I have many embarrassing moments in my life. Here is just one.
In 1993, JIm Edgar was Governor of Illinois. Maybe he wasn’t perfect, but two of his predecessors were in prison for misdeeds as Governor and two of his successors went to prison as well. Need I mention that Jim was the only one of the group who failed to get rich in office?
I’ll refer to him as Jim, mostly because it’s easier than saying “the (then) current Governor of the State of Illinois.” Also, he is almost exactly my age.
Jim was invited to speak at the University of Illinois, where I was teaching as a Professor in the College of Education. Coincidentally, his daughter Elizabeth was my lab assistant in the science lab used for preservice and inservice classes in science education.
I was fortunate to get an invitation to a limited capacity event, perhaps 100 attendees. It was to be held from 4 to 5 on a weekday. This presented a problem. I taught class until 4 that day and had a meeting with local school teachers at 5 at a nearby school.
But I figured that I would end class a few minutes early, then rush to the event and stand inconspicuously in the back, being prepared to leave at 4:50. It was a great plan. It would all work out.
The first flaw in my plan came as students had an unusual number of questions that day. So I had to run to the event, still reliant on my plan to stand in the back and skip out early.
When I arrived, I discovered that this was a major media event. There were TV cameras, photographers, news reporters, and all sorts of people in limousines. I say “all sorts” but now, recalling the event, I think the attendees were nearly all men, all in dark suits with ties, all looking very somber until the TV lights came on, when they would flash big smiles. People had come to be seen as much as to hear the speech.
I in contrast was wearing blue jeans and a green, nylon anorak. I loved that jacket. It’s only defect was that it was very noisy when the nylon brushed against something. I stood out, not in a good way. But I still had the plan to stand inconspicuously in the back and sneak out early.
Unfortunately, I was the last to arrive and my plan was immediately rejected by a couple of the many ushers. They pointed to the last remaining seat. It was in row 3 in the exact middle. They insisted that I go to sit there, probably something about not wanting to show an empty seat on TV.
I reluctantly forced my way through the crowd to get to my selected seat. This required rubbing my noisy anorak against other attendees, many of whom were… large. I made a lot of noise and as my arrival pushed us past the nominal start time, all eyes, and TV cameras were on me. Who is this tall guy dressed and acting so inappropriately? Why doesn’t he just sit down and look like all the other dark suits?
I survived that part, although I was hot in my anorak from the run to the event and the embarrassment. I decided to endure that and focus on the speech.
Often a speaker will select an audience member to focus on, rather than trying to meet every pair of eyes at once. Jim did that. I was in the exact middle, and had the most inappropriate garb. I was also genuinely interested. I felt that he was speaking directly to me.
It was actually quite good. Jim related the saga of his failed attempt to provide a floor for funding of schools in Illinois. As in most states, Illinois provided a substantial portion of school funding out of local property taxes. This meant for example, that New Trier High School could spend $15K per pupil per year (not sure of the exact numbers here). They had just installed a new swimming pool. They could hire the best teachers, the fastest computers, and provide the smallest classes. Since area housing was expensive, the local taxpayers got all of this with a lower tax rate and a far lower percentage of their income.
Meanwhile, some rural schools in downstate Illinois could not afford needed repairs. They spent, say $2.7K per pupil per year. Jim’s plan was to seek a balance, $3.5K per pupil per year funded by a progressive income tax.
This was a brilliant initiative. However, it was opposed by politicians from Chicago, who fought for every advantage for their region, by the Democrats who rebelled against anything the Republican Governor would propose, and by his own Republicans who saw it as a giveaway to the poor and could not countenance a progressive income tax.
Note that Jim was taking on one of the most egregious, anti-democratic practices we have in this country. But he did it in a very modest way. There was no idea of truly equalizing funding for the institution that is supposed to offer a level playing field for all citizens, much less the idea that poor students might need extra help.
He worked hard on this for at least a year, but the idea was doomed from the start.
That was the bulk of the speech. Towards the end he turned to a second topic. This was an urging of the university to get more involved with the local community, especially with the schools. I thought “great!” It was exactly what I was doing. In fact at 5:00 I was to meet with local school teachers. I wanted to say that, but couldn’t in this formal lecture format.
But I also realized that if he didn’t wrap it up quickly. I’d be late for that meeting. As much as I didn’t want to further disturb the big gathering, I felt an even stronger obligation to be timely with the teachers and to show respect for their work.
I was obviously fidgeting. I began studying my watch, trying to calculate the precise moment when I would need to leave the meeting regardless of the disturbance. 4:55 was a messy compromise. I knew the big event was scheduled to got to 5:00, but it might easily go on until 5:30. 4:55 would make me a couple of minutes late to the teachers, but if I ran again and didn’t encounter traffic it could all work.
I waited until 4:55:15, then stood up abruptly as Jim was speaking. He paused, other audience members groaned or mumbled invectives, the TV cameras focused in. I thought that nothing could have been more embarrassing until I heard the noisy anorak rubbing against people and seats.
I did manage to escape. The teachers probably wondered why I was so disheveled and probably smelled from all the running.
The next day I saw Elizabeth in the science lab.
Me: I was fortunate get an invitation to your father’s speech yesterday. He did a great job.
Elizabeth: Oh! He’ll be happy to hear that. He worried that he’d gone on too long and said that some audience members were fidgeting.