The day my dad ruined my life

I was in junior high the year the U.S. invaded Iraq (the first time).  My left-leaning parents, particularly my father, were incensed about this. I, however, was spending more time tight-rolling my jeans and doodling Derek Hallman’s* name in my notebook than I was thinking about social justice and geopolitics.

As with most almost-teenagers, my sole focus in life was to be cool. This involved carefully crafted sky-high bangs, the Guess logo on all my clothing, and aspiring to sit at the right table in the lunchroom It most certainly did not involve my long-haired hippy dad showing up at my school waving an anti-government placard and inciting a war protest.

Junior high is the no man’s land that exists between childhood and the teen years. It’s a particularly fraught time for girls.  As a kid, I was known for being smart. I was a book worm and usually had the top grades in my class. I was also deeply empathetic and keenly attuned to other people’s feelings. I couldn’t stand to see people left out or made fun of. For me, starting junior high involved the harsh realization that being smart and kind were no longer an accepted currency for being cool. Cool was now all about having the right clothes, the right friends, and the right parents who would let you have all your friends over to watch MTV and eat Hot Pockets.

I did not have those parents. The black and white TV at my house was tuned solely to PBS.  There were no Doritos, Hot Pockets, or otherwise trendy snacks at our house. I was not allowed to join the Girl Scout troop that all my friends belonged to because my mom didn’t see crafting and cross-stitching as critical life skills. (These were the days before Girl Scouts became badass mini-business women on a mission to take over the world.) Our dinner table conversations revolved around politics and world events and everyone was expected to participate.

As a little girl, I was fiercely proud of my dad. When I had a day off from school he would take me to sit in on the college classes he taught. I loved seeing him lecturing front of the classroom while his students scribbled furious notes on what he was saying. At home I loved hearing his stories about being tear-gassed while standing up for his beliefs during the Vietnam War. I told myself I was going to be just like him.

As I got older, though, I no longer wanted my family to be different from everyone else’s. All the things I used to admire about my parents now made me cringe with embarrassment.  I stopped inviting new friends over lest my dad start raging against a politician at the dinner table. I also didn’t want anyone to know that I didn’t have MTV or a Nintendo. At night in bed I would wish to be a normal kid with a normal dad who played golf on the weekends instead of plotting to stage an anti-war protest at my school.

The thing is, I helped him plan the whole thing, actively mapping out my own social suicide. I picked the day and time and slipped anonymous fliers about the protest into people’s lockers. As much as I knew it would humiliate me in front of all my friends (and Derek Hallman), I couldn’t bring myself to let my dad down. To him, I was still the little girl who cared more about standing up for what was right than about what other people thought. And on some days, I still was.

I should note that all this was in a time when activism wasn’t “cool”.  This was the 90s, the apathetic era that came after Woodstock and Farm Aid, and before hashtags and Colin Kaepernick. So, on the day of the protest as kids were starting to stream out of classrooms into the halls, I sat frozen at my desk. Joining in meant everyone would know the crazy guy out there was my dad. Staying put meant letting him down.

At the end of the day I didn’t have much choice.

“What are you doing here?” my dad shouted, appearing in the doorway of my English class. Everyone turned to stare at me.

“Come on!” He gestured to the entire class. Time froze for a beat. Then I unstuck my feet from the ground and rose from my desk. As I walked to the classroom door, to my surprise, everyone followed.

Outside it was chaos. Kids were pouring out of all the school exits. Teachers were flapping and squawking. The principal was standing motionless with his hands on his head.  A police car with its lights flashing was parked off to the side.

I watched as my dad took control of the crowd. He passed out protest signs and led everyone in anti-war chants as an orderly march proceeded across the parking lot. As I marched behind him someone caught my elbow.  It was Derek. He was holding a sign that read “No blood for oil” in my dad’s handwriting.

“Yo, someone said that’s your dad,” he said.

“Yeah,” I nodded. He hoisted his sign higher and smiled.  

“That’s cool.”

*Names have been changed to protect my fragile ego all these years later.