In fifth grade my friend Steve gave me a copy of Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. It was the first science-fiction novel I’d ever read and it changed my life. I loved it. I read it again and again that year and the next. In junior high I discovered its sequels, Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide, and those books became a guiding light for me during a troubled time. Later, Steve took his own life and I couldn’t read them anymore, couldn’t even keep them on my bookshelf. It’s been twenty years now and it’s time to stop hiding.
Steve and I were friends in grade school. Even though he lived in the house behind mine, the move to junior high brought an unintentional and inexplicable end to our friendship. I never knew Steve as a teenager or an adult. I don’t remember the names of his parents. I only barely recall his older brother, who was always too cool for us. I can’t serve as his speaker for the dead, but now, reading these books again for the first time in twenty years, I can tell you about my childhood friendship with Steve and about how much I owe to him and to this one simple gift. This is my eulogy for Steve. It’s long overdue, but I hope it’s not too late.
Steve intended for Ender’s Game to give me something to do on the long flight to France where I would live for three weeks as part of an exchange program. I remember the flight vividly, not because Kevin had managed to smuggle candy for all of us beneath the watchful eye of our chaperones, not because Bob had brought a book of terrible jokes and was determined to read all of them aloud no matter how many other passengers it annoyed, but because as soon as I clicked my seatbelt and opened the covers of Steve’s gift I was transported to a world that seemed more real than this one.
My first day back at school, Steve and I spent our morning recess huddled together in an icy corner of the playground talking about Ender and his friends and Battle School. We continued the conversation at lunch and then again in the afternoon, thinking together about what it would be like to be a Bugger, to be part of a hive mind. We appropriated the parlance of Battle School – it became a secret language that only we knew, and “gold-plated fart” was our favorite term for the sixth graders who monopolized the coveted kickball field at recess. Our friendship really grew up around this story, around our shared love for it, and for two years we never tired of having the same conversations over and over.
The start of junior high was a lonely time for me, as it is for so many. No one from my grade school was in any of my classes – there wasn’t even anyone from church, or little league, or scouts. Yet it seemed that the other kids all knew each other. They clung together in groups of four or five, speaking their own secret languages about their former teachers and bad field-trips and hilarious birthday parties. I sat alone at lunch for a few days, but early in the second week of school, walking through the lunch-room, I saw a Dragonlance novel resting on a table. I stopped in my tracks. I had just read the first Dragonlance trilog