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Being The 'What'

I learned young that it was less the question of “who” one looked up to that mattered.

By Lark HanshanPublished 21 days ago 4 min read
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Being The 'What'
Photo by Guilherme Stecanella on Unsplash

In the silence of a day off, I wondered to myself: What do you look up to?

I learned young that it was less the question of “who” one looked up to that mattered.

My high school principal was a strict man. Straight-backed, badger gray-black hair and beard cropped short. Beady black eyes and a staccato stride all knew when it echoed the halls.

He caught me in a lie once. I feared for my life. The truth wasn’t damning, but who wants to poke the badger? I fabricated an imaginary friend who had done the deed. He stared at me through pristinely clean glasses, x-raying the churning guilt in my chest and the terrified light in my eyes. “Well,” he began, and shuffled closer to me across the desk, tenting his fingers, “tell your friend that I don’t want to hear that this has happened again.”

I scurried white-faced from the office, thanking my stars and promising to be better.

He broke up a physical altercation between two twelfth graders fighting over a girl once. Pushed right in between them and grabbed them by each by the collar with vice-like fists and challenged them. I was in awe when they stood down and went their separate ways.

I looked up to him. As an authority figure, he was excellent; he walked the grounds and knew many students by name – though he referred to most with a bark of their surname. He patrolled, maintained, asserted authority and kept a school of close to five hundred teenagers in line. He commanded respect by giving it, and if you pushed his buttons – a dangerous act – woe be it to they who thought to play. He was strong, commanding, a power.

Trash cleaning duty was given as punishment. He stood there while they did it. He was honorable, proud of the students he reigned over, polite, courteous, attentive. He was strict and expected decency and the best from us. I was grateful he watched over us, advocated for us, celebrated with us and took care of us.

Naturally, one would assume that such an individual must have his life together. But gossip spreads faster than fire on an oil slick. What’s the expression? Bad gas travels fast in a small town?

The first news was of the adultery.

He’d done it before, it was said. Whispers slithered through the streets of town, of strings of women from his past. This new pearl in his string hit particularly close to home. My high school sweetheart’s aunt had been swept off her feet by the principal, wooed by his badger beard and charming, militant personality. The affair had been going on for months. The aunt, a firm longtime churchgoer, mother, wife, left her family, left her church, left God. She seemed to have found all in the man.

A year or two passed. He had taken another principal position elsewhere. The grass was yellowing when I heard my father call us into the house. An article had been published in the newspaper and a second shockwave was rocking the town. A sum of under $5,000 had been found missing from an office safe in his new school.

Adultery and theft. Dishonor and disquiet. Guilty and greedy.

In those years, I hadn’t learned quite how to separate a person from their actions. I hated him for a long time. Disappointment welled in me at the thought of him and his former presence stained my school memories. I felt for his children. For his wife. For anyone and everyone he’d hurt. For anyone and everyone who’d ever respected him. For me.

This isn’t the type of writing that resolves itself toward the end. A part of me still judges him for what he did, for how it colours my memories and how I view others I’ve deemed worthy of my respect. But I feel I’ve grown and seen enough of people; I’ve come to accept some things and alter my way of thinking.

I respect what I found in him worth respecting. I still at times feel conflicted about how, even having seemed to embody the values I felt we had shared, he could still justify behaving in the ways that he did.

Perhaps we’re all people. We’re all flawed and ugly and chipped in some way, and we want things that are against societal approval, taboo, against our ‘better nature’, against ‘who we are’. We’re all animals.

So, I think I find some peace nowadays in looking to ‘what’ I look up to, as opposed to the ‘who’. Everyone is going to disappoint us one way or the other, even (and sometimes worst of all) our very selves. We are not and never could be perfect. If I can attempt to embody the ‘what’ I look up to and try to be the ‘what’ rather than the ‘who’, I personally find that it goes a longer way in the end. Maybe that’s all I can do.

What do you look up to?

Stream of Consciousnesshumanity
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About the Creator

Lark Hanshan

A quiet West Coast observer. Writing a sentence onto a blank page and letting what comes next do what it must.

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