The year I graduated from high school, for the first time in the history of the school, the valedictory address was not given by the student who was first in his class. We knew that Dylan, the student who was selected in his place to be valedictorian, wasn’t even near the top. This being a competitive Catholic preparatory school, grades were important. Our class ranking was calculated and printed on our grade report at the end of every term in our junior and senior years. We knew who the highest ranking students were, just as we knew the names of the fastest runners and highest seeded tennis players. It was the kind of news that got around. I didn’t need to be told, though. I knew whose grade report had the number one in the box for class rank, because it was mine.
Dylan was a good enough student and a fast enough runner, and he could draw cartoons, which gave him something of the artist’s cachet, but he didn’t truly excel at anything. Except being popular. He was very good at that. I expect it came to him as effortlessly as good grades came to me.
A handsome, tallish kid with blond hair, Dylan was graced with the athletic build of the mid-distance runner that he was. There were guys in my class who were easy to imagine as animals, like squat, pudgy Matt d’Angelo with his afro of reddish brown hair or Mike Shaughnessy, a tall goose of a kid with wide hips and a big butt, who waddled a bit when walked. Dylan was one of those animal guys. There was something equine about him, the long strong neck and high forehead, the way his muscular legs tapered to a spare torso. Yes, I could imagine him as a horse.
It wasn’t just looks. Dylan was also confident and affable, a born politician who was comfortable talking to practically anyone at school. Unlike the other popular guys at school, who kept to themselves, Dylan actually did talk to most of the rest of us, if only superficially.
Popularity could be ranked, too, and though the rankings were never published we nonetheless knew who were at the top and who at the bottom. I imagine Dylan felt he deserved the nomination—as president of the Student Council, so to speak—though he must have realized this opportunity was exceptional. Popularity was just as much a value as scholarship, though not a virtue.
“At least they didn’t put it to a vote,” I said to my friend Simon, as we were leaving the assembly hall where the President had just announced the details of the commencement program. Dylan would still have won, of course, but this way I didn’t have to lose face and could be righteously angry about it all.
But oddly enough, I wasn’t very angry. Simon was. Sometimes I thought Simon looked out for me more than I did for myself.
“The bastards!” he said, in a voice just loud enough to be overheard without seeming to have been directed at anyone in particular. “This is simply unacceptable.” That was the phrase he used whenever he was confronted by instances of injustice or abuse: unacceptable. And unacceptable meant doing something to make it right.
I told him it was all bullshit anyway; the whole commencement circus was just a show for the parents, I said. I suppose I believed it at the time, if only as a way of shielding myself from the hurt of an injustice that could not be righted. Because there was no way I was going to tell my parents about this. They’d think I’d done something to deserve it.
I hadn’t, of course, but there must have been an explanation for this unusual break with tradition. Simon thought the administration was afraid of what I’d say if given the podium. He made me sound more radical and heroic than I was, as if I’d draw inspiration for my valediction from liberation theology or neo-Marxism. I might have given cause for others to believe this. But I think it was more the fact that I had decided to take a year off before going to college. It was not the kind of publicity a school wants that prides itself on getting its graduates into good colleges. Not the kind of student you wanted representing the school. Now Dylan, he was an ideal poster boy for the school.
No explanation was given for the decision. Which was worse. I wish I had been accused of something, instead of being found wanting but not knowing why. Uncertainty erodes our indignation at precisely the point we are least sure of ourselves. What if the President was right? What if he was just trying to make sure the day wasn’t spoiled for parents and students by an off-the-wall talk by a kid with half-formed leftish ideas who sometimes came to his AP Calculus class a little stoned?
Simon insisted we go to Chang’s after track practice. To make plans, he said.Chang’s was the closest thing we had to a hangout, and it sometimes seemed as if we did all our serious talking there. It was a noodle shop in the city, a basement place with a half-dozen formica tables and fluorescent tube lighting. The walls were painted in the kind of pale mossy green you saw in hospitals or locker rooms. There were calendars on the wall. Not many non-Asians came, which is why Simon liked it so much. He was big on authenticity.
So at dinner that evening we talked about a plan. Or rather Simon did. We could send an anonymous letter of protest, he said, to all the parents. We could form a student committee to lodge a formal complaint. We could threaten to write a letter to the newspapers.
None of this made much sense to me, least of all the student complaint. I had friends but most of them, like Simon and me, were on the track team, as was Dylan, so it was unlikely we’d muster more than a few signatures. But the problem wasn’t tactical. I didn’t want to make an issue of it. I told him so, as I picked out the pieces of tripe and lung from the 7 Treasures Pan Noodles he and I had both ordered.
