It is now time to talk about the bananas.

When I was a kid, all the way up until I was 14 or maybe 15, I was pretty indifferent about bananas. Something happened, though, right around that age, that forever changed how bananas taste for me, and I have, since that day, hated bananas with a particular passion (only one other food shares that honor: eggs - but even those I eat occasionally in an omelet). This is the story of that something that happened.

My best friend Jacob had started going to a new church for youth group. His dad had been the pastor of the small church we had been going to up in Placerville, in the Sierra Nevada foothills - a solid hour from where we lived at the time. In a most untimely fashion, however, his dad had suffered a major heart attack and significant brain damage, and the church had eventually come apart during the course of his recovery.

So anyway, most of the families from the small church we came from were still floating around, trying to find new options, and Jacob's mom, trying to deal with the situation with his dad, had her hands full enough, and I'm sure was just glad that Jacob was interested in going to youth group in the first place, at any church for that matter. I'm not sure if she realized that the primary interest with it was social time with girls under the guise of church, and just didn't care, or if she didn't catch on at all, but the fact is, Jacob was going, and he talked about it with me.

So one time I had managed to stay overnight at his house and that happened to be an evening that there was youth group, so I got to tag along.

It just so happened that instead of normal youth group, it was game night, and the leaders had all these crazy games lined up for us. They split us into four teams, the red, blue, yellow, and green - I forget which one we were, but the teams were co-ed, maybe 20 or so kids each, and each team had a leader assigned to them. So we do the typical games - fruit loop on a toothpick passing, relay races with balloons between the legs, relay races with the wiffle-ball-bat-to-the-forehead-spinning, relay races with a bag of gross foods that you had to reach into and eat whatever you grabbed (I got prunes, thankfully not that bad). Things like that. The prunes wouldn't prove to be the last of the fruit I ate that night, however.

Points were being kept after each event and they were really building up the big huge secret surprise that each member of the winning team was going to get (last year's game night the prize apparently had been free tickets to Waterworld, a big water park in Sacramento). So everyone was super into it - hyper-high-school competitive. So much so that we practically forgot, at times, that our primary reason for being there was to impress girls.

Well, the scores are close coming into the final event - the banana eating contest. This contest was different, however, in that the whole team did not participate in this contest. Instead, the team chose whoever they thought could eat the most amount of bananas in the shortest amount of time, and then they cheered on their representative on stage as he/she competed against the other teams' representatives.

Somehow, despite my apprehensions, I was the clear choice of my team, comprised 19 or so people who I had never met before and Jacob. I should have realized something was up at that point, but they carried it off well - it all seemed really legit. Besides, this was important, awesome prizes were at stake. I could do this. And all the girls would watch me become the hero of their team.

So up I go on stage. They line the 4 of us up, each with a pile of a dozen or so bananas. But there's a last-minute catch. They bring out blindfolds and make sure we can't see anything, we have to peel and eat with our eyes covered. No biggie. I can do this. I can win this thing.

So they give us 2 minutes to start. They start up the loud music and the emcee is screaming crazy in the mic like its a horse race, all the teams are screaming like nuts for their person, and I'm ripping open bananas and shoving them into my mouth, swallowing without barely biting them in half. The bell rings at 2 minutes and they stop us to check the score. The first team has only 5 bananas, the second team 6 and a half, I have 6 and a half, and the last guy has 7, but its debatable due to part of a banana being left in one of the discarded peels. We stay blindfolded the whole time while the judges deliberate and declare that there must be a 3-way eat-off between the last 3 of us - one minute only.

So now its even more intense, louder music, more insanely screaming emcee, kids at a fever pitch, and finally the bell rings. More banana has gone down my throat than air in the last minute, I almost choke trying to swallow what I was able to cram into my mouth in the 5 second count-down to the bell. Team 2 has really upped the ante and is now at 9 and a half bananas, getting a full 3 down in one minute. But I held pace with them and was also at 9 and a half. Team 4 must have not been pacing himself, as he only got to 9 when the bell rang. This time - a 2 way tie. One more one-minute eat-off.

At this point I pretty much can't hear anything, its just a dull roar, me, and the agony of cramming bananas down my throat, which is starting to hurt a little. The bell rings. The emcee can't believe what he's seeing, we're now tied again, exactly at 12 bananas, both of us only able to get down 2.5 bananas this time. Judges confer, there unfortunately are not enough prizes to go around, so they ask both of us if we can go on, we both, still blindfolded, groan into the mic that we can, and we go into the final round of insane banana cramming.

It would be the final round because I ended it prematurely, as far as I know, there may have been many more rounds to follow it.

You see, at some point in that last minute, with my mouth full of banana and my hands covered in the sticky mash, I had a horrible, horrible thought. A thought too horrible to not instantly acknowledge, which meant ripping my blindfold off to see if my horrible thought was indeed true. And it was.

There was no one else on stage but me and the emcee.

There hadn't been anyone else on stage but me and the emcee, right from the start. The instant they blindfolded me, the other kids took off their blindfolds, put their bananas in my pile, and went and sat with their teams. The emcee, the music, the bell, the screaming, even the team 2 team member coming back up to agree to go on - all perfectly designed to keep me deluded and eating frantically. The whole thing was a pretty darn hilarious joke.

The only problem I had with it was that it was at my expense.

Kids at that age pretty much revolve around the central desire to be cool, to be accepted, to be popular and liked. A room full of a hundred kids laughing at what an idiot you are is pretty much the opposite of that - I stormed out of that place, never to come back again. I didn't talk to Jacob for a long time - our friendship kind of dwindled over the next couple years - for a lot of reasons, not any serious grudge on my part over the banana thing.

And I never again could stand the taste of bananas. For mostly physiological reasons, I think - I just burned out on them, kind of like I once did with Malibu Rum - but that's a story for another time.

I like to think that it was a lesson at an early age about what an incredibly stupid thing it is to make jokes at other kids expenses, especially as a youth leader, which served me well in my years as a youth leader. My general approach was to be self-depreciating, kind of communicate to the kids that "Hey, I'm not cool in this particular way, hahaha (laugh at me)!" I think maybe it helped them see that its OK to not be completely cool 100% of the time, because that's what they're trying so hard to be, and that's what they often think we, as youth leaders are, very cool young adults who bother to spend some time with them. Anyway, even if I never made a kid understand that, at least I never (hopefully) made the mistake of purposefully ostracizing a kid for the sake of humor.

[This is a "story time" post, a theme I used to try to write under regularly, but dropped off this year, along with everything else. You can tell because I try to start them with "It is now time to talk about..." and I try to remember to tag them, so that they all end up here, if you care to read the others.]


valb said...

Wow, what a story. As a long time youth leader, I can not imagine having pulled that on a teen! I am glad you learned that valuable lesson. No joke is worth losing even one teen from attending.

Robbie said...

This storytime depicts one of the saddest things in the world: American humor.

I've often thought of when a friend told me, at least a decade ago, that American humor is often at the expense of a person, while the more intelligent and admirable British humor jokes around at the expense of ideas.

A British man came to America once and the Americans he was staying with asked him, "Have you heard the joke about the dirty window?" He answered that he hadn't. "Well you probably couldn't see through it anyway!" they laughed.

When he returned to England, he asked his friends, "Have you heard the joke about the window you can't see through?" And they answered no. "Well it's probably too dirty anyway!"

More intelligent humor for all, I say!

Thanks for sharing with us what you learned about working with kids at your own great expense, Dave. It's a very valuable lesson. I've pocketed it.