How Junior High Almost Crushed Me

You can survive growing up different in a small town, but you have to find your tribe. This was something I didn’t know until I was grown up.  It would have changed everything about my junior high school years.

Instead I did it all alone. At home, even when my mom implored me to share why I dreaded school so much, at my most honest moment, I could only say, “The kids all call me fag.”  What I would say now is, “I’m gay and the kids are hateful about it.”

But the reason I couldn’t say it the honest way was because I had already picked up on the fact that being gay was undesirable at home and at school. Everywhere. When I told my mom what the kids were saying, she said, “Well, you aren’t, are you?”

I knew the answer she wanted and I said it. “Of course not.”

I’m sure I looked at the floor when I said it because I’ve never been comfortable lying.

In sixth grade I ditched school by hiding in the pines halfway down our driveway on the way to the bus. I would stay in the woods all day and come out when the bus returned to drop off the neighbor kids. Instead my brother-in-law spotted me sneaking across the lawn to another part of the farm and he and my mom slowly hounded me through the woods, cutting me off eventually like prey, and they drove me into school.

I was absent from school so often, eventually my mom and the principal had an understanding: he would drive out and pick me up himself.  She used to threaten that social services would take me away from her for being an unfit mother.  I had played sick so much the last year or two, she knew all my tricks, even the one about putting soap in my eye to pretend I had an infection.

In the car ride with my principal, he’d ask me if I didn’t like learning. I could only fixate on the fear of being teased and ridiculed; learning was somehow secondary to feeling safe.

So by seventh grade I knew I had no more passes left. The principal of the junior high was a different person altogether; not only did she not have Dr. Blanton’s worry-creased brow and pitying southern drawl, she was too busy herding the monsters that are middle schoolers to make car trips for one kid who refused to get on the bus.

If I were to survive seventh grade, I would have to be as invisible as possible, avoiding anyone who might hurt me.  That meant not going into the cafeteria, where I feared that the gathered masses would introduce me to a replay of what I experienced each morning when we assembled in the gym after getting off the buses and before homeroom. Every day as I walked along the bleachers, a silence would fall among just enough of my peers that I noticed it. It was followed by whispers and snickers. Sometimes one word would rise above the murmurs: “Queer.”

I couldn’t avoid morning assembly, but I had found a way to dodge the repeat airing of it at lunchtime. As we left Mrs. Bardwell’s class each day to head to the cafeteria, I would let myself fall to the back of the line.  When we rounded the first corner, I ducked into the bathroom and waited until the halls grew silent again. Then I pushed through the outside door and squat-walked along the side of the building to the windows of our class room. I always made sure one was unlocked before we went to lunch.  I would push it open and climb in, waiting in the silent comfort of the classroom where only moments before I had dreaded being called on by the teacher. If I was called on, it meant hearing the giggles, the ones that meant at least two people were sharing the joke about me. The same joke about me that brought the chatter of morning assembly to a halt.

So I kept my head down in class, avoided raising my hand even when I knew the answer. If I could make myself invisible, I could avoid the pain of being ridiculed.

In the half hour that I spent alone in the classroom, I felt at peace and I wished it could go on and on forever. Hearing the lunch bell brought a knot of pain to my stomach because I knew my sanctuary time was up. So in reverse I repeated the steps that had brought me there: shimmied out the window, slithered along the side of the building, pushed back into the hall, ducked into the bathroom, fell back into line as my classmates dashed past.

I hid in the bathroom in fourth period. The kids in that class seemed especially hard around the edges.  And despite the attempts of a few sympathetic family members to convince me that most of it was in my head, I knew that I wasn’t imagining how much contempt my classmates had for me.

It was confirmed one Monday morning when the whispering about me didn’t end with morning assembly, but followed me down the hall to my locker, which it normally did not, since the other kids started thinking about homework to be turned in and finding their buddies before classes. This day the whispering was still going on after first and second and third period. Finally I found out why.

Someone had dedicated a song to me the night before on the local radio station. It was Aerosmith’s Dude Looks Like A Lady.  At fourteen I was plump, wore my hair in a luxuriant brunette mullet, and had porcelain skin that I would kill for now. Maybe I did look more like a girl than a boy, but I knew the song was about more than that. Someone in my class wanted to put it out there so their friends could hear it and laugh in appreciation.  The joke about what a fag I was should be shared with the world outside of school.

