Monday, November 27, 2006

Where I'm Coming From

I’ll never forget my first day of Primary School and second day of High School. Primary is probably what Americans call Elementary but I’m not sure. Primary school was the first time I realized I was different from everybody else. High school was the first time I was reminded of that difference. Neither was a happy experience, in fact both fucked me up royally in wildly different ways. The first time I was ridiculed for being different was in spelling class when I said “Yes Miss”(we call all female teachers Miss, even the married ones) and the whole class shouted Yesssshhhh Misssssh. I don’t know, maybe I spent my earliest years in some parent made cocoon but I hadn’t the slightest idea that I spoke funny. But they turned funny into a double whammy—the best of puns, where how I spoke was both funny-ha-ha and funny-strange. It was something to ridicule in the innocently merciless way that children always ridicule. Like Jason Taylor in David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green I also studied words, dictionaries and my own way of speaking, anything to avoid a word with S in it. I guess that increased my vocabulary a thousand fold but it also made me sound like an idiot, an eight year old stumbling over words so as not to roll the dreaded S off my tongue. I even tried pronouncing it as a Z.

They called me Sissy and other names as well that my subconscious has mercifully kept to himself, but here is the great thing about kids. I was a sissy, but I was their sissy. Once something happened, I can’t remember what, but my school uniform was ruined (might have been a fight, man did I love to fight) and the entire class marched to my home to explain to my mom that it wasn’t my fault. In some way, being the resident strange kid made me a weird kind of popular. I had no reason to believe that this would not continue. But then came High School. And all boys’ High School. Wolmers Boys School.

If Primary school made me different, High School made me so sorry I was ever born that I spent five years thinking of ways to fix that mistake. September 1981. It seemed that I couldn’t open my mouth for two seconds without somebody calling a girl’s name or an animal’s name or just simply battyman or faggot. All because my S sounded like SH (I did not get over this complex until I heard Sean Connery speak the same way). My second day of school I was going home with my brother, the coolest kid in Second Form (Grade 8) and his just as cool friends. They were only 11 and 12 but I thought I was in the company of men, the coolest men I’ve ever seen, and they were even talking about girls and sex already! Christopher M________ saw me leaving and shouted “Angela!” Like an idiot I said, “I wonder who he’s talking to?” to which my brother said “It’s you he’s talking to,” in a tone I heard from my father once talking to my mother because I said I liked disco (that was back in 1977, people) and she seemed to think I was headed for ballet class.

In less than three days I was rejected by my own class and had embarrassed my brother. But I was a good student and needed to learn my lesson only once. I stopped acknowledging my brother as such and never did it again for the rest of our school lives. To this day most of the boys who know us or of us have no idea that we are related. I volunteered to step out of his cool life. I decided, perhaps without knowing that the only way to stop fucking up my brother’s reputation was to disappear, so that’s what I did. I left for school at a different time. I went to a different bus stop. I took a bus that went in a different direction. We had no interests in common, no sports, no school clubs, no arts, no friends. We maintained our distance so well that even when my brother had to repeat a year and we ended up in the same class, people still had no idea that we were related. Some of his own friends made it their duty to humiliate me on a daily basis. I just figured that since leaving high school was not an option that maybe enduring this shit was just something I was supposed to do.

I love my high school and I still support it, but with the exception of two remarkable years in 1982 and 83, it was the most colossally dismal experience of my life. I think the only reason I’m still here was my cowardice about suicide. Back when the first wave of misinformation came out about Columbine, I remember hearing that these two boys were picked on mercilessly in high school because they were not cool or liked (This is totally untrue by the way, they were not nerds or geeks), there was a part of me that felt the way Eminem felt in the verse he cut from the Marshall Mathers LP. I too have been that angry and that hurt. There were days when I don’t know what would have happened if I had a gun. And my mom was a cop. I know there are people who think, “So you had it rough in high school and nobody liked you, nyah-nyah-nya-nyah-nyah,” (I think that’s what my friend, Bill said). I know there are people who think that people like me should just grow up and put the past in the past. But if you have never been through what we’ve been through, rejected at the exact age when you crave acceptance then you really don’t know what being a boy or a girl interrupted feels like. Ten years later you will channel that void into restless ambition and you will do well, just as I did. And it will mean nothing because you’re using success as revenge. I sometimes wonder if I were to walk up to Bill Gates and whisper, “those kids in school STILL hate you,” what would happen. All I know is that to be rejected by your peers at that point when affirmation means everything leaves a void in you that is replaced by something, maybe a chip on one’s shoulder, maybe the emotional life of a 12 year old, maybe a lifelong obsession with Science Fiction, comics and porn. Who knows.

Kurt H__________, one of my brother’s friends started coming to this church I joined a few years ago. He was clearly going through some very heavy shit and as a church brother, moreover a church brother who knew him maybe it was my duty to encourage the man. But here is something funny about nerdhood. To be tormented by people is not half as bad as to be forgotten by them. Because there really is a link between abuser and abused, a relationship in its own weird way that leaves you thinking that considering all the shit this son of a bitch put me through he could have at least the common decency to remember my name. Because I will never forget his. It weird being a nerd because you find so few reasons to feel special that you’ll settle for being special in torment and when you find out that you were a mere run-on sentence in your tormentor’s life it feels worse than the abuse. Anyway, this guy was clearly going through some heavy stuff or he wouldn’t have been in church. I’m not going to speculate what the heavy stuff was, but maybe he needed somebody to talk to. That was not my thought but the friend beside me, who also went to the same school. He kept prodding me to talk to him, to remind him who I was as if that were an icebreaker. All I could think of was him humiliating me again and it would hurt like I was fourteen. You have to understand Kurt H_________. Loads of boys humiliated me during high school but Kurt H________ went one step further, by befriending me enough to help him cheat on his art exam then publicly humiliating me right afterwards. I looked at this guy in church and felt such a monstrous hatred for him that I was pissed off at Jesus for letting him in here. I thought that if this was the kind of asshole who was going to make it to heaven then I wanted nothing to do with that goddamned place.

Maybe it was the thought of never hearing Purple Rain again or reading another issue of X-men that kept me from killing myself. Maybe it was that we had a rather loud car and somebody would have heard the engine before the carbon monoxide got to me. Or maybe I was just too chickenshit to do anything. The truth is something else. Something Todd Solondz nailed in that movie, Welcome to the Dollhouse. Like the brutalized heroine in that movie I think what kept me alive was the stubborn determination that some way, somehow, somewhere, sometime things just had to get better than this. It just had to.

In 1986 I decided that I had to do something. By the end of 1985 I was so unpopular that I even earned a sort of respect because nobody could understand how I could stomach so much relentless abuse, to even laugh along with it. It seemed that I was one of the top four targets of ridicule in my year; something had reached critical mass. There was just no way I could continue like this, hated because I like art and lit and history, didn’t like football (soccer) and walked and talked funny. I realized that more than everything, it must have been my screwed up way of speaking that made people hate me.

So in the summer of 1987 I stopped speaking.