In 2008, twenty-five students participated in fourth-grade history, where, in song, they memorized all 44 US presidents from George Washington to a newly elected Barack Obama. “I hear Obama is killing babies.” Said Bernadette at gym class one day. My sister asked Bernadette where she heard that from. Bernadette’s father told her so.
“Is Obama killing babies?” Willa asked our mother that night.
“Of course not, murder is wrong and illegal.”
“Bernadette said he does. Her dad told her so.”
“Like he goes into hospitals?” I interjected.
“Bernadette’s dad must be mistaken.” Mom ended the inquisition there. “The President of the United States is not killing newborns.”
The next day, my sister informed Bernadette of her father’s critical error. Bernadette called her stupid, and then Bernadette’s friends called her stupid.
“My dad says we aren’t old enough to talk about presidents,” concluded Brian, but the girls said he stank and what does his dad know anyway. We returned to our game of four square.
2004 was a scary year for 27 four-or-five-year old children who had never met each other before to suddenly begin their first years of primary education at Saint John the Baptist Catholic School. The games we played helped us learn who was funny, who was smart, and who we would avoid on the playground.
“Ok here’s the game.” We all listened in. “When you see a George Bush sign, give a thumbs up. Whoever makes a thumbs up first wins.” The rules were simple enough. It was a long bus ride from Silver Spring to Baltimore. Bored out of our minds, we all joined Ben’s new game. “But!” There was more. “If you see a ‘John Kerry’ sign, you yell ‘booo.’ Whoever yells ‘booo’ first wins.” The game began. Ben saw the first George Bush sign, a bright red sheet staked into the ground next to a driveway. He was the first winner. On another lawn I spied the blue “Kerry 2004” sign.
“Booo!” I yelled.
“But I saw it first!” said Ben, who then yelled “booo” louder than I had.
“That’s enough back there, boys!” Mrs. Morris was the loudest of us all.
What a terrible game that was for a bunch of kindergartners to be playing on the back of that bus in October. For starters, there were two completely different win conditions; the red signs warranted a gesture for victory, but the blue signs a shout? Why not a thumbs down? Secondly, the game was destined to be shut down by the teacher. After all, it involved using one’s “outside voice” inside the bus. But it was fun while it lasted.
After nine long years 24 students graduated the eighth grade, celebrating through a public division. On the back of the classroom hung a poster which contained the abbreviated names of every high school that the graduating class of 2013 would attend. About half of the class chose to attend private high school. The other half went to one of the nearby public schools. The game was, when you committed to a school, you signed your name under your school on the poster, reminding you and everyone around you of your decision. After negotiations with our parents, it was agreed upon that my sister and I would sign our names under the MBHS poster, because Blair was a ten minute walk away and why would we spend the price of college tuition for the two of you to go somewhere in the district when the free alternative nearby gave just as good of an education. So I joined the 13 other students that went to public school. Our decisions drew new attention from the other end of the wall.
Someone knew someone who got stabbed at Springbrook.
A friend of a cousin got arrested at Blake for dealing drugs.
Fist fights happened every day at Blair, according to a rumor.
“Oh yeah? Said Brian. “Well I heard that football players from DeMatha Catholic High School tried to hire prostitutes when they were at a hotel, except they bought guys by accident and then the police arrested them.”
“Shut the hell up Brian. You’re just mad because your parents can’t afford DeMatha.”
Earlier that year Brian was sent to detention for attempting to discuss Malcolm X during a civil rights reading unit, an event I had convinced myself was some kind of hallucination until our eighth grade cohort met up years later and all recalled the now-strange occurrence in the same way, like the members of the therapy circle in the documentary that discuss having been abducted by the same aliens.
Unlike famous Blair alumnus Sylvester Stallone, I did not get into any fist fights at Blair. I did, however, find a new group of friends in 2015. Through a connection I met in concert band, I was invited to join a circle of students during lunch period every day in the back of an empty classroom where old CRT’s buzzed and shoeboxes full of Nintendo Wii’s and GameCube’s filled the back countertop, fans chugging and whirring furiously while freshman and seniors alike bonded for life through the clicking of controllers for mankind’s greatest game: Super Smash Brothers. I learned slowly and never achieved the level of skill that veterans did, but I made some lifelong bonds. A fellow sophomore named David proved to be my match in every game, and we both raced to reach the level of and hopefully surpass another peer named Gio. If fist fights happened at Blair every day that year I never saw them, because I spent my mid-afternoons in a space where we settled the score in Smash.
