“So, knowing what you know now, would you have sat on the bench?”
“I dunno. Maybe.”
“Well then I’m afraid I’ll have to give you a detention.”
In sixth grade, I was obsessed with Nelson Mandela after writing a report on his struggle to bring racial equality to South Africa. I soon decided to emulate him as much as possible, even wanting to name my future son Nelson. One day, I would be viewed as a hero just like him.
The problem was, I was eleven. As a white boy in a nice neighborhood, there wasn’t much for me to get upset about. How could I protest if there was nothing wrong? I needed a cause.
My search for injustice didn’t last long. After recess and lunch, each class needed to line up to wait for our teachers to collect us. My class’s line happened to end two feet from a lovely stone bench, which we, of course, liked to sit on. One day, however, a yard duty attempted to crush our happiness with an iron fist.
“Hey kids, I know you’re tired, but I can’t let you sit on the bench,” she said, forcing a smile. “How about you stand in line with the other kids?”
Finally! I had found a cause! I resolved to sit on the bench every day, regardless of what we were told by the yard duty. That day at lunch, I put my plan to the test. Once more, I sat on the bench, and steeled myself for the inevitable approach of Mrs. Scanlan.
“Off the bench, kids,” she said in a bored tone.
My nerve failed me. I stood up, cursing my fear. I pledged to stand my ground in the future, protecting the rights of the downtrodden everywhere. My mom told me I was being a bit silly.
I disregarded her. Great men must experience hardship, and if I was to become one, I had to endure the ridicule of naysayers. The next day I sat down on the bench, ready for battle. Once more Mrs. Scanlan came over, and once more she told me to stand up. Regrettably, once more, I complied.
This continued twice a day, every day, for a couple weeks. Finally, the powers that be decided that I was too much of an issue, and had to be taken care of. One day after recess, Mrs. Scanlan made a power play, asking our teacher to talk to the class about the bench. Ms. Scholz calmly explained to us that we weren’t allowed to sit on the bench, and that anyone who continued to do so would go to the principal’s office.
This was my chance. At lunch, after chess club, I courageously sat down. What happened next was an adrenaline-filled haze. I remember Mrs. Scanlan reacting with shock when she saw me, going to get Ms. Scholz, who also reacted with shock, and then escorting me to the office. Victory.
After about twenty minutes of waiting, I was called in to see the principal. Dr. Mahoney listened while I explained my noble struggle against tyranny, and then explained that “if kids could sit on the bench, everyone would want to. It would be chaos. Does that make sense?”
Actually, no. Even eleven-year-old me saw the illogic in that. But by then, I was a bit cowed by his authority, so when he asked me if I’d do it again, I could only shrug noncommittally.
And so I served my detention with pride, only regretting that it was only for one day. I think I subconsciously knew that I was mainly rebelling for its own sake, so I wasn’t too upset that the cause was lost. I did, however, apologize to my teacher, because she thought I was disrespecting her, and it hurt her feelings. If in order to become legendary, I had to make people upset with me, perhaps I wasn’t ready just yet.