I’m in D.C., sitting on a dais with 19 other people on a stage facing out at a dimly lit crowd of 2,600, most from places I’d never been.
It is the single most important moment of my life thus far. At sixteen years old, after a year serving as an International Trustee, I am moments away from finding out if I will be the President of the largest high school service organization in the world.
My heart is racing at impossible speeds and I’m in such sensory overload that I feel at any moment I might scream out, faint, vomit, if not all three at the same time.
On the opposite side of the stage from me a routine presentation is taking place. The outgoing President is making his remarks. And then it is time. He starts his announcement.
“The 2000-2001 Key Club International President is…”
My heart beats a slightly sped up pace in tribute as I write this now. I remember much about the campaign that led up to that moment, individual moments of triumph and embarrassment.
Mostly I remember the exhaustion, the feeling of running on pure adrenaline, and always being on the cusp of nausea.
It was the campaigning that did it to me. Hours of speechifying, answering questions, and trying desperately, at all costs to get people to like me, and more importantly, believe in me.
There were 31 rooms, one for each district in the Organization. From New York to California, from California to Jamaica, all districts were represented by a contingent symbolic of their actual size. Some rooms barely had 20 people, others had hundreds.
We were given five minutes in each room. Half of that was used for our stump speeches which sometimes were listened to attentively, and sometimes completely ignored in anticipation of the more interesting section, the Q&A.
It was the most important and most significant set of interviews of my life. Even today on a regular basis I can regularly reference things I learned from that experience that I’ve never learned anywhere else.
I had prepped for weeks and months. Memorizing names, slogans, state birds, songs, facts, figures and more. I have always been bad at studying and looking back I realize I was motivated by an incredible desire and a terrible fear of failure.
I willed the information into myself, beat it into my brain and my memory because I wanted this thing so bad.
Most of it stuck, some of it didn’t. So by the time it cam for caucusing, for meeting the thousands of people who were either excited to meet me or extremely interested in tearing me apart, all that was left was me.
It was a case study in honesty, patience, trust, improvisation and wit. Everything happened in such rapid succession there was only time to listen, react, and then move on.
If something went wrong in one room there was no time to rehash or complain, we had to prep for the next. Sometimes we were running late, more often than not, everybody was running late.
All the time I had spent prepping and cramming had come down to letting all of it out in a handful of hours all so that I could lead an organization that had given me more than anything I had ever done in high school, introduced me to amazing people, and set me on a path that I might not have found otherwise.
I wanted it so bad. I remember sitting up in my bed at night praying for things like wisdom and courage and strength and piles of other adjectives that my brain reached for.
And then it was the week of, and the night of, and then the minute.
A pool of three had been whittled down to two, I from New York sitting on a dais trying my best to appear calm and collected despite the nausea and pimples that had showed up on my forehead that morning, my competitor a girl from New Jersey who was sitting in the audience, perhaps feeling just as nervous, but whom nobody could see either way.
And in the way that people talk about the silence that precedes a significant moment, an infinite pause occurred.
“The 2000-2001 Key Club International President is, from the New…
And some significant portion of those 2,600 people roared and screamed and jumped out of their chairs as my competitor found her way to the stage.
I remember a feeling of calm that came over me almost instantly. It wasn’t bitterness or anger, there was disappointment sure, but a kind of acceptance that was almost preternatural and that I wish was still possible at my current age.
Perhaps it is.
I stood. The whole dais stood and applauded.
She came to the stage hugged the current president and then worked her way through the dais hugging everybody until she got to me at which point we hugged wonderfully, furiously. It was a hug of congratulations, of mutual acknowledgement, of exhaustion.
And it was wonderful.
My life went on that next year to be incredible, I travelled, I met more interesting people, there were laughs and girls and pictures of hilarious moments. All of which led up to a full scholarship to college.
But really, this isn’t a story about me. It’s not even a story about the girl who beat me. It’s not a story about competition or Key Club or anything like that.
This is a story about decency.
You see, about 7 years ago I was re-watching the tapes from that convention. Reliving all of that glory that seemed to exist in an insular bubble of perfection. Trying to see if we all looked as godlike as we probably felt at that time.
And I watched the election announcement again.
There, sitting in my parents living room with the surround sound, I thought I caught something as the outgoing president hugged the new one.
Something he said was picked up by the microphone which the audience didn’t hear, but the camera did because the audio from the mic went straight to the camera.
I played it back again, louder.
And there it was.
Something more insightful and important than winning or losing, something decent and true…
Something that always reminds me of what that whole experience was about and what I really learned…
Something I flash on now and again that always warms my heart…
As they hugged and I clapped on from the other side of the stage, the current president whispered…
“Congratulations, go give Rich a hug.”