So there I was. Alone at the flagpole. In the rain.
Behind me, Buffalo Grove High School loomed large and brown, its walls angling inward so that either way I looked, there was brick and glass, brick and glass. Inside, the school was just starting to flicker to life: a few lockers creaking open, slamming shut, the early students shuffling down the quiet hallways toward a new day.
I was standing outside on a small patch of grass in that netherworld between the school’s entrance and the road. In front of me, the flagpole rose tall from a tiny concrete circle. The September rain fell steady and cold, but instead of a jacket, I was sporting my official See You at the Pole T-shirt: white with a barrage of reds and blues—a prayer-themed Bible verse splashed across in a zany font.
The shirts came in big packets of Christian marketing materials sent to youth pastors across the United States. In turn, they were doled out to students. Students who had promised to pray at their schools’ flagpoles at seven in the morning that fourth Wednesday of September. Students like me.
It was my sophomore year, my second time to the national See You at the Pole event. My first year, I’d stepped out of our minivan and into a group of hundreds of students, all of them circling wide around the BGHS flagpole. They were pressing farther and farther out toward the brick walls, toward the road, toward the whole of the Chicago suburbs in which we lived.
I was innocent, small, white-blond. My body had not yet begun to curve into itself; I slid in and out of size-one jeans. But when I walked toward that burgeoning circle, it opened. It absorbed me. The hands of people I’d never met were grasping mine, while above us, the American flag snapped proudly in the wind. We were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen,
standing up for something Great. We were holding hands, holding together God and country, faith and public education, Jesus and His disenfranchised children—the ones walking unseeing down our high school hallways.
That was the idea, anyway. That is what I imagine the founders of the event had in mind when they started it somewhere deep in Texas in 1990. And maybe in the beginning, it was. Maybe in its grass-roots days, it was honest and humble, a fusing together around the pain of classmates, schools, world.
But by the time I first attended in 1997, See You at the Pole was a trademarked term. It had a paid staff. A marketing team. A website. “You may purchase top-quality SYATP promotional material such as videos, brochures, posters, book covers, banners, wristbands and more at reasonable prices by calling 817.HIS.PLAN,” the website advertised.
By 1997, youth pastors across the country were showing the SYATP video promo, and it was a kind of extended infomercial featuring goodlooking Christian teenagers in fitted Abercrombie sweaters. The teens talked about God and about the wonderful things that had happened to them while standing in front of flagpoles for Jesus. I watched them fade in and out on the screen, these beautiful people I did not know. Their enthusiasm lodged itself somewhere deep inside of me, growing steadily, filling me with hope.
I was a freshman—insecure and unknown. This was my opportunity to be somebody. “This is your time to stand strong for your faith at the pole,” the kids in the video said.
See. You. There.
In retrospect, that first See You at the Pole event with its bloated circle of students stirs a feeling I can’t quite place. Pity. Compassion. Frustration. Nostalgia. So much has happened since then. I almost can’t remember what it felt like to be that girl—the one with the long blond ponytail streaking down her back. The skinny girl with the See You at the Pole T-shirt billowing in the wind. The shy one. The unsure one. I almost can’t remember what it felt like to be caught in that moment, pulled into something big and important: a firestorm of prayer, a wind system capable of so much power.
What I do remember is that I was supposed to have my head bowed. I was supposed to be concentrating on Jesus, but my head was half raised, my eyes wide. I was counting the ever-growing number of students. I was trying to memorize their faces before they disappeared back into the anonymity of our two-thousand-some student body like rocks thrown back into a rolling sea.
I kept thinking, There are so many of us! And I believed in some deep part of me that if we just prayed hard enough on this one, special day, something big and wild would sweep the locker-lined halls of my high school. Revival.
This is how I saw it: a wooden cross set up in the school foyer. People bringing their drugs and their cigarettes and their water bottles filled with stolen drags of vodka and leaving it all there. Leaving it in the hands of Jesus.
The details of the whole thing weren’t totally clear to me. I’d never actually seen drugs, and though I’d heard rumors about the vodka water bottles, the idea was confusing to me. The word bong was not in my vocabulary. The mechanics of drug and alcohol use, the punch lines of dirty jokes and sexual innuendo—these were not things I understood. But at fourteen, I was aware of the way they separated me from Everyone Else. I was aware of the way they made me invisible while I fumbled with the combination to my locker, the words of my classmates soaring high over my head.
If they came to Jesus, these people in this school, none of that would matter anymore. We would all speak a common language. “Hey, how is your walk with God?” they would say, and they would be asking me and I would be able to tell them. They would want to know how I did it—how I always kept my faith so strong. They would sit with me in the cafeteria, buy me one of those melty chocolate chip cookies from under the heat lamp, ask me about the Bible. I would answer with a knowing smile. My hair would have that glossy, magazine-model look. Everything would be different.
On the wall of my basement bedroom, I had taped a newspaper article from that 1997 See You at the Pole event. The article was about another school in a nearby Chicago suburb—Prospect High School. That was where my sort-of-boyfriend Chris Jacobson went. Where he was a senior, where he led the school Bible study, where he swaggered down the hall, chin up, buoyed by the chemical substance of his faith.
