When I was 10, my family moved from the city to the country, and it was a terrible, wrenching transition. In a way, I was relieved that we were out of an urban environment. Things were racially charged — and dangerous. I had been terrified for most of my waking hours in the “regular” world outside my home for most of my life. I had missed my last day of 3rd grade, because I was so afraid of being attacked by older kids who were acting out. I’d heard that it happened, and I was literally sick with fear, the last day of school. The only problem was, I had stashed an entire year’s supply of pencils, erasers, and clean paper in my desk. I had squirreled it away all year, using just barely enough supplies to get by, so I would have my own stash, which I could use for my writing and drawing.
I had all my pencils and erasers and paper stacked neatly in my desk, and I thought that since I was going back to the same school the next year, I could miss the last day of school, and my supplies would be waiting for me, when I got back the next year. Clearly, that never happened. And when I showed up on the first day of 4th grade, I was devastated to find my supplies “missing”. It never occurred to me that since I was going to a different classroom in a different grade, they wouldn’t keep my supplies for me.
Alas, they were gone. And I was crushed. It took me 35 years to get over that loss. In fact, it still stings.
Fear was something I’d lived with daily, as a little kid. I was small for my age, I couldn’t understand the accents of kids around me, I was a target for aggression by black kids who saw me as “the white devil” and picked on me or tried to beat me up. I was constantly out of sync with the world, anytime I was outside my own little created internal ecosystem. And it wore on me. I had constant stomach problems, I melted down. I shut down. I went mute. I went through all sorts of mental and emotional turmoil about any little change — including brand new classes with brand new kids, each new school year.
So, you’d think that moving to a more rural area, where things were much more homogenous (read: white, farming-class or middle-class) would have been a break for me.
In a way it was. In fact, the place we moved to was pretty wonderful, as it was on the outskirts of town, flanked by farms on all sides. It was quiet. It was clean. It was safe. And the kids who lived in the other half of the house and around us in the neighborhood actually liked to play with us.
I had room to run and play freely. The house had a huge wraparound porch, which we could roller-skate on, and I remember the feel of the metal roller-skate wheels on the boards of the porch — thunk-thunk-thunk — and then how it all went quiet and smoooooooth when we rolled onto the cement part of the porch. We played outside at all hours of the night, and we didn’t have to go inside. I could go barefoot all the time, for most of the year. The house we lived in was really old, and up in the attic, I found nooks and crannies where people in the past had stashed things. I stashed things there, too — little notes, or wooden doo-dads I had whittled with my pocket knife.
School was a problem, though. I was a “city kid” from far away, who was now in the midst of kids whose families were all connected, and who had lived in that place for generations. They all spoke with a thick rural accent, and once again I found myself unable to understand what people were saying. They also didn’t appreciate me “showing off” how much I knew about things, and I got into trouble with the teacher when I kept correcting him about something I was certain about — but actually had wrong. School was stressful. I dreaded it.
We were also farther away from my grandparents’ houses, so we didn’t go to visit them as often. My maternal grandparents lived on a college campus, where my grandfather was a professor. We would roam that campus and the woods around it, spending time at the creek, wandering through the Science Building, looking at specimens in jars, and wondering at the vast lecture halls. We got to play carom, flicking little plastic donuts into the netted corners of a board, and we got to listen to records of bird songs, so we could learn them. I studied my grandfather’s encyclopedias, and I designed a little electricity generator based on principles I learned from the entries on “electricity”.
My paternal grandparents lived on a farm, where I could roam around, hunting for barn cats and their young kittens, watching the cows being milked in the afternoon, exploring the pastures and the woods, and playing hide-and-seek in and around the barns. My paternal grandparents had different games — more interactive, rowdy board games that worked us kids up into a frenzy. My grandfather also had a train set down in his basement, and sometimes we would go down and watch it circle the room on its raised track.
Being farther from my grandparents meant I couldn’t get the same soothing distance from my regular life. And it felt like the world was closing in on me. A couple of kids at school wanted to befriend me, and at first we hit it off. But they wanted to play rough-and-tumble, and I was sensitive to any sort of contact. I also remember the big field where we played during recess, as being extremely bright and disorienting. After going to schools where the recess yard was fenced in and very structured, being turned out into a massive field, where everyone just ran around, was very confusing for me. I stopped wanting to play rough-and-tumble when I had a bad fall. It scared me. A lot. And it put me off their friendship.