“Why not make an issue of it? It’s fucking wrong!” he said. “And why do you order this if you don’t like it?”
“I keep hoping the treasures will change and one day I’ll find something new and orgasmic that I’ve never tasted before.” If Simon ate in pursuit of adventure, I was the romantic diner. Truth is, if we had been just a little braver and more honest with ourselves, we might have made love to each other instead of going out to restaurants.
“Simon, I already know I’m smart. I don’t need a speech.” I told him I didn’t want people thinking I was caught up with the whole “status thing”. I must have sounded ridiculous, as if I were a celebrity dodging the paparazzi, but if Simon noticed, he didn’t say anything.
What I couldn’t say to Simon was that I was uncomfortable with any kind of scrutiny. I had so fallen into the habit of being inconspicuous at school that I was prepared to make concessions to avoid drawing attention to myself. And since I already felt like an outsider, I thought I didn’t want or need the insignia of belonging. I was wrong.
It was only when I came out that summer after graduation did I begin to realize how wrong the school’s decision was. Even if I had ranted, which I wouldn’t have (my nerdish perfectionism would certainly have kicked in), but just saying, if I had, it would only have been for a brief ten minutes or so, not so tragic, really, and I would have made a fool of no one but myself. I should have had the time. I had earned it. Even if I were to use my time to sing or babble away in another language. You can only reject what it is first yours to have. But as I said, it took my coming out to make realize this.
I was right when I told Simon that commencement was a show, but wrong when I called it a circus. It wasn’t entertainment but a very serious show with a message that the education that took place within the school was an apprenticeship in conformity. Driven by the politics of interests, endowments and reputation, the commencement show was a masterful act of impression management that celebrated success in the most conventional of terms. The irony was, I had been successful in just those terms. In most of them, anyway. It was a valuable lesson to learn, and I suppose I should be grateful to the school for teaching me it.
Towards the end of dinner Simon reminded me of another talk the President had given. It was our very first day at the school and the entire freshman class had been gathered for orientation. Simon and I could still recall his opening words: “For each of you here, there are another three young men who wanted your seat.” I hadn’t heard myself called a young man in that way before, with the emphasis place on man. He told us how privileged we were to be here, to be part of this community of gifted young men, part of a tradition of brotherhood and scholarship. And then he went on to describe how this privilege brought with it great responsibility: to use our gifts and the knowledge and skills we were to acquire for a higher purpose: to serve God, to strive for justice, to honor truth. It would have been a good start for my own address had I been allowed to give it. Except the God part, maybe. I wasn’t ready for that.
“Hypocrites!” Simon said, again too loud. “I can’t believe you’re not going to do anything about this. But it’s your life, man. At least they’re giving you the Math prize,” he said and relaxed into a broad smile , as if he were embracing me with his expansive good nature.
“So what’s yours say?” He pointed to the fortune cookies that the waiter had brought with a refill of our tea, Chang’s concession to the walk-in tourist customers. Not very authentic, but Simon loved the absurdity of it. “Wow, real American fortune cookies, what a find!” he’d say when we ate at Chang’s with friends who hadn’t been there before.
I can’t remember what my cookie said. It was probably one of those syntactically awkward sayings that always seem so inappropriate or irrelevant when you read them, like “there is a time to be practical now.” But I remember Simon’s, if only because it quickly entered into that strange collection of inside jokes and obscure references that filled our conversation. “Believe in the goooness of your fellow man.”
We couldn’t decide whether the misspelling was a typographic casualty—a chipped off ascender on a glyph that should have been retired—or just typesetter fatigue. But it seemed perfect for the moment. Simon ordered us rice wine and we toasted to the gooeyness of our teachers and President. I could not have been better consoled.
I’ve tried to reproduce as faithfully as I could the dialogue between Simon and me, but many years have elapsed since then and some of this may be pure invention. But Simon could have said everything I have him say here. The only quote I am certain of is from the President’s orientation speech. That I will never forget.
Image: Self-Portrait, Emilio Baz Viaud (1935). The Mexican artist Emilio Baz Viaud painted this self-portrait at the age of 17. There aren’t many references to the work of this little known Mexican artist but Rudi Bleys devotes several pages to him and his (more openly gay) brother Ben Hur in his book “Images of Ambiente: Homotextuality (Sic) and Latin (O/A) American Art”. Bleys notes that Emilio’s portraits of his artist friends are “covert visualization of friendship, possible suggesting emotional and sexual intimacy between these men.” In any event, his paintings radiate an unabashed and infectious sensuality. Simon would have liked them, I think.