In the article’s accompanying photograph, Chris stood front and center. With one hand, he held his Student Study Bible open, his palm steady. His other hand was caught by the shutter in midgesture, his fingers frozen in midair, forever emphasizing the point.
Around him, there was a circle much like the one I’d been standing in at that very moment at Buffalo Grove High School. But in the picture, the students were blurred beyond recognition. They were gray, fuzzy figures. They belonged to the background.
The flagpole was the point of the picture; Chris, his face intent on some Other World, he was the point. His blond hair parted in the middle and flopped bowl-cut-style on either side of his head. He could almost be mistaken for a young boy if it weren’t for the intensity in his face. I spent many afternoons during my freshman year sitting on my bed,
staring at that article. I memorized the picture so completely that even now, fifteen years later, when I think about Chris, this is the image that comes to mind: the muddy black-and-white photocopy, the open Bible, the floppy hair. Soon after that picture was taken, Chris took a Bic razor to his scalp and spent the rest of the year with a smooth, pink head. I don’t remember why.
But when I conjure him up, I can’t see it, that bald head. I see the boy with the floppy hair, the boy in the picture, the boy who was the point of it all.
It was this newspaper article I was thinking about when I stepped out of our green minivan into that rainy Wednesday morning a year later. My mom leaned her head toward me as I hoisted my violin case and slung my backpack over my shoulder, the rain smacking against the green vinyl. “No one’s here,” she pointed out. I followed her eyes to the empty courtyard, the flag shivering on the metal pole, the puddles gathering in the creases of the concrete.
I shrugged. “I don’t care,” I said. “I’m still going to do it.”
“Are you sure?” she asked, her voice rising a little with concern. The feathery ends of her hair were still stuck to her head where the pillow had pressed them overnight.
“I’m sure, Mom,” I said impatiently. I grabbed a pile of green fluorescent fliers off the dash. They announced the start of the school Bible study in loud fonts, big lettering. I’d planned to hand them around the circle to herald the new school year, the new Buffalo Grove High School Bible Study, which would be led by me and my two best friends, Kim and Alissa. I jammed the fliers into my backpack between two textbooks.
“Okay…,” Mom said uncertainly. “Well, have fun.”
I walked alone to the flagpole, stood in front of it with my head bowed so that all I could see was the place where the pole disappeared into the concrete base. I put my violin case on the ground, and the water slid over its black lid and collected along the metal clasps.
And here is my secret: I wanted this.
I wanted the empty courtyard, the chance to be a solitary figure at the pole. To be the only one bold enough, brave enough, passionate enough to stand in the rain for Jesus.
I was fifteen, foggy on the difference between alone and lonely, unaware of how close they were, of how the former could slip so easily into the latter. I was desperate for independence and distinction. I stood tall. I looked down.
I imagined the camera crew from the Daily Herald pulling up alongside me in a van. I saw myself the focus of a camera lens: profile view. Me, head bowed as the water beat down on me, as it trailed down my face. The picture would show the water clinging crystalline to my closed lashes. Behind me, there would be empty space where you’d expect to see others, and their absence would be a tribute to my singularity, my sacrifice: a lone figure, deep in prayer, while the flag slapped wet above. I stood, shifted, waited, the puddles growing deeper under my Payless
tennis shoes. The rain pattered against my hair, making my ponytail heavy on my neck.
If I prayed that day, it was in short, unfocused statements—Lord, please do something great in our school—repeated again and again, leaving my mind free to listen to the sound of car doors closing behind me and feet shuffling toward the front entrance. It left me space to wonder about the passing students: who they were, what they were thinking as they noticed me, standing there with rain removing my makeup in streaks. Did they know why I was there? Would they ask me about it? (Lord, please do something great in our school.)
I pictured myself walking sopping wet into my first class, the bottoms of my green, flared jeans darkened by water. I pictured my classmates turning to look at me—the chatter stilled for a moment, the momentum of the morning coming to a full stop. (Lord, please do something great in our school.)
What I did not know then, could not see, was that the entry hall of the high school had filled up with a widening circle of students. They were pressing against the walls, blocking the doors to the stairwell, holding each other’s hands, praying out loud.
It never occurred to me that the location of the event would be changed for the weather, and it wasn’t until five minutes before the bell that Kim came running out, her windbreaker held over her head like an umbrella, to wave me inside.
“We couldn’t figure out where you were!” she told me later as I stood by my locker, dripping, my SYATP shirt clinging formless and uncomfortable to my skin. Kim leaned against a locker while Alissa straightened out the pile of crinkled fliers I’d pulled from my bag. “I couldn’t believe it when I finally looked outside and saw you just standing there.”
The look on her face was not admiration. It was pity. It was as if she understood what I could not. There were two places to stand: a flagpole and a crowded hallway. I could only see one.
I thought I was choosing something extraordinary.
I thought this would all turn out differently.
Excerpted from When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman. Copyright © 2013 by Addie Zierman. Excerpted by permission of Convergent Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.