Now I realize a different kind of kid would put a pithy, Rupaul-inspired spin on the whole situation. They would decide their foe had instead made them famous. Maybe what I needed more than anything was more fearless drag queens on TV.  I think my whole generation would have benefited.

I can almost relive the rise in my blood pressure that happened when I was told about the song on the radio.  It wasn’t anger. It was fear. Whether it was genetic or just a learned response, by this age I was strictly a flight strategist. Fighting was not my norm. So I hid the rest of the day in the bathrooms, roaming from one to another only when classes were in session. I ducked as I went past each door so I wouldn’t be spotted.

I luckily didn’t learn to loathe myself because of how I was treated, but it did make me loathe society for many years.  It took a long time to learn how to move through the world with an open mind toward others. One thing that I am always thankful for is that I have a lot of compassion for underdogs, for people who are misrepresented or even ignored. It is part of why I care so much about how our society treats people based on ethnicity, cultural and religious origin, gender, sexuality, age, size, income.  I know how feeling unsafe turns everyday life into a precarious obstacle course. How it twists you up inside.

If I could parent myself through the whole thing now, I would make sure it turned out differently. No one should be made to feel like hiding is the option, like being invisible is preferable to finding your light and place. And perhaps I could have gotten to myself at the perfect moment when my future empathy would be assured, but before I learned to be quite as cynical as I became. Probably I would even leave that alone, because I grew out of it eventually.

The one thing I know I would do to help myself is that I wouldn’t try to convince myself not to worry about what was happening to me. Every grown up tried to take that course, from my parents to the shrinks they sent me to. “Don’t worry about what other people think of you.”

That would be the saddest coffee mug quote in the world and it didn’t do much to comfort me.

What I would say is, “You’re right to let this bother you so much. You want to be liked and instead you feel loathed.” Then I would explain that having the whole world love you is impossible and not even the goal.  You just need a small but meaningful tribe.

It starts with taking the time to notice the other kids being picked on. I know I wasn’t alone.  There were kids who were teased because their clothes were ragged. There were kids who were tripped and knocked down because they had a speech impediment.  I would tell my fourteen year old self to give the other beaten up and spit on kids a smile when I got to assembly in the morning. Eventually, I would say, you can choose to sit next to one of them and ask them their name. Then you might find them in the cafeteria and sit with them.

Friends matter because there is safety in numbers.  A group that is made up of people who have been shaped by rejection may be the strongest, because they value what it means to find inclusion after feeling adrift and alone.  If the world had more tribes made of people who were vastly different except that they shared only the desire to protect and encourage each other to personal happiness, we would perhaps divide ourselves less by race and creed and more by the contents of our hearts.  It would have saved me a lot of pain in junior high and it would certainly heal so much of what ails the world today.



If he could reverse the order of the day, taking them back to the morning – to the moment before the argument – it would look something like this: the sun would lower among the peaks and the mist would thicken; the tourists would pick their way backward along the icy overlook; the ride back to Murren would seem nothing out of the ordinary, as the gondola belies no face nor a rear; then on lower ground they would all walk backward again, the group spreading apart in twos and threes as each returned to their lodgings.

Trent would step into the shower and the water would fly up off his skin and syphon itself back into the pin pricks in the shower head. He would peel himself into his pajamas again and step out on the terrace, where Henry would be sucking smoke clouds out of the thin mountain air, his cigarette growing longer, while Trent spat chocolate slowly into a teacup until it was full again and quite hot. Then and only then would they have reversed time enough to avoid the argument.

schilthorn coffee

They would be a blessed moment ahead of misunderstanding.  He could have imagined going back further, trains backing into tunnels, the plane recklessly hurtling itself over the Atlantic, tail first, seeming to gobble up its own jet stream. And again the sun would have drawn shadows in reverse, skin growing just a day younger, dew drops returning to the ethos.  But at that moment on the terrace overlooking Murren, there was still a chance that would have sufficed.

It was just after they talked about taking the lift to Schilthorn and a moment before Trent asked if Henry had gotten any texts from George Hargrove.  The chill settled closer about them when that was spoken.  Henry stiffened.

“I’m surprised you’d ask.”

“I’m sorry.”

Henry shrugged.  It was between them in the icy air, poised above the street, above the station so ideally close to the guest house.  Yesterday had brought the first snow of the season, causing the yellow leaves of autumn to fall, a sumptuous golden confetti under sugar drifts.  There had been jokes at check-in about them bringing winter with them.

