Last night, during the Republican debate, Jon Huntsman addressed Mitt Romney in Chinese.
Romney, grinning, threw his hands in the air: “I’m lost.”
He had good reason to grin. Romney came off as your average guy. Just one of us.
Huntsman sounded like a show-off. I felt sorry for him.
At the end of my junior year, Meadville High School Student Council sent a few us (next year’s officers) to a leadership camp. I think we got out of a day of school for it. The idea was to bring newly-elected student leaders from all over Northwestern Pennsylvania together for a day to network and, maybe, learn from each other.
I was our Student Council’s Lieutenant-Governor, second-in-command to a boy named Tim. A smart and likeable football player with a full-on Animal House persona. We represented Meadville that day.
Leadership training began with a break-the-ice game. Introduce yourself: Tell us your name and an adjective that describes you. Easy enough for the first person, but each subsequent player had to recite the blurbs about everyone who came before him. Introductions and a test of memory, all in one amiable activity.
That was the year that I was in love with all things French (just before I fell in love with all things Russian) and because I was the only student in Advanced Placement French, I figured I could get away with stretching the truth to make myself more interesting:
“Hi, I’m Jenny and I’m bilingual.”
(I was not even remotely bilingual in French. Not even close. The most I can say in defense of my empty boasting is that I sounded (even then!) much better in French than Mitt Romney does.)
Next, it was my classmate Tim’s turn to introduce himself. With a Mitt Romney grin, he said something forgettable about himself and then:
“. . . and this is Jenny, and she’s . . . what did you say you were, Jenny? Oh, yeah, she’s bisexual.”
Remember, it’s high school. This was a winning bit of wit and it stuck. All the way down the line. If it was funny the first time, it was freaking hilarious the fifteenth time.
In some happy retelling of this story, I am cosmopolitan beyond my years, and I grab the upperhand, by winking sassily at each repetition:
Yeah, that’s right, I’m Jenny, and I like boys and girls. Got your interest?
But that is not a believable version for 1980, in the heart of Rick Santorum country, where there was nothing titillating to teenagers about lesbianism.
I was humiliated. Flushed, on the verge of tears. It’s the only thing I remember about that day. The only thing I learned about leadership.
Back to last night’s debate. A few things have changed since 1980. Now, even Republican presidential candidates talk about the rights of homosexuals to form lasting relationships. Nobody froths at the mouth.
Still, Huntsman’s Chinese went over about as well as my efforts to impress. Americans still don’t like too much learning. Or, maybe they just don’t like show-offs. Or possibly both.
My day of leadership training (mercifully) did not end with a question about what I would rather be doing that day. Watching football is always the right answer, but I would have flubbed that one too.