I asked Adam to come with me to check my mailbox. He had told me I wasn't going to like what I found there, and that made me nervous. I had learned to give credence to his premonitions – well, unless he was having a manic episode.
There were several pieces of mail in my box; most of it was junk. But, there was an envelope addressed to me from Reverend Stuart, the minister of the campus church. I tossed the worthless mail into the trash and took the letter to the pit where I could sit down. Adam sat next to me.
"Oh, for Christ's sake!" I complained as I read the letter. "Give me a frigging break!"
"What is it?" Adam asked.
"It's about the oratory contest in a few weeks," I said. "Oberlin can only enter two students. Sean and I were the only ones who signed up last semester, but now some other people want to enter. That means there has to be a campus competition first."
"Maybe you can get out of it now," Adam suggested. "You were pretty upset about being forced to compete - to pass your religion class, I mean."
I handed Adam the letter and pointed to a handwritten note at the bottom of the typed letter from Reverend Stuart. It read, "Joel, I expect you to keep your commitment to compete. See me to discuss some changes to your speech."
"Wow! That sucks!" Adam said, commiserating with my situation. "I wonder what changes he wants you to make."
Indulging in a little self-pity, I said, "With my luck, he'll probably want me to scratch the whole thing and start over!"
Adam put his arm around me. "It'll be okay, Joel," he said. "You're smart and well-spoken. You can compete with anybody in an oratory contest, no matter what they throw at you."
"Will you be there with me?" I asked. "I'd really like to see you in the audience when I have to give my speech."
"You're my guy, Joel," he said. "Of course I'll be there."
Adam and I went to church together on Sunday. After services, I approached Reverend Stuart. "You wanted to see me about some changes to my oratory?" I asked.
"Yes, yes I do," he said. "Can you come to my office after classes tomorrow?"
I told Reverend Stuart I'd be there a little after 3:30 on Monday.
The next day, I headed back to the chapel for the appointment. I had a knot in my stomach.
"Would you like some coffee?" Reverend Stuart asked as I sat down in his office. I thanked him, but I declined. He poured himself a cup and sat down.
"Your oratory is very good," he began. "The stories you told about learning to pray when you were a young child were heart-warming – funny, too. You should keep them."
I wondered what he thought I shouldn't keep. I nodded and waited for Reverend Stuart to continue.
"And," he said. "I liked the way you ended by describing your thoughts about religion now that you're a college student."
"Thank you," I said somewhat hesitantly. "It's important to me that I be honest about my thoughts – and questions."
"Honesty is a good thing," Reverend Stuart said. "But, honesty doesn't require one to share everything about his or her private thoughts. Some thoughts are just not right, Joel. It's best if you keep those to yourself – if you can't put them out of your mind altogether."
I was getting the sense that Reverend Stuart thought my oratory included something that was inappropriate. "You think I said something that was out of line?" I asked.
"This is a church school," he said. "Questioning whether people should condemn homosexuality runs counter to our religion. It's blasphemy, Joel – and offensive to good Christians."
I was shocked! I had only questioned why people think they have a right to persecute gay people. All I had done was to quote scripture about not judging others. After all, isn't that up to God?
"You want me to hide part of my faith journey?" I asked.
"The Wesleyan Church condemns acts of homosexuality, not people who confess their sins and are truly repentant," Reverend Stuart said. "Some of the other faith-based schools in the competition are more conservative than we are. Some of the professors who will serve as judges are strict fundamentalists. I think you might have a good chance of winning, Joel - if you can avoid offending people."
I tried to stop myself from being disrespectful, but I didn't succeed. "If I cut out that part of my oratory, how about I replace it with a call to punish all gay people?" I said sarcastically. "Maybe I could endorse what some third-world dictatorships do. You know, bury homosexuals up to their waists and then stone them to death!"
"Now you're being insulant, Joel," Reverend Stuart said. "If we can't discuss your participation in the contest as rational adults, then I'm afraid you won't have the benefit of the support I've tried to give you."
"Moving on," he said. "I have one other suggestion. Your ending includes several examples of how you are re-thinking your Christian faith. But, you lost track of your theme about prayer. You might want to add something about your prayer life as a college student."
Reverend Stuart was right. I needed to include something about how I experience prayer as a young man. "That's an excellent suggestion," I said. "I'll need to think about what I want to say, but I'll definitely follow through."
"What about my first suggestion, Joel?" he asked. "Will you follow through on that as well?"
"I mean no disrespect, Reverend Stuart," I said. "But, I'm not sure I can do that. If you want me to share my faith journey, I will. I believe in God, and I accept Jesus Christ as my savior. But, I don't believe in many of the teachings of the Old Testament. I don't think women should be subservient to their husbands. I think stoning people to death is barbaric. I don't think God wants people to slaughter animals as a sacrifice, and I think condemning gay people is wrong. Leaving those things out of my speech would be dishonest, and I don't want to do it."
