THE WHY AND HOW OF JAMES FINLEY HEWES

It isn’t until four or five words in that you start to pick up on Finn’s slight, Mississippi drawl. It slides itself subtly into his 25-letter-word vocabulary so unintrusively that I’m sure most people he speaks to manage to subconsciously convince themselves that they aren’t hearing anything at all. It’s probably the only aspect of Finn that doesn’t scream “Look at me!”  Perhaps that being the reason he can get away with his short A’s and elongated vowels, causing people to gasp in genuine surprise when he tells them that he’s from Gulfport, Mississippi. Usually that gasp is coupled with a “wow” or an “oh really?” of sorts, followed by some question about the how and the why of his origin, all of which is fueled by genuine interest.

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Finn on the L – Photographed by Jamaica Ponder

I doubt Finn notices this, but everyone watches him. Not blantly, nor outright, but in  a way similar to his accent; with a slyness that can easily go undetected if one chooses to ignore it. They watch him and they’re curious. They talk about him when he isn’t in the room because they want answers. In some ways, this insatiable interest in Finn can’t be helped. He isn’t covered in tattoos, but the two which he has are large and spaced on either arm, almost equidistant, forming a sort of bad-boy triangle with his septum piercing.

It’s not that Finn looks as though he shops at Hot Topic- which he occasionally does- but rather that he appears to have burnt Hot Topic down while reading Slaughterhouse Five. Nor is Finn braggadocious about the fact that he’s smarter than you- which he probably is- instead, it’s his calm, unquestionably intimidating cadence which suggests that he already knows what you’re about to say and is hosting a fully formed thesis as a rebuttal- but he’s polite and will patiently wait for you to formulate your thoughts before he engages. We mess with him and call him a Robot, but I’m pretty sure he’s just brilliant.

Most people come to college and spend the first block of their time reinventing

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Finn @ the Morse Stop: Red Line – Photographed by Jamaica Ponder

themselves, but Finn decided who he was a long time ago and that was that. He didn’t blend in well in Southern Mississippi, which isn’t surprising because he doesn’t blend in whatsoever at Northwestern- the only difference between the University and Gulfport being that here he is enticing, at home he’s a threat to normalcy.

In Gulfport Mississippi, it’s cool to be a Republican, so Finn bought a Black Lives Matter hoodie. He’s also a vegetarian and a practicing Buddhist. He’s liberal, but does not “believe in party alignment.” He was lame, didn’t have many friends, was acutely aware of that fact and didn’t care in the slightest. He does crossfit and refuses to talk about it because “people who talk about crossfit all the time are assholes.” He holds grudges and smokes pot. He reads “pensive fiction” because he likes to think and compulsively plays number games with himself in his head. Finn Hewes is aggressively self aware, and as a result, he has the freedom to do whatever he so pleases because he learned early that someone’s going to be unhappy about it regardless.

Usually that person is Barry, his stepfather, who we all vehemently hate because Finn told us to. I’ve never met Barry, but it doesn’t matter. If Finn told us to jump into the Lakefill in the middle of March, we’d do it and we’d do it gladly. That’s just the sort of face Finn has: you shouldn’t trust him, but vehemently want to, and therefore, you do.

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Lawrence & Finn in Downtown Evanston – Photographed by Jamaica Ponder

My favorite of the seemingly endless slew of stories Finn has is the one wherein he and Barry are supposed to fight, and don’t. It sounds anticlimactic because it is, but that’s the motif of Finn’s life before Northwestern. In every event he recounts, I find myself waiting for that version of him to snap. I think everyone was waiting for Finn to completely lose it, something I bet he was aware of, and therefore decided not to do. His stories leave his audience demanding to know more. Usually this is when the “how” is answered.

We all want to know: How is Finn Hewes, a tatted-up, feminist, racially aware, liberal teenage boy, still whole after being chewed up and spit out by Gulfport, Mississippi? Finn says, he was poor. That, and his grandmama raised him.

