Tuesday, November 30, 2010

a life

I was in my hometown yesterday, celebrating a family birthday at my parents' house.  I go home for occasions like that - family celebrations, the occasional visit with friends, the odd event that draws me home. Sometimes I visit in the summer to breathe in the natural beauty, to walk the pathways, to wake something in myself that lies dormant when I am away. But I seldom see anyone I knew from high school or elementary school unless I choose it. The older I get, the more I realize that the burdens of living in that town, of being forced to accept a social hierarchy that none of us created were too much for most of my peers to bear. With a few exceptions, many of us got the hell out of there. Some of us came back, older, wiser, and hopefully worked for conscious change in our community by choice this time. Some remained, content with the structure that had been created for them. I came back to be closer to my family, and left again because I had more of the world to experience than the twin rivers and stone walls of the town I was raised in.

Yesterday, I idly picked up and glanced through my parents' church bulletin. The church was a mainstay in childhood - really, the only connection to community that my mom had for a long time. We went to the catholic school, and sat in the front pews at mass for years. I outstayed my welcome, singing in the choir for the pure joy of singing, long after I had abandoned the restrictive and misogynistic views of my former religion. It was all I knew. In my parents' bulletin this week, there was a brief RIP for a former grade school classmate of mine.

Yes, people pass from this life. He is not the first of my former classmates to die. He was not a particularly close friend, nor did he seem to have a bright future, either inside or beyond out hometown. I remember him best as a fellow victim.  We, separately, were the brunt of many jokes, became the laughingstock, had the crap figuratively kicked out of us every day by one person or another. But we weren't friends.

 Had we been able to stand together, perhaps we could have stopped some of the bullying that we both endured, throughout our school years. But we were both isolated, from the class and from each other, by the very hierarchy that bound us in place.

 He was a chubby kid, with blonde hair, crooked teeth, and dark circles under his eyes. Especially as we got older, his clothing suited an office more than a classroom. He'd come to school in pointy-toed dress shoes, a v-neck sweater and a collared shirt. Polyester pants. Ask me how easy it was for bigger kids to actually find decent clothes that fit in the late 70's and early 80's and I'll point you straight to the racks of elastic-waisted polyester pants that every department store displays for the sole purpose of keeping older men and women clothed with dignity. My younger  brother's only memory of this person was the day he came to school with a godawful perm...

If he was forced, by virtue of elimination, to choose me as a class partner, or to join my team for basketball, he would make the same noises of derision as the other boys. He would laugh about my weight, tease me for my clumsiness, roll his eyes when I walked by.

I was no kinder to him. He came to school with a "Forman Tank" sweatshirt on once, and I laughed at him for days. I didn't want to stand near him in line. I was terrified that people might think we were friends, and went out of my way to avoid him. It's funny how my childhood mind couldn't comprehend that he was human, and suffering, just as I was. Maybe I needed, in some way, to feel superior. Maybe he did, too.

It was easier to avoid him in high school. We didn't have many classes together, but always had the same, alphabetically arranged homeroom. We both took comfort in our back seats in the classroom, knowing that seeing what was going on, and being in back, could prevent the spitballs from being blown our way, or at least help us to avoid them. I used my hair as a shield, pulling it down over my face when I didn't want to be noticed. He used his smile in the same way - never failing to grin in the face of adversity, even when he was openly rejected and teased during class time.  By our classmates. And by the teachers. We were constantly reminded that we did not belong.

The last time I saw him, really, the only time I saw him outside of high school and the occasional glimpse in church, was one day in the library. I was looking for books, and he was working for the local Community Living organization. He had brought a developmentally-delayed client, new to town, in for the monthly Welcome Wagon meet and greet. We exchanged pleasantries, I think. It was ironic that both of us had chosen community-service related careers at that point in our lives, as though we could ensure the safety and well-being of other people in a way that never happened to us.

I never spoke to him again. That was seventeen years ago. So why does his death matter to me?

The thing is, I wanted to know...was he happy? Did he accomplish what he wanted to during his lifetime? Was he able to find love of some kind in spite of the hatred he endured at the hands of his peers. I know how long it took me to recover, I know that I still shake with fear when I have to do certain things - like drive by my old high school. How was it for him?

I asked my family. No one seemed to know what happened to him.

It matters because his death forced me to look at my own mortality. I know I haven't accomplished everything I want to do in this lifetime. I'm not even close. My gifts are lying dormant in the back of my closet, gathering dust as I eschew writing for late-night facebook viewings and mindless television. I don't even spend a lot of time with those pursuits - being a parent and holding a full-time job takes up most of my time. But what could I do, really, if I put my energy into more positive and productive things.

I need to work harder. Hard sounds like such a negative term - because writing is hard for me, and it pulls me into spaces that I would rather avoid on some days. But it also comes easily, effortlessly, when I take the time, when I discipline myself to produce something - whether it be legible or not - every day. I have the desire (see previous post). Now all I need to do is refocus my energy and gain some discipline.

When I got home from my parents' on Sunday night, I googled my former classmate. While I am sure that I can be easily found on the internet, he was largely absent. But I did find a trace - his resume, posted online at some point. So far, his only cyber-imprint. He went to university. He got his TESOL and got the hell out of Dodge. He traveled halfway across the world to teach English, and spent the last ten years of his life in a different country. Hopefully, he found the happiness that eluded him in our strange, broken little town.

I remember. And I honour the person that he was, and the person he became.

10 comments:

Making Space said...

Thank you so much for this tribute to this man's life. And thank you for digging deep to write about your growing up years again...

Anonymous said...

I was a kid who was picked on, also, and I bear the guilt of persecuting or ignoring others in my pursuit to fit in or disappear. I was such a coward...

poet said...

i am sure that this was a hard post to write. and as i read it, i saw how you honoured him. and by doing that, you honour yourself, with your gift of writing. thank you for sharing this. *gentle hugs*

small town dyke said...

What a wonderful tribute. I am glad that it has you looking at your gifts. good luck with your writing, i enjoy all that I have read here.

Camlin said...

Dear Anonymous

Sometimes it takes an adult viewpoint to realize the mistakes we've made. And those experiences that molded us can throw our perspective out of whack for a lot longer than we think it should. I bet that you've grown into a caring and compassionate adult, and that you are working to make this world a better place in your own way. It took me a long time to realize that I was sometimes as cruel to some kids as others were to me. Don't feel guilty - just do what you can to make sure that the people in your life are loved and accepted, no matter who they are, what they look like, or who they love. That's the best way to amend the past.

Redbone210 said...

This is why I love reading your posts. You say what I feel alot of the time.

Zebsmom said...

Anna. Again your writing has moved me. It is good to be moved, to feel and to be forced to think. I don't do it enough. I am wondering who you are refering to in this posting. I am unaware of anyone passing recently that I may have gone to school with.

Kalisis Rising said...

Thank you for this. Such wise words and reminds me of so much of my childhood. I, too, was one of those kids who were the brunt of the jokes and never made friends with any one of my fellow compatriots. It was easier to suffer alone, I guess.

greg said...

This was beautifully written. I really felt the sadness and pain you both must have experienced all those years ago. It's unfortunate that you couldn't be there for each other but life as a kid is not very simple. Thank you for sharing this.

Puppy Pawz said...

very nice words for your friend