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The Dude

My Father. The Artist. The Botanist. The Jokester. The Defender.

Kids really have the nerve to look exactly like they daddy
My Dad on the left, My paternal grandmother and me!

We were in a school auditorium, six middle schoolers all in costume and waiting for the judges to announce. People whispered congratulations; my father was sitting in the audience with a huge smile, sending me a wink. I was in my element; my blood had a hum buzzing through. There was no other kid that could compare. I was the clear front-runner. I was preparing to walk onto the stage to accept my trophy, trying to think of my acceptance speech. It didn't occur to me to write one ahead.

I had practiced for weeks. My dad would have me recite my speech and provide immediate feedback.

"Look me in the eye, don't be timid."

"Enunciate your words. Project your voice."

"Slow down, find your cadence."

The area oratory competition was mine; I could taste it. The judge walked to the mic and said, "Wow! These students are incredibly talented, and deciding who would represent them at the city competition was difficult. This year's winner is...."

I honestly don't remember her name. But I do remember her performance being lackluster.

The shift was sudden; my father's face was thunderous. The room was quiet momentarily, and everyone was looking at me. I was not going to cry. But seeing my dad's face filled me with shame. I spent weeks perfecting my performance and knew the audience was in my favor. How could I lose? Why did my dad have to see me lose?

I was ready to go. After accepting the runner-up trophy, I hurried to my dad and gathered my things. He was doing his best to cheer me up when the competition winner and her father came over to shake my hand. "You were incredible young lady. That was some performance you gave. Where are you applying for high school?" I listed my option, and his daughter tested for the same school.

"You might want to consider some backups. That's a difficult school, and they're a little overcrowded with girls." My father's voice echoed, loud and clear, "Well then, I guess your daughter won't be getting in. My kid is going to have her pick. Now let's go, Maris." I got into that high school and never saw that girl again.

As we were walking to the car, I could tell my father was as mad as a snake. I felt I had let him down, "I'm sorry, Daddy." The Dude said, "There is nothing to be sorry about; that man was trying to make you doubt yourself. Everyone in that room knew who won today. Those judges stole that opportunity from you."

I was stunned. It never occurred to me that the other dad at the competition was being rude. I was too young to understand the implied insult. I thought he was giving some advice. Almost 20 years later, I can see this memory from the other side. That should have been a simple exchange of congratulations and good luck in the future. Instead, that man felt the need to belittle my dream and proved himself to be insecure.

Later on, it was explained that the judges decided the material of my submission was inappropriate for a little girl, even though my piece was entirely within the guidelines. They didn't want the content of Ms. Sophia's speech to represent the school district and decided on a safer option.

The following school year, I had the opportunity to compete again. I chose some safer poems, intending to go for the win. One day while practicing, my dad asked me, "Do you like this poem?" I told him it wasn't my favorite, but I knew it would win. "Don't decide based on the judges. You choose the piece that fits you."

I found a bawdy poem by Sterling A. Brown called "Slim in Hell." This poem left room for animation and interpretation. My father would howl with laughter every time I recited it. My performance at the competition was unconventional and risqué. I had a spectacular time. Of course, I lost. I knew this choice would immediately be rejected, so no love was lost. My teacher asked, "Why didn't you choose a different piece? This was a very risky choice. You could have won."

My father and I may differ in our definition of risk, but the heart of the lesson remains the same. Whatever you decide to do, be true to yourself. You move with a different kind of freedom and confidence when you know Daddy has your back. Being different. Choosing Different. Has now become my norm.

So here's to The Dude:

I look forward to many more years of baking cakes at 3AM.

I thank you for all my favorite memories of painting, singing, and playing with dogs.

When I miss home, I recreate smells that remind me of your kitchen. I still hate when you loom over and watch me cook.

But most importantly, I am grateful for your presence. All of the unconventional quirks that are interesting and unique are little marks of you showing up in me.

I love you Dude. Happy Father's Day.

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