As a virtue in American society, Fame replaced Discretion and perhaps Integrity sometime in the last hundred years. Propelled by television and turbo-charged by the Internet, we’ve reached the point where most people would rather be popular than think about their posterity.
In the past 30 years, the top professional aspirations of children have changed from teacher, doctor, and lawyer to sports star, pop star and actor. There is a substantial difference in what becomes of our society when a majority would rather use talent to entertain than gain knowledge to educate, heal and resolve conflict.
I’m not sure when the eclipse of Fame happened, but I have a vague recollection of the first time I realized it might be better to be well-known than to know.
Allow me to set the scene. It was Kindergarten.
- MY SELFIE, CIRCA 1979
I trudged through the gusty Northern Indiana winter to a bleak, overbuilt academic factory where I operated under the misguided notion that doing my best and obeying the teacher was what mattered most.
In that harshly-lit, cinderblock-ensconced repository of prepubescence I first learned about the ascension of Fame and its ever-present companion, ephemeral applause. Unfortunately, that applause danced all around me, for others, while I mistakenly pursued the folly of diligent effort and submission to authority.
Ms. Ruschine was a Clydesdale of a Midwestern woman with the requisite perma-scowl and a beige wardrobe that was delinquent by a decade (I do remember Field Day when she wore a scarlet blouse – we thought she was a substitute teacher until we spotted the unmistakable knee-high hosiery as she attempted to double-dutch with the Vargas twins).
I returned early from recess to see her thinning poly-cotton sleeves strangling her ample right arm as she wrote on the chalkboard.
I held my breath as I crossed the threshold that separated the sloppy-joe scented hallway from the unmistakable must created by the millions of mold spores procreating on the gypsum board behind our cubbies. It wasn’t for fear of nausea that I withheld oxygen from my lungs. No, it was the Christmas Eve-like anticipation of what Ms. Ruschine’s chalk message would soon reveal.
Line Leader for Week 21. That was my goal.
I had doggedly petitioned for this honor since I last held it, in Week 9, a week notable not just for two rounds of real beef hamburgers in the cafeteria but for the absence of soiled underwear for yours truly. Now, this was the era before “every kid gets a trophy” and Line Leader was not easily granted. It required completing schoolwork, being kind to fellow students, and above all, no demerits, which I had assiduously avoided like Plastic Man avoids the Arctic.
“Noooo!” I erupted as Ms. Ruschine’s pillowy backside moved, allowing me to view which student had been chosen. “Not Matthew Coots! He’s got three demerits!”
As Ms. Ruschine turned to face me, the space between her simple string of pearls and her pale lips morphed into a red beehive of disapproval.
“Derek, jealousy is a sour apple,” she said. “It’s not good for or in you. Besides, there are some circumstances that are greater than not getting demerits.”
Four days earlier, Matthew Coots had been involved in an event heralded as the Extra Special Kick. Granted, it was a powerful boot that gave Team Red the victory in kickball, but did it really warrant overlooking his repeated infractions? And, how did he hoodwink Ms. Ruschine? In my mind, I felt like Ralphie from A Christmas Story, as the teacher turned into a witch and gave him a failing grade. Instead of green paint and a wart on her nose, Ms. Ruschine turned into a sap who bought into the popularity tsunami of Matthew Coots just as it crested, flooding the school and leading him to Line Leader of Week 21.
Meanwhile, your humble author trudged away, head hanging, to another insulting week wedged trapped between Greasy Gertie and Farting Ted. (At least Ted was behind me)
Here’s the deal, in case you didn’t figure it out by now. Matthew had a few weeks of extra bright sunshine on his arse, but in the end, he barely finished high school and dropped out of JuCo to take a shot at making his dreams come true in Hollywood. Last I heard, we was the rim waxer at a car detailer on Sepulveda Boulevard. Why? Because he never learned real discipline and the importance of hard work. He connived and relied on his physical gifts for a short run. But, by 10th grade the rest of the boys had caught up and many passed him by.
Human nature has and always will pursue accolades at the expense of altruism. The spirit of man longs to soar and as a consequence, will perpetually join Icarus in the folly of flying to close to the sun. It’s the paradox of our souls that we desire to be gods, for surely there is more to this life than we can see. Intuitively, we all know we are eternal.
Yet when we pursue the temporary spotlight using shortcuts and guile, prematurely rising before our foundations are secure, we miss the mark. It is only when we subsume ourselves in the greatest attributes of our Creator that we find ourselves transcending the fleeting desires and fleshly ambitions that only pervert and ruin in a glorious and glutinous volcano of abuse and self-destruction.
“Don’t expect people’s applause for your work. What is more, sometimes you mustn’t even expect other people and institutions, who like you are working for Christ, to understand you. Seek only the glory of God and, while loving everyone, don’t worry if there are some who don’t understand you.” – St. Josemaria Escriva