I bought Ender’s Game again – my well-thumbed paperback was negligently left gathering dust at “home” with my parents – and devoured it in a night on my tablet.
I picked it up because I caught the movie on HBO. The movie has flaws, but that’s not what I’m here to discuss.
The subject matter – space battles, diplomacy, military life – might seem remote, but to me this is a deeply personal story.
The first time I read it, I was little older than Ender – it was sixth grade and I had started my first year at St Mark’s, a private school for gifted boys, my own little Battle School full of cruel, pubescent geniuses. And I was every bit as isolated and bullied as Ender.
Like Ender, I was told from an early age that I was special. Gifted. A genius. And I believed them, but I was timid and scared and uninspired. And whereas Ender had laser like focus and absolute objectivity, I was a bundle of nerves and ADD, retreating to a fantasy world not unlike Ender’s own Mind Game. A world where I impressed everyone with my brilliance and grew up to be Someone Important – a general, a politician, a movie director, a novelist. I never got there – Most of those fantasies have been eliminated one by one – but still I strive for some measure of achievement.
Gifted children have a special kind of arrogance. We believe that all we need to do is show up and others will reward us with the authority we believe we deserve by right of IQ and sheer processing power. In adulthood, though, I discovered that we need experience and maturity, and even then achievement in life is determined not by brainpower, but through resumes and drudgework and persistence. Ender’s Game sounded so perfect to me – a world where adults sought out the gifted and gave them that opportunity to excel with their peers. It wasn’t until later rereadings that I understood how twisted characters like Colonel Graff were, destroying children to make them into Caesars and Napoleons.
I am thankful we had no Colonel Graffs. Among my many teachers, I had a few who understood me – Ploegstra and Adams, Barta and Owens, Seay and Mank, Rummel and Brandenburg, Blaydes. I owe them, and the other teachers at St Mark’s, a debt I can only repay with a life well lived.
That little boy reading Ender’s Game in study hall, the scared little launchy at Middle School (a Battle School if there ever was one), was hemmed in by bullying and disdain. Even among the gifted, I was an outcast. I didn’t like the right music and books, I was terrible at sports and didn’t understand them, and I was smaller than the others. I was not a classmate; I was a target. I remember bullying and mockery and tears more than I remember any other lessons from Middle School. Not all was terrible – I had my circle of friends, my own jeesh – Brian and Luke and Thomas and others.
Ender didn’t cower and cry. Ender wreaked terrible vengeance. He beat his bullies, then kicked them while they were down. Massive retaliation. Two of them, we learn later in the book, never woke up again. I was too timid and kindhearted a boy to ever be a fighter, but I did have that rage bottled up.
Only once did it come out. There was another boy, a year ahead of me, who was smaller. We called him “The Evil Gnome.” He could be cruel, but I think it was only his way of defending himself from others who would push him around. One day, in the aisle of lockers behind the gymnasium, all my rage came out. I don’t remember why – I don’t think I even knew at the time – but I boiled over and fought back. Started pushing The Gnome around, wrestling with him – more like flailing. My friends broke us up. I don’t remember if I apologized, but I remember the horror when I realized what I had done. I’d done him no lasting hurt, but for a moment I became what I hated most. I became a bully, a Peter, and lashed out at the one person I might be able to hurt. And I told myself never again.
I was in High School when the wave of school shootings, kicked off at Colombine. My chief tormentors taunted me, asking if I was going to “Pull a Columbine.” I laughed along with them, putting up a sneering bravado, and played along with the joke. It became unfunny very fast. They never tried that taunt again.
Thank God they never told anyone.
Luckily for everyone, by then I had graduated from my directionless anger. I was no longer Ender in the shower, kicking Bonzo’s brains in. I was Ender after the War, swearing off violence, learning to love my enemy even if I still hated myself.
I can say these things now, because I am a different person. Through years of work and focus, I have changed. I no longer hate others and I’ve learned to love myself. At my ten year reunion last year, I reacquainted myself with old, beloved friends, and made peace with those who had dished out petty cruelty. Scars from childhood may remain, but they heal over until they are only distinguishable if you go looking for them.
One criticism leveled at Ender’s Game is that the children don’t sound like children. They don’t act like we expect them to. Bugger that, I’ve been there, and that is exactly how gifted children act and think of themselves. My classmates and I had all the delusions of grandeur and all the cruelty of the Battle School cadets, and if you don’t believe me, it’s been too long since you’ve known (or been) a middle school boy.
There’s one last ironic parallel between my life and Ender’s Game. My hobby, and a small part of my income, come from working on the internet and computer games that Card so vividly imagined the year after my birth. Ender’s Game itself has at its core The Game, the obsession of all the boys at Battle School. And just as Ender and his classmates used military games to prepare themselves for war, I play military games – action games like World of Tanks, strategy games like Unity of Command. On a field of ones and zeros, I have cut down Pickett’s Charge; on the plane of a hard drive I have lead the Blitzkrieg through the Soviet Union. My earliest memory is playing a simple coloring game on my parents boxy PC before I could read. And now, in adulthood, I’m trying to bootstrap a gaming social media and PR company, tentatively titled “Hyperactive Gaming.” Irony within ironies.
This has all been a very rambling way of saying – when I tear up when I finish Ender’s Game, here is why. Because I was Ender and Peter and Bean, and this is my story, too.
Our world has no Speakers for the Dead to tell the truth of our lives, so I’ll be my own and Speak my own life, as best I can.