"Joel," Reverend Stuart said. "The stories in the Old Testament need to be understood in context. They are stories of how people in Biblical times experienced God and sought to develop a society based on right and wrong."
"Maybe my faith journey will eventually take me to that understanding and acceptance of the Old Testament," I said. "But right now, to me, many of those stories seem to support narrow and judgmental thinking. And, they portray harsh and brutal punishments as being righteous."
Reverend Stuart looked at me with an exasperated expression.
"If you want me to withdraw from the competition, I will," I offered.
'No," he said. "That would mean I'd have to change your 'A' in Religion 101 last semester to an 'F.' If you want to avoid that, you will edit your oratory as I have suggested, and you will compete. Is that clear?"
I glared at Reverend Stuart, and I'm sure he could see how angry I was.
"Considering your apparent reluctance to comply with both of my recommendations," he said. "I will need a revised draft of your oratory on my desk by Friday. Since your choices are now abundantly clear, there's nothing more to discuss. Good afternoon, Joel."
I was furious, and my inclination was to act out defiantly. I thought about slamming the door on my way out. But somehow, I managed to control my temper.
I needed to think. I wandered around campus despite the cold nip in the air. My mind was spinning. How could I maintain my integrity without getting in trouble with Reverend Stuart? How could I keep my Religion 101 credit and avoid decimating my grade point average? And more importantly, how can Reverend Stuart force me to speak about my personal faith journey while forbidding me to talk about questions with which I was struggling?
I had only a few choices, and all of them had unacceptable consequences. "Maybe there are no easy answers," I thought to myself. "Maybe, I just have to stand up for what I believe, regardless of the consequences. Isn't that what people seeking freedom and equality have had to do for centuries? Why should I be any different?"
I found myself in front of the Administration Building, and I decided to see if I could talk to Ms. Sanborn, the Ombudsman. She had helped me when Reverend McAllister slapped me across the face and threatened to have me expelled. And, Ms. Sanborn had brokered the deal with Reverend Stuart to have me compete in the oratory contest instead of going back to Reverend McAllister's class. Maybe she could help me again.
I walked into the office and saw Sandy, her Administrative Assistant. "Mr. Young!" she said. "It's good to see you. What can we do for you today?"
I appreciated her warm greeting. "Thanks. It's good to see you, too," I said. "I'd like to make an appointment to speak with Ms. Sanborn."
"Let me check," Sandy said. "She might have a few minutes right now." I was in luck, and Sandy told me I could go down the hall to the conference room.
"Joel!" Ms. Sanborn said. "Come in! Have a seat. How can I help you?"
"It's about the deal I made with Reverend Stuart to compete in the oratory contest," I said as I sat down. I explained how I was being pressured not to mention some of my beliefs, especially those about gay people.
"I don't understand," Ms. Sanborn said. "I was there when you gave the speech in the chapel. You didn't say anything offensive. And, Reverend Stuart gave you an 'A."
I explained about the need for a campus contest to select the two students who would represent Oberlin in the competition. "Reverend Stuart thinks I could win - if I edit out my thoughts about the persecution of gay people."
"Does he know that you … have a boyfriend?" Ms. Sanborn asked.
"I didn't tell him," I said. "But, I'd be surprised if Reverend McAllister hasn't said something."
Ms. Sanborn looked down and shook her head. "I thought this whole thing was put to rest. I was so pleased when you gave your speech and got an 'A' in your religion class. Do you want me to speak with Reverend Stuart?"
"I'm not sure," I said. "I guess I just came here for some advice. I think I've upheld my end of the bargain. I wrote the oratory and presented it to the campus congregation. I'm still willing to enter the oratory competition, and there was never any agreement about what I would or wouldn't say about my own faith journey. I don't know what's changed."
"Well," Ms. Sanborn said. "I do know that Reverend Stuart is determined to have Oberlin win the competition. He's talked about it several times in staff meetings."
"So, he's trying to manipulate me just so he can claim a win?" I asked.
"You do have a way of cutting right to the chase, Joel," Ms. Sanborn said. "You might want to temper that with a softer approach – at least once in a while."
I wasn't in the mood to pussy-foot around the issues. "Can Reverend Stuart really change my grade after the semester is over? That doesn't seem fair."
"Well, it's been done before," Ms. Sanborn said. "I don't know how it all works, but I do know that students can appeal if they think their grades are unfair. There's an Academic Committee that hears disputes like that."
"That's good to know," I said. "Any advice for me?"
"Yes," Ms. Sanborn said. "I think you should keep your long-term goals in mind, Joel. At least in my experience, compromises are often needed to keep the world from spinning out of control."
"That's probably true," I said. "But I think that sometimes, people have to stand up for their beliefs - to keep the world moving forward. Thanks, Ms. Sanborn. You've been very helpful. I know what I need to do."