Trent tried to move past it then.  “It really is like stepping straight into winter, isn’t it? In Milan it was still rather summery.  Chilly at night, of course. Remember you had to go back and get your sweater. That’s when I saw that man. I wish you’d seen it. So odd.”

The man with the huge hands.  They’d looked like something out of those old pictures from freak shows.  It was curious, because he was handsome – tall and manly enough – yet the size of his hands had given him a sinister edge.  One didn’t look at those hands and think of how they might caress a person; rather they seemed made for wringing a neck or for covering over a whole face, nose and mouth. They were smothering hands.

“I didn’t get a text until this morning,” Henry said calmly.  “He just asked how our trip was going.”

Trent forgot about the man in Milan instantly.  He felt his stomach turn over.  A flush set his cheeks afire like razor burn.  “That’s rich,” he said.  He didn’t recognize his voice.  It was stilted, forced.

“He’s trying,” Henry said.

“I know he’s trying. But it’s not what you think.”

Then Henry ground out his cigarette.  “Well, it’s more than you’ve done.  He’s not got it so easy, if you think of it.  He has the job of shutting down how he feels for me, of drowning it, putting it away.  You on the other hand have me – and you treat it like a house plant.”

“Not that analogy again, Henry.”

“Familiar little house plant.  You know how much to water it and where it likes to sit to take the sun.  It doesn’t require much.  Perhaps you’ll talk to it now and again. You’ve heard that helps. Read it somewhere, didn’t you?  Maybe you’ll tell it about the man with the big, funny hands.”

“Hateful bastard.”

“And if it grows too much for its container, you can always clip it.”

“How the fuck am I clipping you?”

Henry went silent.

Below them some other guests pushed out onto the street, drawing their hoods up, pulling on gloves.  And there was laughter as they chatted and made their way toward the gondola across the village.  Someone was talking about breakfast and another about lunch. Curls of vapor escaped their happy mouths.

“My god,” Trent said.  “You want to be with him, don’t you? That’s how you think I’m clipping you.  Monogamy.  It’s cutting you back.  It’s not what you want.”

Henry stared at him stonily.

“Go take your shower,” he said. “Let’s not do this today.”

“Tell me I’m wrong.”

“What I’ll tell you is that we both worked very hard to get here.  The last thing I want to do on holiday is audit my marriage.  Is that what you want?”

Henry always had a knack for cutting to the heart of the matter. Of course it wasn’t the time.  He should never have asked if Hargrove texted.  Then again Trent had always been one to peel away bandages and to pick at scabs.  He took in all the silver Swiss air he could draw and held it for a long moment.  Henry had turned to look out over the village by the time Trent stepped back into the room and removed his pajamas.

Shortly after they walked through the village, people joining the procession in twos and threes, until they came to the lift office.  And they climbed into the gondola and they rose up and lilted outward over the valley floor, little leaps as they crested the supports, butterflies bounding in their guts, gasps of surprise and shared laughter.  When they landed on Schilthorn, they followed along in a line until they came out onto the overlooks. There were still patches of ice because the day was  yet new; the sun would melt them later, after their group had returned to lower climbs.

The ice made them cling to one another; mothers to fathers; children to mothers; lovers to each other.  Until they came to the rails, where some of the group broke off and stood alone, taking pictures, or merely gazing out.  The view was rapturous: in every direction one saw charcoal peaks floating in pewter mist.  Here and there, as the sun plucked through, a ben-ben captured rock and ice, glittering like fragments of gold.

How had they come here?  Before there were lifts how had people the tenacity to keep climbing into this unknown?  Was is summer and green? Did they come to make a home when it was warm and easy, only to find themselves marooned later, unsure of how to descend when every deer path was but a series of bone shattering missteps?

The mountains were giving up no answers. Trent stood by himself for a long while, and it seemed that the other world – the world of their real lives – was small and clumsy and a little embarrassing up here in the divinity of Swiss highlands.  The testy exchanges when the internet wasn’t working right; the spot on the bathroom vanity one couldn’t help noticing when one sat on the toilet; the mind-numbing tasks at work, tackling the same problems from slightly altered angles.   Home and work.  Ice and accidents.  What we earn to keep and what we lose without knowing.

