Confession

This is pretty much exactly what it looked like when I fought the Aikido master

Note on the text: This was originally read at the graduation ceremony for the University of Washington’s MFA Creative Writing class of 2017. Some small modifications have been made here for clarity. The title refers to St. Patrick’s Confessio, which you can read here, if you are so inclined. To Erika and Alicia: if you ever read this, I apologize for the jokes at your expense.


My name is Cameron. I usually tell people that my single greatest accomplishment is a toss-up between one of two events: it’s either the time, while I was a 20 year-old summer-camp counselor, that I defeated a 50 year-old Aikido black-belt-master in a very heated, very real, very fair fight (which, you should know, the Aikido master had totally instigated, possibly trying to prove his superiority and assert his dominance over the group of teenagers I was counseling); or it’s the St. Patrick’s Day writing contest, hosted by a newspaper called The Tucson Citizen, which I won in sixth grade.

Today, the latter of these accomplishments, the essay contest, is the one that I will talk about. (Though I want to clarify that I didn’t really harm the old Aikido master at all. And I will happily offer you many more details about the defeated old man—his enraged, bewildered disciples who, about to attack me in force, he had to call off from where he lay, shocked, with his injured pride on the mat; his inadequate martial arts skills; his sizable belly strapped down by the black belt. And I assure you, the precipitating circumstances that led to our showdown make for a pretty good tale. Ask me about it later.)

But for now, the newspaper essay contest. Though The Tucson Citizen is now defunct — as all newspapers, print or otherwise, will surely be after our President bans another group of people he’s afraid of (that is to say, the literate) — and though my 6th grade essay is now interred in the graveyard of forgotten things on the internet — this 15 year-old piece of writing has remained, in my mind, enshrined as a lesson that has some bearing on today.

The prompt was to “write about your hero,” which, now, I think is an odd choice of prompt for a St. Patrick’s Day essay, as it has nothing to do with celebrating Ireland or the history of the Irish. But then, St. Patrick’s Day is — or at least it is now — half-built around things it has nothing to do with: Nigel Monaghan, keeper of natural history at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, has searched extensively through Irish fossil collections and records, and has concluded that (and this is a direct quote) “At no time has there ever been any suggestion of snakes in Ireland, so [there was] nothing for St. Patrick to banish.” And of course, we know that St. Patrick, born in Roman Britain, wasn’t even really Irish.

And now I’m getting to the point. Yes, I could read you some of my poems, as is the convention at graduations like this. However many people do not care one squirt about poetry — in fact, may find poetry useless, annoying, and impenetrable—while my kind classmates have already suffered my poems for multiple years, and putting them through it once again, here at the end of the night, would be an act of utter heartlessness.

So, with your permission, I will read you some selections from my 6th grade St. Patrick’s Day essay, for which I won the first-place prize, which was a Sony DVP NS315 DVD player (the tech-specs of which, by the way, are a pretty good description of my ambitions for poetry, boasting “a clear, vibrant picture” and “everything flowing while you jump around to different areas”). This prize came at a time when DVD players hadn’t really been around for very long. I don’t think we had many DVDs, if any; all I remember in our “Movie Cabinet” was a collection of VHS tapes, including some home-recorded Star Trek: Voyager episodes, Jurassic Park, the usual Disney titles, and a truly fucked up Shirley Temple movie from 1937 called Heidi, in which Temple plays an 8-year-old Swiss orphan who is mercilessly attacked by a goat and nearly sold to gypsies. I am glad I was not alive in 1937.

Poor, poor Heidi. Look at her face. Could she be thinking of anything but the goat?

Keep in mind that in 1997, DVD players were being sold for around $1000 — and still had a price-tag of more than a hundred bucks in the early 2000’s. If you think about the prize in terms of its monetary value, it remains one of the largest sums I’ve ever been paid for “creative writing.”

In any case, here’s the essay:

Cameron Louie, Age 11, Doolen Middle School: “Eddie, the Fastest Speed-Skater in the State.”

I don’t know how to begin this except for one meaningful and simple word: life. Life is a lot like skating. Once you are ready to start, you get up and then you fall down, but you always get up again. My subject, Eddie (Wachter), is exactly the same, yet in some aspects completely different. He gives people the knowledge of how to skate. And that’s what this is about for me: the quest for knowledge and the answers to questions. That is why I chose Eddie the fastest inline speed-skater in the state to be my subject. He isn’t just a skater either; he’s my friend.
I can’t say that our meeting was coincidence because I was looking for a person who could enhance my skating skills, but in the end I wound up with much more.
[I’ll skip a little here for time, and because it gets a little too earnest for me to read in front of this many people]
I learned from Eddie that it wasn’t how well you could do a trick or how fast you could skate that really mattered in the long run. It was how much effort you put into it and how much you improved, a valuable life lesson if you ask me. I had heard in the past that it’s about how hard you try, not how well you do, but I would always think that it wasn’t true. If you didn’t win, you were a loser and that was it.
[…]
Eddie is important to me, not just as an instructor or a teacher, but as I said before, a friend. I value his opinion because he values mine. I appreciate him because he appreciates me. When it really comes down to it, I think that Eddie has helped me as a person. He has changed the way I get up in the morning and feel about a brand new day, and he has changed the way I look at life. For this I am forever in his gratitude. All that is left to say is: thank you.

With the DVD player in my possession, I internalized two lessons, one of which usually turned out to be true, and the other, only rarely true:

The first lesson was that good writing is often some combination of saying what is truly in your heart, but saying it in a way that it becomes meaningful to strangers; I really did feel strongly about Eddie, as you could see, but I also have distinct memories of sitting in front of my 2002 desktop computer, quietly — perhaps sociopathically — contemplating what it was that a panel of essay judges would want to hear a 6th grader say about his hero. This lesson, put another way, might be “…all that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt” (that’s the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats). Or in terms my 6th grade self would have better understood: “Ain’t nothin’ but a heartache” (that’s The Backstreet Boys). It really aint.

“Ain’t nothin but a heart / ache.” — W.B. Yeats, “No Second Troy”

The other lesson I internalized was that I would always receive material compensation for my writing.

I think you can figure out which lesson was which — although I have been blessed by the patronage of the University of Washington, for which I am grateful — even if, at times, it felt as though maybe the university, having had me teach a total of 138 students in exchange for only one education of my own, had received the better end of the deal.

But I will reiterate St. Patrick’s sentiment from his Confession, that “the time he spent in captivity was critical to his spiritual development.” And so it has been.

I really am grateful though. Grateful enough that now, once again, “all that’s left to say is: thank you” — to my brilliant advisors, Andrew Feld and Richard Kenney; to my peerless fellow graduates and to the rest of our faculty who helped me through these last two years; and to my family.

And a very hearty thanks to 2nd place, Erika Schnaps, age 12, from Doolen Middle School, who wrote “The Leprechaun of My Life,” and 3rd place, Alicia Montaño, age 12, from Dodge Middle School, author of a “A Tucson Saint” for writing essays that were just not quite up to the dancing prose and rhetorical gymnastics that you witnessed in my superior essay.

Though it is surely in a landfill somewhere now, I would assure both Erika and Alicia, if I could speak to them, that I loved the DVD player more than either of them ever could have.

Photos by Craig Whitehead, Flybynight and me