"Just be careful, Joel," she said as I walked toward the door. "You can always become more assertive, but you can't always back-track from what you've done."
"I'll keep that in mind. Thanks, Ms. Sanborn," I said.
Adam was on a field trip with some other art students that night, and Mitch had a date with Beth. I went to see if Peter and Tom wanted to go to dinner. I knocked on their door, and Peter opened it.
"Hey, Joel," Peter said. "Come on in."
"Have you and Tom been to dinner yet?" I asked.
"Not yet," Peter answered. "Tom should be back soon. If you can wait a few minutes, we can all go together."
"That'd be great," I said. "While we're waiting, can I talk to you about something?"
Peter and I sat down. "Sure," he said. "What's up?"
I told him about the oratory contest and how Reverend Stuart was pressuring me to change my speech. "I've decided I won't edit out the part he doesn't like. But, he's threatening to go back and change my grade in Religion 101 to an 'F."
"That's not fair!" Peter said. "Can he do that?"
I told Peter that I had talked with Ms. Sanborn in the Ombudsman's office. "She says it's been done before. Apparently, my only option would be to appeal to the Academic Committee."
Peter shook his head. "That's just not right. You could always threaten to file charges against Reverend McAllister again. I mean, he did hit you. If Oberlin breaks its deal with you, then all bets are off."
"Yeah, that is an option," I said. "But, I'm hoping I don't have to do that."
'You know," Peter said. "I think I've read something about changing grades. Let me see if I can find it."
"Thanks," I said. "I knew you'd try to help me."
"What was your first clue?" Peter teased. "I know. It must have been the hours I spent trying to make sure you passed chemistry last semester!"
A few minutes later, Tom came back to the room. The three of us headed over to the cafeteria. I wasn't really hungry, but I knew I had to eat something. I was still trying to lose weight, and I had been skipping meals frequently. Tonight, I was feeling shaky – emotionally and physically. I indulged in a hamburger. I wanted the French Fries, too. But, I had a side salad instead.
The next day, I told Adam what was going on with Reverend Stuart. He was proud of me for deciding to stand up for my beliefs. "That's my guy!" he said. "Be strong! Don't back down!"
Classes for the rest of the week flew by. Tom and I were very pleased with how our group presentation in Astronomy went. I got an 'A' on an essay test in Philosophy, and I finished making changes to my oratory. I added a section at the end of the speech about how I view prayer now that I'm a college student. I left in, and expanded upon, the parts about questioning some of the teachings of the Old Testament - particularly the persecution of gay people. On Friday, I went to the chapel and put my revised oratory in Reverend Stuart's mailbox.
Let's see. How should I describe what happened the following Monday? As politely as I can say it, some excrement that was traveling at a high velocity made physical contact with an oscillating air current distribution device. Or, saying the same thing less politely, the shit hit the fan!
I was in my English Composition class when a campus security officer opened the door and came into the room. He apologized to the professor for interrupting his class. "I need to speak with Joel Young," he said.
All eyes turned toward me. For some reason, I felt guilty. I didn't know why the officer wanted to talk with me, but my instinct was to assume that I must have done something wrong.
I went with the officer into the corridor. "What's going on?" I asked.
"I've been asked to bring you to the campus security office," he said. "That's all I know."
I went back to my desk to get my things. Then, I followed the officer. Images of 'perp walks' from detective movies I'd seen crossed my mind. It was a very uncomfortable walk across campus.
I was surprised when I saw Adam sitting on a bench next to a conference room in the campus security building. He looked a little spooked. I took a seat next to him.
"You guys can wait here," the security officer said. "They'll be out to get you when they're ready." He walked away.
"What's going on?" I asked Adam. "I was pulled out of class."
"Me too," Adam said. "I think it might be about that fire alarm thing. Remember our story! Don't budge from it. No matter what they say, stick to the plan."
Just then, the conference room door opened. A lady asked Adam to come in. Adam looked at me as he stood up. Using only our eye contact, I promised Adam I would do as he thought best.
I became quite anxious as I sat on the bench waiting for my turn in the conference room. I was scared that something very bad was happening. But then, I tried to calm down and think. Neither Adam nor I had done anything wrong – well, unless giving Adam a blow-job in the stairwell counted. But even so, that had nothing to do with the fire alarm.
Twenty minutes later, Adam came out of the room. He looked at me intently, and I think I knew what he was trying to communicate. He was telling me to remain calm – and stick to the story!
I was surprised when I went into the conference room and saw a supervisor from campus security, two members of the faculty, and a police officer. They all introduced themselves. Captain Gaines from the Oberlin City Police Department told me to sit down.