Once he’d been in New York, dashing across the West Side Highway.  His scarf had come loose but he didn’t realize it then.  Only when he got back to his hotel did he find it was gone.  Sometimes he wondered if it had looked romantic to the people waiting in traffic, the length of the scarf coming loose, whirling upward off his shoulders and floating down. Then he imagined the tires rolling nonchalantly forward, grinding it into the grey detritus of the street.  As each car crushed it, the scarf was less and less a thing of use and beauty and more and more it became merely city filth.

Henry came to stand at the rail beside him.  A moment later, they took each other’s hands and they found the restaurant and shared firstly a salad and then coffee with schnapps.  It was difficult to fathom the way forward. Trent would need to discover what Henry wanted and Henry would need the same.  Once they got back from holiday, it was hard to know what would remain of that distant life.

Still they made an effort to chatter about the trip and somehow or other when Trent got back around to the subject of the man in Milan with huge hands, it came out fresh and funny and made Henry laugh.  That felt good.  The dining room revolved slowly so that they saw the world below them from every angle as the sun came out to burn away the mist.

The Boys Who Die

I miss the boys who died, knowing their inner sadness belongs to boys who both knew and yet never never knew how they were loved.  This is the work of a lifetime – be it a scant few years or a long stream of decades –  finding that we are liked, wanted and needed.  A part of us is always skeptical.  We try so hard to please, come up against our own fragility – grey dawns of the heart – and despair at our failings.  The moments of laughter, the warm press of a friendly hand, the sweet, but slipping smiles of friendships: these are all breezes that catch our sails and tug us farther along the sea of our journey.  These are tender moments, warm with the texture of knitted things, comforting like the scents of favorite soups and newly found desserts.  This is joy to pull us through bleakest despair and remind us that at the end of our worked days, we will see smiles we know again, share confidences and food and a pause while every nose recalls together that this is the smell of spring coming again.  This bittersweet lesson – learned when dear people pass from this world –  is found in the tears that come from knowing you can remember the timber of their voice but never hear it again and that you only got to say so many thank yous to ears like your own that could hear them.  Never hold back your applause, never be shy with praise and love.  The bitterest regrets are plaudits that fell away without being spoken and all the times that love was shamed into a muddier, cooler kind of warmth.

The Bad Ankle

George could remember exactly when he busted the bone – or tore the muscle, or sprained the whole damned thing.  The thing was that he would not see a doctor about it, so there was no telling the exact malady.  But it happened at the vowel renewal of friends, of that much he was sure.  It was when the DJ started playing all the old music that always made him dance.  The thin dress shoes had been protesting, pinching at his ankles, the angel hair laces creaking like a ship going down.  When the twist that botched it happened, he bit his tongue and waited for the right moment to ease off the floor. Later he stood outside the club house, his breath floating on the January air like banners of spider web, and he checked his emails in the compulsive way he had, waiting for the ache to subside.  He had been dancing hard, dancing to feel the ecstasy of being just limbs moving to sound, dancing to forget his grief.  It had been working, too.

As the months passed, the ache came and went, never quite leaving.  Getting out of bed in the middle of the night was bad; he hobbled down the steps to the bathroom like a much older man.  He didn’t feel forty when the ankle was acting on him.  He didn’t know any older age to feel, but he supposed this might be what ancient felt like.  It seemed to mirror his grief.  Three months.  Five months. Eight.  The year was spinning forward, separating him from the night that he got the call.

His mother, her voice small, said, “Your father passed. The girls are on their way over.”

“We’ll be over as soon as possible.”

His husband was already up, shaking open a sweater, fishing a stray shoe out from under the hall bench.  It was the night before Thanksgiving.  In the car ride over, they got into a curious argument, for reasons George supposed were his fault but could not later remember.  He turned the car around, saying he would take his husband home, he would go to the others alone.  And then he was crying and babbling an apology and turning the car around yet again.  They made it to his folks house about fifteen minutes later.

The months since that distant, cold night had been an awakening for George.  He found himself by turns numb or overly sensitive.  He took up little projects, but abandoned them quickly.  He cried often.  He learned to lean on people.  He learned to be glad to need others and gladder to have them.  Yet there was a heavy stone in his heart and another on his chest when he woke in the night.  In those moments, he was aware of an utter loneliness.  And he knew it was not just his own.  He knew it to be the loneliness everyone had, whether they could feel it or not.