The man who may or may not have been killing babies since that day in fourth grade gym class was finishing his eight-year run in 2016, and it was time for another to take his place. Montgomery Blair High School’s favorite candidate was, of course, Donald Trump. From the moment he announced his candidacy, the 45th president of the United States of America was the most enjoyable new program on television. For the first time since middle school we had meaningful interactions with our parents. We joked and laughed with them and finally took part in adult life. We watched The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live and smiled with the tv hosts at the orange-faced clown who joked that he was going to run the country.
And then he won.
“Ha-ha! Make America Great Again!” came David on our club group chat that morning. “Fuck off David,” typed several people.
One Facebook post that morning read “If any of you voted for or supported Trump in this race, you are a despicable person. Please unfriend me and don’t speak to me again.” Other profiles followed suit. Any Trump supporters were to be found and blocked, removed from the lists of friends that students spent years finalizing. It felt like everyone was mad, but no one had anyone to be mad at because everyone else was also mad, and so everyone went searching for someone to be mad at. As far as I know, David was the only one anyone found at Blair. He didn’t even vote; we were both still 17.
A month before that day in November, David asked me on a bus what I thought about Republicans. The question caught me off guard. Truthfully, I hadn’t met one since middle school. I told him I disagreed with a lot of party line issues, but I believed that every American is entitled to desire what they see as the best for America. I told him I didn’t like Donald Trump, and I was worried that he was going to become the next president. I told him I had registered as a Democrat earlier that year when I got my learner’s permit and I was angry about being a year too young to vote.
“Oh.” He said.
I asked nervously what he thought. He seemed unconfident to commit. At home he saw the socialist republic of Takoma Park, MD, and at school he saw the young democrats club without any young republicans in a school of 3000 students to challenge it. I think he didn’t like how one-sided our world was.
“What would you think if I was a Republican?”
I didn’t care what David thought about politics then. I had no desire to make it a part of our friendship. We played a stupid videogame and argued about pointless garbage and that was fun and fine. But what about the stupid jokes I made to my other friends when he was around? Had I offended him? I hadn’t considered anyone around me standing anywhere right of the middle, politically. Perhaps I should ditch the late-night commentary, I thought.
About a week into the new presidency, I found myself complaining on another group chat about some decision that new EPA head Scott Pruitt had made. David stopped me mid-ramble.
“You aren’t considering the political motivations behind his actions. When administrations turn over this happens all the time.”
The rest of the group collapsed on David. What about environmental regulation was political? The EPA is not supposed to have a partisan agenda. You have no idea what you’re talking about. I may not have typed all the words said against David, but they were all my responsibility. Whether I intended to provoke him or not, I baited him into an environment where the popular opinion would be weighed against him, and I knew this. Like so many of my peers that year, I had almost succeeded in pushing away a close friend, and this new volatile tension terrified me.
When I finally return home after this semester, David, Gio and I will meet up with each other and play the newest version of super smash bros for as long as we can. David will not ask me if I ever resented his political opinions, and Gio will hand both of us our heads every match. I won’t attempt to ask Gio if he’s worried about family or friends moving across the border, but I will attempt to persuade him to play a different character that I might have a better chance of beating. We will eat garbage food and talk about our year so far and we won’t ever wonder what each other thinks about the upcoming 2020 election, because no candidate has yet to offer a controversial opinion about the way in which three guys choose to waste several hours avoiding adult life in Summer.
Aidan Murphy is an undergraduate student in the Environmental Education and Interpretation Major at SUNY ESF. Originally from Silver Spring, Maryland, his works reflect upon experiences related to duality and the moments that celebrate gray areas. He enjoys reading short non-fiction essays and reviews/edits submissions for Unearthed, SUNY ESF’s online literary journal.