The group pelted me with questions. When had I come to the art studio the night the fire alarm went off? How did I know Adam? Why did I ask him to take a break with me? Where had we gone? Why didn't we go to the lounge instead of going down the stairs 'to get some air?' Was I in the habit of propping security doors open? When did I hear fighting in the corridor? What exactly did I hear?
I answered all of their questions truthfully, except for the one about why Adam and I were in the stairwell.
At that point, Captain Gaines took over, and the questioning changed focus. Was I aware that there had been vandalism in a classroom down the hall from the art studio? Had I been anywhere near there? Did I see anyone removing equipment from the building?
I assured him that I wasn't aware of any of that, and I hadn't seen anyone taking equipment out of the building.
"Why did you use red paint for the graffiti, Joel?" Officer Gains asked. "Do you like bright colors?"
I realized Captain Gaines was trying to trick me, and I wasn't about to fall for it. "I didn't paint any graffiti," I said.
"I'm sorry," the Captain said in a condescending tone of voice. "Your friend is the artist. Did he ask you to help him, or did he do it all by himself?"
"Adam had nothing to do with any graffiti," I said.
"How do you know?" Captain Gaines challenged. "Maybe he did it before you went over to the studio. Maybe he stole the audio-visual equipment at the same time."
"Adam is an honest person, and he loves the art department here at Oberlin," I said. "He would never deface a classroom – or any part of the campus. And, he's not a thief!"
There was silence for a short while. Then, Captain Gaines offered me a cigarette. "You look nervous, Mr. Young," he said. "Maybe a smoke will help you calm down."
I knew he was trying to link me to the vandalism. I guessed that cigarette butts had been found in the room.
"I don't smoke," I said. "If I seem nervous, it's because I've never been interrogated like this before. But, I understand that you have your jobs to do. I'll answer any questions that you have for me."
Professor Chau from the mathematics department was one of the faculty members on the panel. "You've been in trouble here at Oberlin before, haven't you, Mr. Young?" he asked.
I felt adrenalin shoot through my system. I suspected Dr. Chau was referring to my issues with Reverend McAllister last semester. But, I knew better than to make any assumptions.
"No, sir," I said. "I had straight 'A's' last semester, and I haven't received any disciplinary action."
"But you did try to drop out of school. Isn't that right?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," I answered.
"There must have been some kind of trouble for you to consider dropping out," he said. "Can you tell us about that?"
I wanted to tell Dr. Chau that my reasons for wanting to drop out of school were none of his business. Instead, I relied on my 'go to' avoidance technique: no lies, but no unnecessary disclosures.
"At one point last semester," I said. "I was feeling overwhelmed with class work, and I was homesick. I made an impulsive decision to withdraw from the university. That was on a Friday afternoon. I talked to Ms. Sanborn in the Ombudsmen's office that same day. She helped me sort things out. I canceled my request to leave school, and I was back in classes the following Monday."
The panel seemed to accept my explanation. Captain Gaines asked me two more questions before he ended the meeting.
"Joel, did you have anything to do with the vandalism or thefts in the art building?" he asked.
"No, sir," I said.
"To your knowledge," he asked. "Did Mr. Criss have anything to do with the vandalism or thefts?"
"No, sir," I said."
Captain Gaines said that I could go. I expected him to thank me for cooperating and trying to help. Instead, he just gave me a dirty look. I was pretty sure he didn't believe that I was innocent.
I went to find Adam. He was in his room, waiting for me. We talked about our interviews. Fortunately, we had answered all the questions without contradicting each other.
"I don't think they believed me," I said.
"Yeah," Adam sighed. "They seem to think we're guilty."
"I'm worried, Adam," I said. "What if they throw us out of school? Or have us put in jail?!?"
"They can't do that, Joel." Adam said calmly. "We're innocent, and they have no proof that we did anything wrong. There is no proof." He took me in his arms. "I promise you. We'll be fine."
"Did you have a premonition about that?" I teased.
As soon as I asked that question, Adam got a strange look on his face. "Shit!" he said. "We need to go to your room."
"Why?" I asked. "Is there a problem?"
"I'm not sure," Adam said. "But, we need to go."
I was nervous on the walk to my dorm with Adam. I hated to think that something else bad might be happening.
As we approached Pilgrim Hall, we noticed a police car parked in front of the building. Several students were hanging around and watching. Adam asked one of the guys what was going on.
"Some asshole painted 'Oberlin Sucks' on the back of the building," the guy said. "And, they threw red paint all over the place."
Adam and I waited around for a few minutes, but nothing seemed to be happening. So, we went in the side door of the building that was directly across from my room. There was a note taped to my door. It was from our Resident Advisor. It read, "Reverend Stuart from the Chapel wants to see you - immediately."
"Shit!" I said.
Then, I felt my left foot slip just a little. I looked down and saw that someone had spattered red paint on the floor in front of my room.
"What the hell?" I exclaimed!
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