Several weeks ago, my older son’s school hosted a guest speaker. I happened to be off of work that day, so I was able to say yes when I was called in to sub for one of the teachers at his school. It worked out well for me; it’s an easy subbing day when an hour and a half of it is spent at an assembly, listening to a guest speaker.
Without even hearing the background that the speaker gave about himself at the beginning of his show, anyone could quickly tell that this guy’s entire life’s work was devoted to saving the world and teaching others to do the same.
Our first clue was that his microphone stand was made from some old hollow tubing, which he proudly pointed out to us.
“Look, kids!” he said, using a Price Is Right model flourish as he swooped his hands up and down the length of the mike stand. “Recycling is so much fun that even this trusty microphone stand that I got for free on the side of the road works like a drea—"
And then, with timing that could only have come from the sweet Lord above, the repurposed microphone stand fell to the ground with a loud, fantastic clatter, but not too quickly that the microphone didn’t pick up the guest speaker’s frustrated mutter: “—oh, shit. Goddammit, not again…”
Okay, that totally didn’t happen. But because I’m an awful person, I kept fervently hoping throughout the entire presentation that it would. I even sent up a quick prayer of petition (I’m a cradle Catholic; that’s got to count for something, right?) that it would, because OMG, how funny would that have been?
But alas, it never happened. Ah, well.
Although I wasn’t able to dream my microphone scenario into existence like all of those liar self-help books say that you can (thus making the person who can’t seem to get it right feel even worse about herself because dammit, she’s just not good enough to make shit happen), I will say that one very wonderful thing (besides a fully functional microphone stand) came out of the man’s “hollow tubing” description and my daydreaming: a flashback.
Suddenly, I was back in my best friend’s 1-bedroom apartment in Texas during the summer of 2001, sitting on the couch with her as we watched an episode of Southpark. It was the one where Cartman had gotten an aquarium so that he could raise “sea men” to worship him. When the other kids, impressed, asked where he’d acquired these sea men, Catman’s reply went something like this: “A guy that I met in an alley gave them to me for free! All I had to do is close my eyes and suck them through a tube!”
My best friend and I had cracked up so hard that we’d spit out our beers and slid helplessly to the floor, were we’d laughed until our sides hurt and tears rolled down our faces. I still can’t think of that line without laughing out loud.
What was the question again?
So anyway, this guest speaker spends his time on and off the clock doing research about saving the world; teaching collegiate courses on saving the world; writing, recording, and performing songs about saving the world; and traveling all over the country so that he can give save-the-world assemblies much like the one we heard that day to schoolkids of all ages.
His main message was this: We must reduce, reuse, recycle, and repurpose.
That’s right. He was so into it that he’d even created his own “re-" to tack onto the end of the well-known slogan, complete with a slideshow and a contest with free entry to all participants who wished to enter their repurposed arts and crafts made from all of the treasures found during their Dumpster diving excursions.
“But what if our parents won’t let us dig in other people’s trash?” one of the students asked, to the enthusiastic agreement of the 180 other kids who were vehemently nodding their heads at the injustice of those asshole parents who wouldn’t let them sift through random garbage. [“Go ahead, sweetie! Just try to avoid the crusty used needles!”]
“Ohhhhh,” said the man, matching the child’s wide-eyed expression, “but you must tell your parents how important this is!”
My son twisted his head all the way to the back of the gym, where I was sitting with the teachers, and met my eye. I returned the silent question written all over his face with a stern look of my own and what I hoped was a slightly imperceptible—but still loud and clear to the boy—shake of my head.
The speaker began to merrily strum his guitar as a slideshow of previous contestants’ artwork played on the big white screen behind him. I tried to act enthusiastic, I did. But honestly? I couldn’t bring myself to clap along.
I leaned over to the teacher sitting next to me. “My kids better not bring a damned 6-foot sculpture made out of rusty-ass hubcaps back to my house,” I whispered out of the side of my mouth.
She smiled politely but looked pointedly at the guest speaker, a silent message letting me know that we shouldn’t be rude and talk during his presentation. I took it as permission to go on.
“You know what I’d do,” I muttered, leaning closer because she kept trying to scoot away. “I’d put that thing in the garage for a couple of weeks until they forgot about it, then right back to the goddamned landfill it’d go.”
My worries were unfounded, though, because although my son likes arts and crafts, he’s much more of an inventor. And that little inventor’s brain had seized onto a very real, very tangible statistic that the speaker had reported: If we continue in the same careless direction we’ve been going with our trash, our state’s landfills will be, well, full in 10 years.
Then what?? The speaker posed the dramatic question to the audience full of kids, who collectively sucked in their breaths.
I saw my son’s hand shoot straight into the air, and I knew he had an answer for the guest speaker. But the man wasn’t actually looking for one—the question had been one of those food-for-thought rhetorical ones that had been posed only to prove his point—and he was already moving on to his next song, a catchy little ditty of doom and gloom that he performed with what looked like some fancy Irish jigging footwork.
At the end of the assembly, after we’d all applauded and an encore had been sung, I watched as my son, with his teacher’s permission, rushed the stage. I couldn’t help it; I moved a bit closer so that I could listen to the exchange. I might be kinda biased, but it’s always something awesome with my son. He’s funny and he’s smart, and most times he’s both at the same time without even meaning to be.
I could feel the pride and anticipation emanating from my little guy—by gosh, he’d just solved that pesky pollution problem that has plagued our world for countless numbers of years! He was bound to be revered by all for his ingenuity in saving the world—maybe he’d even win the Nobel Peace Prize—after he shared his idea with this man in charge of saving the world. And it was so simple—the answer had been right in front of our very eyes for years. How could no on have come up with it before?
My son’s eyes were huge. His arms were flailing all about as he illustrated his vision. “…so all you’d have to do,” I heard him say, his voice loud with excitement, “is build a really long steel chute that reaches out of this atmosphere. And then you could just shoot all of that trash STRAIGHT INTO SPACE!”
I swear, you could see the poor guest speaker visibly deflate. The entire point of his 90-minute assembly had been lost on my child. It was almost as if all of the wisdom he’d attempted to impart had been flushed down the toilet.
Or shot into space through a steel chute. (Dammit, I couldn’t help it.)
“But the whole point was—" the man started. “—well, didn’t you hear all of that stuff about reducing, reusing…? What about that monkey sock made out of…old socks?”
My son blinked. He was still waiting to hear if his chute was a possibility. So had he saved the world or what?
The man sighed. He tried a different tactic, and I could tell he’d given up—on this particular child, at least. “Well, a chute like that would be really expensive,” he simply said.
My son’s eyes grew even wider. “No, I’ve thought that through, too!” he insisted. “We would make it from repurposed materials!”
Honestly—and I’m totally not just saying this because he’s my son—a repurposed steel chute that shoots garbage into space sounds a hell of a lot more useful than a hubcap statue or a monkey sock made from stinky old graying socks.
See? All was not lost on my boy.
I’m expecting him to save the world any old day now.