It takes a personal subject to get me to attend a political rally or press conference, especially in the midst of a pandemic. However, those who heard last week’s podcast know, there was a subject on the line that meant a lot to me.
Since the start of distance learning, I felt that my non-verbal son with Autism, Lucas, has been forgotten. Although his teachers have gone above and beyond to keep him engaged through the iPad screen each week, I couldn’t help but feel that he wasn’t getting a proper education. When summer sessions, an extension of his school year through his Individualized Educational Program, was cancelled despite summer camps reopening, it went from an oversight to a slap in the face.
His class has six kids in it. That’s it. I’ve stood in line with five times that many people to buy White Claws and paper towels. Even if school couldn’t reopen, a contingency plan had to be reached. Anything, as long as it was an alternative to what was currently barely working, I was willing to try. That’s why I attended a press conference by a local assemblyman. I wanted my face to be one of the many there to show public support for this cause.
When I arrived, the crowd was large enough to reach the street. Although it was hard to hear what anyone had to say, my presence there felt like enough. I stood with the other parents in my son’s class, all with masks around our faces, and watched as signs flew high and cars honked their horns. It was a moment of solidarity amiss a few months of chaos.
Everyone was great…except for one guy. With his blue button up shirt, soaked in sweat, and an unused facemask dangling around his neck, he screamed from the crowd asking how we would protect our children from the Coronvirus if we sent them back to school. He yelled about testing and safety, with no opening for anyone to give him a response. They weren’t questions or points, just hollering for the sake of hollering. The more people booed, the louder he yelled. Someone near me remarked that he was also a local politician. Whatever it was, it wasn’t being done to stir up a debate. It was being done to stir up emotions.
Once the event was over, a small group circled around the assemblyman who had organized the gathering. People wanted to thank him for his recognition of the issues at hand. It was nice to feel that someone had heard our concerns.
Sadly, there was a larger gathering of people wanting to talk to the sweaty screaming man. They lined up like he was Mickey Mouse at Epcot. Each person eagerly awaited their turn to yell in his face and get some yelling back. I watched, somewhat surprised as they went, one by one, to call him names and invite abuse.
It wasn’t until I saw a News 12 camera zooming closely in on this revolving door of altercations that I sensed something should be done. I knew what was coming. Television loves conflict and this would be part of a bigger package implying that the press conference had been more volatile than it was. The people bellowing at the top of their lungs and calling each other names were doing the cause no favors.
So, I walked over and placed my hand in front of the camera before leaning in between the sweaty blue shirt man and, what I can only assume was an irate special needs mother. I say that I assumed because she wasn’t saying anything personal. Just screaming at the top of her lungs about how day care was allowed to stay open.
To be clear, neither one of them had masks on. They were face to face, less than a foot between them, and screaming with their mouths as wide open as they could muster. So much saliva was shooting through the air that they might as well have been making out. Suddenly, Mr. Protect-Us-From-Covid couldn’t wait to catch his own case of the virus from the parade of parents marching into his face.
Waving my other hand in the air, I moved slightly in on them, still keeping my distance, and said:
Just let him go. They’re going to show this on TV. This is what he wants.
They both heard me. I knew they had. I even caught him shoot his glance in my direction. They pretended like they hadn’t and continued to scream. That’s when I realized.
Oh. They both want to be on TV.
Yeah. This wasn’t a debate or disagreement. This was performance art. No one had any desire to exchange ideas, talk things out, or many a real change. This was nothing more than angry people expelling their emotional baggage and this dude, eager for his three minutes of local exposure, was the conduit to help that happen. He was peddling fears of Corona, despite letting people spit all over him, because he wanted this exact reaction. He liked it. People do it every day whether online or, in this case, on line.
I walked away and let them do their thing.
Later that night, the Governor signed an executive order allowing New York students with IEPs to return to necessary in-school sessions. It was a major victory for all of us there. This dude screaming hadn’t made a spit of difference, so to speak.
The moral of the story? It’s easy to get people angry. We’re seeing it right now everywhere we look. Anyone can do it. It takes nothing more than a loud voice and an insulting phrase. Find what someone holds most dear and tear it down. Scare them. Tap into what they hate about themselves, pull it to the surface and rub it in their faces. Once you do that, you can drum up a reaction in return and maybe even sell them something.
You know what’s not easy? Inspiration. Happiness. Victory. Building people up takes work. It requires breaking down cynical walls, smashing the haunting voices in their head, and battling preconceived notions. It’s rare to find someone willing to do it.
At the literal end of the day, though, we had accomplished that exact thing for our kids. We had inspiration, happiness, and victory. It wasn’t easy and it took a lot to get there, but it’s worth ten times more than any spit-soaked screamfest with a stranger ever will.