He saw it in old men pushing shopping carts at the grocery store. It was plain on the faces of children eating ice cream in the sunshine.  It did not negate the joys of life, it could not erase pleasure.  It stood beside all that was sunshine and all that was shadow.  It was in everything, behind laughter and music and soft chatter.  He knew now in his soul that to a one, every man, woman and child he saw was going to die.  It was strange, but he could not talk about it easily.  It might be mistaken for depression or morbidity.  Instead he took it as a kind of beauty, albeit a beauty that made his gaze climb over roofs and trees to find the sky.

When the summer came, he reveled in the sunshine.  He went to the beach and took to the waves with childish delight.  He talked with friends late into the nights, drinking Scotch and now and again smoking cigarettes.  He took pictures of rotting barns and for a while he took up baking.   There was much to do in business and at home.  He got used to the new view of things.  This was what life had become.

Now and then he imagined that he was gravely ill, that a cancer was creeping inside of him, changing his cells, chewing him up treacherously, as it had his father.  And two aunts.  And two uncles.  It took only a sore muscle, a stiff neck to bring on the fear. Then he had to talk himself down from panic.  He never stopped to imagine the ankle was anything deadly.  It was mostly a nuisance.  It came and it went.

One day he decided to go through some old boxes from childhood.  In one he found a baseball and he could think of no reason he possessed it.  He knew it was not his.  Then one day a week after, he remembered that it belonged to a boy he was briefly friends with as a kid.  He was a hero-like blond named Bobby who had an older brother with a congenital heart defect who died when he was only thirteen.  George then remembered a night when Bobby stayed over.  He had not thought of it in years.  For some reason, that night he had decided to scare the other boy.  Perhaps he was a little jealous of Bobby, who knew all about fishing, football and fast cars, who was the kind of boy a boy was supposed to be.  Or maybe it was a thoughtless kind of mischief.   As they were drifting off to sleep, he heard himself say into the darkness, “Sometimes I think of that door in the basement and how rotted it is near the lock.”

Bobby was slow to respond. “Why?”

“Oh, it just seems like if a robber or a killer wanted to bust in, they could get in pretty easily.”

It surprised him then – as it did on recalling it later – that it was so easy to spook the boy.  In an instant the brash, brave one was transformed into merely a weeping child.  The fear he had thought to conjure had taken hold.

“I’m scared,” Bobby sobbed.

George had felt immediate remorse.  It was something he had never imagined, that he could have the power to cause someone else so much worry and grief.  Hastily, he made to fix what he had done.

“Oh, I was just messing around with you…”

“I saw the door, George. I know what you mean. It is awful rotted out.”

“But we have a security system,” George lied.  It was a stroke of genius.

Bobby was instantly relieved, “Really?”

“Oh yeah.” George said, “An alarm would go off if someone opened any of the doors.”

Bobby had been calmed and was soon sleeping, but George lay awake for hours, sure that if there was a monster to worry about, it was in himself.  He learned that night how easy it was to be cruel and how awful it made him feel.  But it was not the last time he was cruel.  Pride and ego make a person petty and unkind by turns, and George found it plagued him all his life.  Finding the baseball and remembering that long ago night caused him nightmares through late July and into August.

Mostly he was a kind man, doing much for others, generous with time or money, which ever was needed – yet the child who saw the monster in himself never quite vanished beneath the thickening layers of manhood that time wrought.  The year his father died, he found his soul laid bare.  Now and again that child looked back at him through mirrors.  The face belonged to the man, dripping with a splash of cold water, but the tear-reddened eyes were the boys.  Wide, worried and lost, they knew all about the loneliness.

Autumn came and began to copper the hills.  The last crickets played late into the nights.  In window wells and along the eaves, the last of the moths and of the leaves huddled in the cold.  George woke at three one morning and struggled up on the damned ankle.  It was no more or less sore than normal.  He winced as he made his way down the stairs.  On the third step to the bottom, the ankle gave out and he clawed at the air for balance, but as he fell forward, his head struck the hall table hard and he was out.  He opened his eyes briefly, later, and his husband’s face was above him, white and drawn, his lips moving with words George could not hear.  His last thoughts were an odd assortment.  They were these:

I love you, handsome.

What was the loneliness? Something about children at an ice cream stand…

The door will hold.

And then he noticed that the pain that had been in the bad ankle was now in his head, and in a way it was all over, but yet he didn’t feel any of it so much anymore.  He knew he was leaving and as he looked up at his husband’s face, he wanted to say something to calm the fear he saw there.  He wanted to say the thing about the door, how they were really quite safe after all, but he could not because then, quite peacefully, he was going through it.