They didn’t much care for that. I imagine they felt rejected. So, they started to tease me. Bully me. Make fun of me in public. Say things about me in class. Come up behind me and go BOO! to scare me, then run away laughing. I withdrew, thinking I could just shake them, but they kept after me, making fun… making fun… I had some tics I couldn’t shake. Picking my nose in public. Mispronouncing words. Being “weird”. They zeroed in on those foibles and broadcast them to my world. I couldn’t stop doing them, though, even when I willed it. It was humiliating, and I couldn’t seem to change anything about what I did, or how I did it, or who I did it around. They teased me non-stop around other kids, making fun of me in front of the class at every opportunity. I had no friends in 5th grade, once they started doing that. Other kids started acting out against me. The biggest boy in the class, who looked like he was 3 years older than us, started picking on me too, and once he grabbed my crotch. The teacher saw him do it, punished him, and made him apologize to me. I didn’t understand what that was all about. All I knew was, it made me feel self-conscious and even more vulnerable.
My grades plummeted from being at the top of the class to nearly failing. After always getting good grades and being more than capable of it, I was in danger of flunking, for the first time ever. My 5th grade teacher had to come to my house and talk to my parents about my failing grades. Everyone agreed that I had to dedicate a certain amount of time each night to my schoolwork, and I couldn’t do anything else unless I got it done.
I eventually bounced back, but it was a long way to go.
I’d already started to change, physically, entering puberty and developing breasts before other girls my age. It was horrible. I was so upset. I wasn’t supposed to be a girl. I was a boy. But suddenly, I had breasts. Nobody actually talked to me about what was happening in any sort of detail, and they didn’t explain how boys would be changing, too. I got mixed up with how to dress, not sure if I should wear a training bra or not. I hunched over my shoulders and willed my breasts to disappear, but it didn’t work. The training bras I had were red and blue. I wore a blue bra under a light pink shirt one day, but nobody stopped me before I left the house. The boys at school got a kick out of that, and they snapped my bra in the back, startling me while I was standing in line to go to recess. The boys all laughed — hahahahaha — and I shrank further into myself, hunching my shoulders and just wanting the day to end.
As I entered puberty, I lost a lot of my old ways and connections that had sustained me, my entire life thus far. I was expected to become a woman, now — something I never asked for or wanted. I wasn’t allowed to play games with the boys, because of my changing physique. I was expected to connect with other girls — who looked at me askance in gym class when they saw how my body was changing. I lost my connection with Native American studies, because I felt pressured into a more female way of being in the world.
I became so, so angry, and I had terrible fights with my parents. They didn’t understand. They didn’t know how I felt, and even if I told them, I was sure they wouldn’t understand. My hormones were probably raging, as well, and when my periods started around age 12, that was the final indignity.
I became consumed by Lord of the Rings, play-acting my own scenes in an imaginary world of my own and inventing my own language. It was the one way I could experience positive social interactions on my own terms. I talked to myself constantly, having all the kinds of conversations I couldn’t have with anyone else. I worked on my prosody and my pacing, practicing having a normal conversation with myself — the only person who truly understood me. I preferred to be alone, for the most part, because I didn’t feel any sort of connection with others.
The summer I turned 12, my parents adopted two girls who had been in a series of terrible living situations. The original plan was to adopt a boy so my brother wouldn’t be the only boy, but these girls needed a home, and my parents changed their plans. This was another major change for me, but because it was so dramatic, I rose to the occasion and “signed on” with our family mission — to welcome and integrate my new sisters into the family. It didn’t go well. They had their own share of traumatic history, and they resisted my parents’ enculturation at every turn. They didn’t want to be there. They didn’t want to stay. They couldn’t go back, but they knew they didn’t belong with us.