Finn’s mother, Aimee, married Barry when Finn was five. The two of them went on an extended vacation to San Diego, leaving Finn with his Grandmother, then came back two weeks later with a marriage certificate and a Batman watch for Finn. They had missed his birthday. While they were away, Finn turned 6 and Aimee turned into Barry 2.0.

If you ask Finn nicely, he’ll tell you all about Barry, who you will undoubtedly come to loathe. Not because his stepfather is painfully ignorant- though Barry does believe the earth to be 6,000 years old- nor due to Barry’s unfaltering determination to kick Finn out time and time again- something which Finn speaks of in the same way he describes the weather: with a very calculated nonchalance reminiscent of boredom. Instead, you will abhor Barry because he injected himself into Finn’s life and was a toxin.

“Barry’s tried to kick me out of the house a couple times…just over whatever. He told me to mow the grass and I mowed the front but I didn’t mow the back…no one in our family uses the backyard- almost got kicked out for that.”

You will hate Barry because you will despise the idea of a grown man terrorizing a five year old. And then you will hate Barry for all the other stuff.

Barry isn’t all that special, in the grand scheme of things. He’s just like the majority of people Finn’s had to deal with while growing up. So Finn did what he needed to do; dove head first into everything his school had to offer- in addition to whatever he could get his hands on- and he dealt with it.

“A lot of the things I do are bad for me,” Finn mumbled across the table to me when I warned him against holding grudges. “Everything I did I really didn’t enjoy that much, but I was doing it just to do it, so I wouldn’t have to not be doing anything.”

That includes the Xanax, the weed, the alcohol, Yearbook, Debate, Spanish Club, National Hispanic Honor Society, Junior Civitan, Youth Legislature, Student Council, Hall of Fame, his band, athletics and his 4.0 GPA. Finn was the most overinvolved, overachieving, enigmatic trainwreck in Southern Mississippi. Perhaps that’s why everyone was afraid of him. He should’ve been drowning, but the kid was walking on water.

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Marie, Finn and Lawrence in Downtown Evanston – Photographed by Jamaica Ponder

Being athletic allowed him to play on the baseball, basketball and ultimate frisbee teams. Being nerdy kept him from being cool. Finn “was the kid that people would throw shit at and everybody would laugh, but no one would admit to who threw it.” He was “never not lame,” and for a while “was very much so into trying to fit in, and [he] couldn’t.” It was a mixture of things: he didn’t have the money to dress like his teammates but he was smart enough to be in their classes. The stereotypical race-class dichotomy did not apply to Finn, and still doesn’t. He’s poor, but he’s white. Even more than that, he’s mind numbingly intelligent, and existed in a limbo which provided for very little social mobility.

The whole “smart” thing is another peculiarity when it comes to Finn. He doesn’t believe in traditional intelligence. “Smart is such a label,” he told me when I asked him if he was aware of how smart he was. “Okay,” I wrote down, “don’t call him smart.” I added a few question marks after because it didn’t make any sense.

When I say the kid’s brains are advanced, I don’t mean he’s “I got into Northwestern” smart. I mean, “I can estimate how much this college education is worth, then find out how long it will take to pay it off, while adjusting for inflation- in my head” type smart. He can explain the intersectionality of class and race as it pertains to the current and historical American sociopolitical landscape, and not make you feel stupid about it. He attributes it to just having a good memory because “Smart is a relative term,” and “telling people they’re smart is unproductive.” As per usual, I’m inclined to trust him on that. Like I said, it’s his face. Plus, if anyone knows about productivity, it would be Finn.

Where Finn is from, people fear what they can’t understand. Here, they thirst after it. I wonder when that will begin to resonate with Finn; how long will it take for him to see that the whole world wants to know him. Even more than that, I wonder if he’ll want to know them too.

1 Comment

  1. Jamaica,
    This article is awesome. I recently read Hillbilly Elegy, which has been widely hailed and describes an upbringing similar to Finn’s. It left me cold and I have no further interest in its author’s exploits. With this short piece, by contrast, you’ve brought Finn to life for me and made me want to follow his progress at Northwestern and beyond.

    Like

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