My First Political Act: Stand-Up, Neck Ties and the Civil War

Submitted by Keith Gall

Shellee O'Brien
Nov 14, 2015 · 3 min read

The stand-up I performed to win the fifth-/ sixth-grade talent show was my first political act. (Rimshot.) Seriously/ Not-seriously, there were a number of jokes about Ronald Reagan, and I got good laughs from a Carter bit that involved a “peanut-doobie”. I killed. I even beat out the most charismatic kid in all of grade six. His name was Benji, if that helps to set the early 80s zeitgeist.

Seriously, when it comes to political action, my first true experience came debating Mr. Townsend. The subject was the Civil War, and I had one of those history teachers who believed that the conflict began over states rights. (Author’s note: I grew up in Michigan, not the South.) In school, I’d always been a white-bread yes-man, never the type to speak out or disrespect authority. In fact, at the time, I was in an Alex-P.-Keaton necktie phase. Quite honestly, if not for this moment of clarity, I might’ve gone on to lead the Young Republicans, like a good little soldier.

Instead, the truth set me free. For, having extended family in the deepest folds of Georgia, I’d been sickened again and again by the legacy of Jim Crow. And wishing to understand this, I’d read much on the subjects of slavery, the War-Between-the-States, and even the Great Migration.

In other words, for the first time in my academic career, I knew full well that my teacher was full of shit.

Short of saying as much, I raised my hand and deftly explained the true cause of the war: Lincoln to my teacher’s less-than-stellar Douglas. I offered background information untouched within the class text and purposefully avoided in his lectures.Had Townsend actually been a good teacher, he might’ve suggested we prepare, then face off in a real exchange of ideas. It could’ve been fun and empowering and respectful. However, the man was petty and felt his power slipping. So, he shut me down with dictatorial force. The lesson learned that day had nothing to do with Gettysburg. I walked away knowing that instructors might own agendas; they could propagandize, rather than illuminate.

Yet, my voice had been heard by others. Where exchange of ideas could occur, discourse and facts could surface. The moment would reverberate through my life, especially molding my approach to teaching.

The neck-tie era had most suddenly come to an end.

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Shellee O'Brien

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Creature of community; Idea gatherer; Citizen-at-large approaching the work of an engaged citizenry like the future depends on it. Founder,


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