The Gong Show: How it Feels to be Booed Off Stage

The following is an excerpt from my story, 'The Gong Show.' It's the first of what will hopefully be many short stories I publish on here. You can get the whole thing for free here. 

I should have known better when the sorority girl snickered. I should have waved to an imaginary friend, answered an imaginary phone call, or just flipped her off and walked away, done anything other than what I did. But I didn’t. Instead, I signed up for the Lee University Gong Show. 

Lee University is a private Christian college in Cleveland, TN famous for being the main college of the Church of God denomination. In my freshman year at Lee I learned a great deal about the way people function in a safe haven of a private university. The campus is wide and beautiful with perfectly manicured lawns in front of each of the prestigious buildings. It’s the kind of place where students play Frisbee, ride bikes, pray in the fields, or hold their own worship services under giant trees. 

In the weekly chapel services we were taught about the ways the bible teaches us to avoid sin and to accept others. Our honor code required that we not have sex, smoke cigarettes, or stay out too late. We used to make fun of the bubble culture, but I have to admit that it was comforting to know that there was so much safety in one place. But that was before the Gong Show. 

In high school I was known for the slam poetry I performed around town. “Slam poetry” here meaning lyrical, performance style poetry about guns, God, sex, and all the other juicy issues. I’d kind of stumbled into doing it, but gained a little bit of a reputation as a local slam poet of Franklin. People really liked my stuff, or at least I liked to think they did. So of course when I graduated and went to a private Christian school where people talked about love and building houses in Africa, it seemed a pretty natural fit that I was meant to become a slam poet phenomenon. So when I heard about a talent show being put on by one of the local sororities, I was quick to sign up.

Well this Gong Show, as it turns out, was nothing at all like the performances I’d done in the past. Apparently, the original “Gong Show” was a televised talent show in the seventies or eighties where contestants were asked to perform and then ‘gonged’ off stage if they were bad. Guess I should have done some research.

The Gong Show took place in the Conn Center which is a giant amphitheater-like chapel where all of the two thousand students gathered twice a week to worship their Lord while simultaneously fulfilling the mandatory chapel attendance statute. On any given Tuesday or Thursday, it wasn’t uncommon to enter the chapel to a yelling preacher, a crying preacher, an angry preacher, a Christian band, a student with a troubled past, or any combination of the aforementioned.

As I walked into the building on Gong night, I noticed that the vast majority of the few hundred audience members were wearing Greek Club T shirts (as a private Christian college, Lee doesn’t allow internationally recognized fraternities or sororities to exist on campus). The grand, dimly lit Conn Center was buzzing with club members talking about their newest inductees, the routine their group was performing, and (more than likely) who was building houses in Africa. 

The only people who I recognized who weren’t wearing Greek letters were students I knew as fellow freshman. That probably should’ve told me something about the way the night was about to unfold, but as good stories go, I was blissfully unaware. 

As soon as the show started, it didn’t take long to make the association that every one of the performers in the show were members of one of the Greek clubs. You could tell which one they were associated with by the location of the cheers/boos coming from the crowd. The fraternity guys all cheered for their brothers and booed the other clubs and the sorority girls roared as their new taps performed awkward ‘step’ routines and so on, (‘step’ routines were the big thing that year). 

I would eventually learn that the social life of Lee University is mostly governed by the Greek clubs. No freshman are allowed to join in their first semester which is probably why I didn’t find out about this aspect of campus life until later. I think the reason so many students join Greek clubs is because of the bubble culture. The clubs provide both a social and cultural outlet for college students wanting to experience life. As it turns out, private Christian college kids are a lot like other college kids. For better or worse, they do many of the same things. Before I realized how relatively ‘normal’ these people were, I fully expected them to love my poetry. However, they didn’t.

 Backstage, I nervously paced running over my poem again and again. I was wearing my favorite black button up, and one of the bandanas I wore every day to hide my premature receding hairline. The girl holding the clipboard told me I was about to go on and I listened as the MC introduced me.

“And next up we have Jordan White who’s going to be.... reading poetry?!”