One day, when we were out playing on the front sidewalk, I got into a bit of friction with some other kids on the block. They were practicing cheerleading, and since I detested all things “girly”, I started making fun of them, mimicking them from afar. They started yelling at us, but I kept on. I had a lot of pent-up aggression and anger, and I guess I was acting out. I was also falling back on my old city-kid ways, with the smart talk and the bravado. We all parted ways without coming to blows, but — surprise, surprise — one of the girls I’d been making fun of was a year older than me, and when I showed up in 7th grade, she and her friends in 8th grade surrounded me and threatened to beat me up.
For most of the school year, I was in hiding. I kept a low profile. I was on constant alert. Every time the class bell rang and I was out in the halls, I was on high alert, always keeping an eye out for one or more of those girls in the gang. If I had to go out of the classroom to visit the restroom, I would take the long way around and go to a girls’ bathroom on the other side of the school, so I wouldn’t get beaten up. My teachers asked me why it had taken me so long, and I avoided telling them. But one day, a teacher found me headed for the far side of the school, and he insisted I tell him what I was doing.
I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble, even the girls who were persecuting me. I was afraid they would be punished. And I was afraid they’d take it out on me. I reluctantly told the teacher, and he called all the girls into the principal’s office and told them to leave me alone. But by that time, the damage had been done. I was still afraid. I was living in a safe place, far away from racial violence, but I was still living in constant fear.
8th grade was another exercise in invisibility. I grew “like a weed” over the summer between 7th and 8th grades, and when I arrived at school, nobody recognized me. I’d also gotten my hair cut and got new glasses, so I was a completely different person. I was also safe from the bullies from the year before – they’d gone on to high school, and I was comforted by the thought that, for once, they weren’t the big kids who could beat up on little kids.
I don’t remember much about 8th grade in school, other than that I wrote a short story that one of my teachers read, and she said — insisted — that I should become a writer. I agreed. It’s all I’d ever wanted to become.
The one place where I got a bit of relief was at church. My parents were heavily involved in church activities, and my youth group was really the place where I got my social interaction. I had a number of friends at church — some of whom were related to me, most of whom were older than I. It was mostly boys in my Sunday school class, and my parents wanted me to have interactions with girls, not just hormone-crazed boys, so they negotiated a way for me to get involved in the older kids’ group, hanging out with the high school youth group, instead of the middle school group.
It was great. I could relate to older kids so much better! They were fun, they taught me lots and lots about how to interact with the world. They knew how to drive. Some of them even had their own beat-up cars, and I spent a whole lot of time crammed in the back of an AMC Gremlin, as well as the cramped back seat of a tan 1978 Trans Am. We went places and did things. We hung out at Pizza Hut and took turns at Pacman. I didn’t play much, because I didn’t have the money to spend, but I watched. I watched and learned.
I learned about shaving my legs, how to wear nylons, how to wear a dress (I always hated dresses, and I haven’t put one on since 1997). I learned how to have conversations, how to pause and/or give way when a male was speaking, how to understand and tell jokes, how to “spark” with wintergreen Lifesavers, how to share what I knew about things without pissing everyone off. Everybody cut me a break, because I was younger than they, and they figured I needed help. Also, some of the kids were my second-cousins, so there was a family connection that helped. I was with my youth group every Sunday, most Wednesdays, and some Saturdays, as well. My parents were pleased that I was active with church people. And I was relieved that I didn’t have to “function” at the level of my age peers.
And I fell in love. Again. With first one girl a little older than me, who had beautiful long brown hair, was funny, athletic… and unfortunately in love with a boy I towards whom I felt intense rivalry / connection. Then I fell in love with an older woman (21 years old) who was partly a youth group co-facilitator, partly our buddy. She was the one with the Trans Am, and her golden hair matched the color of her car. I was absolutely smitten with her, and that much became awkwardly clear over time. After a terrible mix-up, where I thought she was trying to commit suicide and called 9-11 (paramedics hauled her off to the hospital, where she underwent psychiatric evaluation). The episode completely humiliated her and her family (she’d tried to commit suicide when she was younger), I was told to stay away from her. She said she cared about me as a friend, but she couldn’t be my friend anymore.
I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t understand. All I had was a card with some writing on it, and the humiliation of her telling me while her parents balefully watched from a distance. I don’t think she ever spoke to me again.