In May of 1989, the month I graduated from 8th grade, 17 year old Michael Chang defeated Ivan Lendl in the fourth round of the French Open, a tournament he would go on to win. It was the single most amazing athletic performance I’ve ever seen. Chang, doubled over with dehydration and cramps, serving underhand and screaming with pain after every swing, somehow found a way to defeat the world’s number 1 player. Lendl, a 6’5” force with the power and emotional range of a machine, could simply not find a way to solve the drop shots and loopy serves of the diminutive Chang.
That same month, student protesters in Beijing swarmed Tiananmen Square to show their support of democracy and equality, and to protest government oppression and corruption. For awhile they were allowed to protest peacefully, but eventually the government sent in the military and ended the protest with tanks, guns and ammunition. From that rebellion, the world is left with the unforgettable image of a single man standing in the street, blocking the way of four huge tanks. He simply would not let them by.
As I was getting ready for high school, I was watching a world where an individual could break the laws of physics or sacrifice all sense of personal safety to accomplish what he or she felt was important. While I’ve never believed that anybody could be perfect enough for me to call them my hero, or any leader infallible enough for me to simply follow them, the courageous, singular acts of these men gave me a buzz. The adult world, seemingly full of nothing but rules, prohibitions, power-mongers and oppressors of imagination and expression, could be turned on its head by a single person. The rules could change. Systems could be defeated.
That sounded like a job for me.
The problem was I wasn’t that great of a tennis player, and my quiet Indianapolis suburb, while certainly oppressive, lacked both Communist dictators and tanks. Clearly, I needed to find my own way to change the world.
I became extremely pretentious. The forces of frivolity, lightheartedness, and general fun were my enemies. Literature, cinema and serious-minded alternative music were the only forms of entertainment that I allowed into my world, which was now dedicated to the pursuit of only the most serious of culture.
I stood in front of the rolling tank of high school life, and I didn’t blink. My blistering serve aced the world of friends and parties.
But there was a problem. I really wasn’t a serious person. I loved to read and watch movies, but too many of the books that I admired also bored me silly. Try talking about Lord Jim and the political ramifications of the phrase “One of Us” on a first date at the Olive Garden. All the soup, salads and breadsticks can’t make that pain go away.
Somewhere in my quest to stand-up to the marching hordes of conformity and ignorance, I defeated myself, burying my personality under a mountain of words and thoughts, none of which were connected to any real feeling. Slowly, it dawned on me that even though I was amazingly conversant in literature and cinema that I just wasn’t myself, and I hadn’t been since I graduated from eighth grade.
The real breakthrough moment, what I soon learned is an epiphany, came during summer vacation in college, on the same couch where six or seven years before I watched the world change at Roland Garros and Tiananmen Square.
PBS was showing a tribute to Jim Henson, who had died when I was 15, almost a year after I graduated 8th grade. I barely noticed his death, even though he invented a world that allowed me to tell time at the age of 2 ½, to read the newspaper at 3 and to be able to understand love, happiness, sadness and death as all a part of the process of growing up and being alive, before I hit kindergarten.
On the PBS tribute, the Muppets were very concerned because Kermit was nowhere to be found, and they weren’t sure if he was ever going to come back. Despite all of the years I spent trying to shed my childhood; I simply could not accept a world in which Kermit the Frog was dead. I knew how Michael Chang felt against Lendl, the Chinese protester against the tank. Kermit the Frog cannot be dead. I literally felt the oxygen leave my body.
Then, he appeared. The Muppets cheered, and I let out a shout. The world made sense again. The creaky, ponderous adult person I had become had been defeated by the power of Kermit the Frog.
Jim Henson, from all accounts a mild-mannered, laid-back guy, spent his life standing in front of the Ivan Lendl’s and the fascist tanks that want to squash the spirit of children, the oppressive legions who believe that silence and compliance equal goodness and that happiness is sign of a trouble. For Henson, being an educated, intelligent and successful person meant more than following the rules and getting good grades. It means being truly, fully alive. He taught me, and millions of others, that life is not meant to be studied and perfected. It’s meant to be lived.
When all of this is over and you’ve graduated from your last graduation, no one will remember you as a report card, a batting average, a standardized test score, a GPA, a thesis, a salary, a resume, a bank account, a credit report, a stock portfolio, a piece of real-estate, a country-club membership or anything else that can be obtained. You are none of these things. You are not even the sum of these things. You are the holder, the controller and possessor of a life. The world will send tanks and blistering forehands to stop you from living it they way you need to live it. Stand up to them, beat them with drop shots, and always remember that it may not be easy being green, but if green is what you are, be the most amazing green you can be.