My life at elementary school provided me no productive outlets. My socially graceful sixth grade sister knew everyone who was anyone. In contrast, I spent my recesses meandering around the playground as a dorky third grader.
I had spent the better part of a year smitten over a leggy blonde girl named Valerie, and up until this point, I possessed little interest in school politics. But when our teacher asked if anyone was interested in running for student council, Valerie’s hand had gone up. I instantly saw how these two seemingly divergent interests could intersect if I developed a keen interest in politics. I declared myself a candidate for the hidden purpose of winning a girl’s affection. Valerie registered for the position of hostess; therefore, I signed up for host to increase the amount of time we would spend together. Each candidate had one week to campaign, advertise, and prepare a speech on why they should be elected to represent the student body.
With no experience in politics, my first move was to hire a campaign manager. My initial choice of James Carville was committed to the recently inaugurated Bill Clinton, so I decided to recruit another bald liberal with glasses — my grandfather. No stranger to politics, he spent his retired years watching news television, complaining about George Bush (the first and later the second), and speaking frequently at local city council meetings to air his concerns about the air quality in his subdivision. These appearances were broadcast on local television and made him a celebrity in the family.
We set about developing a rousing speech to secure the student body vote. This being my first venture into public speaking, Grandfather decided to serve as my head speech writer, too. After hours of writing, erasing, and rewriting we came to the conclusion that I should stay away from education; instead, I needed to highlight the critical need for longer recesses and lunches.
My sister would make the perfect lobbyist but she didn’t want anything to do with me. I couldn’t blame her. I’d recently watched the movie Rad and become infatuated with BMX. My mother, trying to satisfy my infatuation, bought me a green BMX sweater. I loved this sweater so much that I decided it was a good idea to wear it to school every day and earned the unflattering nickname “uniform boy” from my classmates. But after a shady back room meeting I wasn’t privy to between my grandfather and sister, he was able to persuade her to publicly admit our blood ties and hired her as a lobbyist.
My father was ecstatic with my decision to campaign for office. I had temporarily suspended the old routine of pestering him to play a game of catch after he got home from making his two hour commute into the Bay Area. He preferred our new routine where he sat on the couch, ate his dinner, and watched me practice my speech while I stood on stacked yellow book pages in our family room. The night before my big speech I asked him if he’d be able to attend, and he told me it wasn’t possible due to his long commute.
Election day would be held outside on a sunny California afternoon. My confidence was sky high until I arrived at the school courtyard and beheld a sea of students sitting in neat rows of blue chairs. The hours I had spent practicing in front of my supportive family couldn’t have prepared me for speaking in front of hundreds of judgmental peers. I looked down at my piece of paper and mentally rehearsed each word as my sweaty hands smudged out my sloppy handwriting. The only exterior stimulus I took note of were the popular students receiving a loud applause. Unpopular students, my social caste, were shown pity with a polite golf clap.
As I heard my name called a tight knot of nerves formed in my chest. I slinked up to the microphone, not tripping on any stairs as I had feared, and started speaking. Halfway through my speech I sensed something was wrong. Most of the audience had puzzled looks on their faces; a few of the older kids — probably led by nemesis Keith — were laughing at me. Overwhelmed by my nerves, I hadn’t realized the microphone was inches above my head. Nobody had heard a word I said. My first savior was a thoughtful teacher who lowered the microphone and told me to start over.
In a panicked moment I recalled the gravelly voice of my grandfather who said, “Look above the audience if you get nervous.” This sage wisdom commanded my eyes to the back of the courtyard where I found my second savior standing in the shade of a skinny tree with sun tanned arms resting on his puffed out chest. It was my father. As our eyes met he tilted his head and revealed a radiant white smile. I’m sure it was the same smile he’d used as a nightclub singer in Bangkok to woo my mother. He now unearthed it, years later, to inspire me.
I started my speech over, and delivered each of my carefully crafted words into the microphone. I felt the syllables and phrases about the dire need for longer lunches erupt from my diaphragm. I looked every one of the older kids in the eye and pounded my fist into the podium to conclude my speech. My lobbyist sister performed her duties admirably as the entire sixth, seventh, and eighth grade roared a voracious approval for longer recesses. My campaign was sparked for Valerie’s affection, something I would never win, but ended with a victory of incalculable value — my father’s admiration. In the following years I’ve won a few more elections, but never felt as happy as I did on that day.
I’ve often pondered how an early memory can chart the course of an adult life. Does a man become a mechanic because he spent his teenage years handing tools to his grandfather? Does a woman become a singer because she grew up listening to her mother sing in the shower? I don’t perform standup comedy for the dopamine rush after a great set; rather, I’m a standup comedian because I’m still searching for the feeling of being on the third grade campaign trail.
I thought this feeling was forever confined to my child memories until I performed my standup comedy bit in front of my father for the first time. After telling my joke about how Prius drivers wave to each other — I’m a proud owner of one — amidst the laughter of the audience, I happened to catch a glimpse of Dad from a few rows back. The lights were still bright but I was able to see his crossed arms, puffed out chest, and radiant smile. He looked and I felt exactly the same.