were worth it. I tend to be deeply cynical about What Is, but demand a lot of people to shape What Will Be, and try to impart some of the same to everyone I teach. The Right Thing is often clear enough; we don’t fail to do it because we don’t know what it is, but because we don’t want to; and for that, there’s little excuse.
WB wasn’t my most talented or successful student, not even in his class. He had a better than average debate career, but not a spectacular one. Perhaps he was saving his spectacular for later. I’m privileged to watch and find out.