Wednesday, January 24, 2007

one step behind the glory

I took a French drama class with Dikembe Mutombo, who at the time was in the Georgetown School of Languages and Linguistics (SLL-- now, sadly, subsumed into the College of Arts and Sciences). Our teacher was Roger Bensky, and we spent the entire semester working on the extended version of Paul Claudel's La Ville, an allegory about the 22-year-old Claudel's conversion to Catholicism. In the third act, an angelic figure appears after the second-act destruction of the city (the city represents Claudel's shattered inner state; he is ripe for the conversion moment, which is what the beatific third act represents).

Dikembe was the angel.

When the moment came, he stepped impressively on stage dressed in white garments. With that booming voice of his, he declared, "Ô vous! Ô camp des hommes malheureux! Je viens, et non pas la nuit, mais le jour est dans le milieu de la ville!" The first time we performed the play, however, Dikembe flubbed the line and mixed "day" with "night," inadvertently (and somewhat humorously) turning himself into the Angel of Darkness-- not quite what Claudel had intended, but pretty damn cool.

Dikembe's handshake was surprisingly gentle; his hands felt like jelly, though I imagine this is because they were relaxed: Dikembe is also a black belt in karate; his fist could easily punch my head clean off. He tended to address the guys in French drama as "mon frère." He speaks several languages fluently-- among them, English, French, and four or five Congolese dialects. He is, of course, known to many Americans as a top-flight basketball player...

...and it was while reading the text of President Bush's State of the Union address that I saw, with a shock, that Dikembe had been invited to the speech, and that he had been personally recognized for his charitable work in the Congo. Bush apparently said the following:

Dikembe Mutombo grew up in Africa, amid great poverty and disease. He came to Georgetown University on a scholarship to study medicine – but Coach John Thompson got a look at Dikembe and had a different idea. Dikembe became a star in the NBA, and a citizen of the United States. But he never forgot the land of his birth – or the duty to share his blessings with others. He has built a brand new hospital in his hometown. A friend has said of this good hearted man: “Mutombo believes that God has given him this opportunity to do great things.” And we are proud to call this son of the Congo our fellow American.

I am "Kevin Kim" on this blog and in my dealings with most Koreans because that is, in fact, two-thirds of my whole name. My actual surname begins with an "N." As a French major, I was also in the School of Languages and Linguistics. Like Dikembe, I was Class of '91. We went to the same graduation ceremony, and I received my diploma right after Dikembe got his, because "Mutombo" was the last "M," and my name was the first "N." (I have no idea why Dikembe was in the SLL group that day; if he had originally come to study medicine, that's a surprise to me. I always thought he was just a language major. In any case, his career path followed the bouncing ball, and Dikembe left us for bigger and better things.)

There isn't much I remember about that particular day (ah, wait: Lynne Cheney gave a forgettable speech for us SLLers in Gaston Hall), but I do remember that I was-- and still am-- dwarfed by Dikembe Mutombo. He's a good guy, a kind soul, and fully deserving of recognition for the things he has done. Allez, mon frère!


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