This is another very personal article. Like The Monkey Chased The Weasel. It is the article that I alluded to last week, which has literally shut down my article writing efforts for many weeks. I have started to encapsulate this thought more than a dozen times in more than a dozen different ways and failed until today.
I am not sure that this is all that I have to say on this subject, but it is all that I have to say right now. Hopefully, having gotten this off of my chest, you and I can all move on to better things. Or not. You never know.
I hope you enjoy.
I have a picture taken at the middle school Valentine's Day Dance, when I was in the sixth or seventh grade. In it, I am posing with my "date" Margaret. We are holding hands.
Margaret is wearing a white, satin-like formal dress. It clings to her developing frame well enough to reveal a slight pudginess, and the beginnings of what would become an incredible bosom. Her massive curls glow and she is standing with her back straight and she is smiling.
Beside her, I look like a lout. I am slouching and smirking. My hair has not been cut in months, my taupe trousers are wrinkled and my lavender (yes, lavender) polo shirt looks like it hasn't been washed in Ã¢â‚¬Â… ever. The coup de grace, however, is my jacket. It is a red windbreaker with black sleeves. It is a couple of sizes too large for me and does not match the rest of my outfit even remotely.
At first glance, one would think that Margaret and I had no business whatsoever going to a dance together, much less posing for a picture and holding hands. Yet a closer look reveals the truth. We are both wearing the largest spectacles ever seen on the faces of adolescents anywhere, ever. It's as if we'd shopped together at the Yoko Ono rack at Eyemasters and bought matching frames.
Our eyes look too large to fit inside of our heads, our noses are pinched and straining under the weight of our glass lenses and our cheeks, chins and ears look as if they'd grown over and around our spectacles the way a tree will sometimes absorb a chain fence.
In short, the main reason that she is smiling and I am smirking is that neither one of us had to this day ever imagined that we'd be holding hands with a member of the opposite sex. In fact, if you look real close, the smiles reveal a hint of disbelief at the barriers we've crossed thus far and perhaps terror at the thought of further hand holding or Ã¢â‚¬" god forbid Ã¢â‚¬" kissing. We are, in fact, geeks, and are at this dance together because neither one of us had anyone else with whom to go.
I remember very little about that dance, other than the taking of that picture. I do remember dancing with Margaret and being very aware of keeping a minimum of six inches between our bodies. This had less to do with the faculty chaperones' wishes than with my extreme awareness of the erection that was tenting my taupe trousers, and my belief that revealing this biological betrayal to Margaret would somehow bring about the ruin of us all.
Margaret and I were in the G/T (gifted/talented) program together and, like our fellow brainiacs, paired up because it was suggested that we do so. No one in our class had any notions of having a real relationship, nor any idea what would be involved should we desire to do so. My friends and I occasionally huddled over porn mags stolen from under our fathers' beds, and therefore had a pretty clear idea about what Slot A and Tab B were really for. Yet there was some kind of block preventing us from equating that carnal knowledge to the bodies of the girls with whom we ate lunch, studied and watched movies over the weekends. Perhaps we were too terrified of the possibilities to broach the subject.
I do not remember if Margaret and I ever kissed that night, nor even how the evening ended. Chances are that our dancing occupied a small portion of the evening and that the remainder involved sitting at a table on the periphery of the cafetorium floor and watching the far more interesting people do far more interesting things.
Like Betty and Bonnie. They fought tooth and nail for five full minutes over someone's suggestion that George, Bonnie's boyfriend, was boning Betty on the side. Hair was mussed, blood was drawn and dresses were torn, allowing a boob or two to swing free in the breeze before the math teacher, Mr. Schaffer (whom we called "Disco Dave" in honor of his polyester shirts with the massive, pointed collars) braved a flurry of Lee Press-On nails to separate the two contenders. That the G/T crowd talked about this fight for days reveals a great deal about how few events of interest involved any of us.
Something happened after that night. A lever had been moved and some kind of machine was gearing up, building momentum, for a dramatic shift in my attitude towards myself and the space I occupied. The dance was just one catalyst. My encounter with George himself was another.
I had loaned him a cassette tape and a few days later asked for it back. He reached into his locker, pulled out the tape and snapped it in half. George was twice my size, played football and dated girls. I was terrified of him. It showed. He laughed. Like the way Bobby Wade laughed when he leapt over the turnstile in the lunch line and casually kneed me in the groin on his way to grab a cup of french fries. It was a laugh of defiance. Of power. Of intimidation.
I began to realize that I invited these attacks. That my failure to defend myself or show any sign of aggression set me apart from the herd, signaling weakness to predators like Bobby and George. I had seen Karate Kid and I knew that one way to fight this kind tyranny was to literally fight it, but that was not my way. I was weak, and fat. It took me fifteen minutes to run the mile, sucking a Ventolin inhaler the whole way. To fight these boys was to invite pain, and that was just as terrifying to me as their taunting.
So I decided to change. I decided to appear like less of a target. Less of a stand-out. I stopped attending G/T meetings, took up with the headbanger crowd and forced my parents to buy me contact lenses. I managed to remain in the top percentages of my class, but my grades did begin a slow downward slide that continued through high school. One can only concentrate on so many things at once, and trying to look cool (or un-un-cool) is hard work. After a few months of careful attention to my outward appearance and manner, however, I had ceased to draw attention to myself. I became invisible.
What's remarkable is that Margaret and I rarely spoke after the Valentine's Day Dance, yet she had simultaneously undergone a similar transformation. Had we posed for a picture one year later, we'd have appeared like two completely different couples. In one, the class dorks. In the other, two unremarkable, if not slightly fashionable teenagers, trying to look cool. In other words: like normal kids.
We were still anything but. I was routinely diagnosed by my guidance counselor as borderline suicidal, I wrote stories faster than some students read them and amused myself by drawing satanic symbols and pictures of people having sex on the overhead projector when the teacher wasn't looking. Margaret, likewise had her emotional problems, but socially and sexually developed faster than any of the other G/T kids. Myself included. She eventually got into a drug crowd and dropped out of school to move in with a much older man, if I remember correctly. I know nothing about what happened to her after that.
We had both apparently taken a long, hard look at that picture of the two geeks holding hands at the Valentine's Dance and decided that that was not who we wanted to be. And we changed.
In my case, my changes led me to the theater, where my knack for self deception was treated as a gift. That is perhaps what saved me. I found a way to redirect my confusion and hatred of myself. A constructive outlet for my inner turmoil, if you will. I learned to harness the power of my thoughts and emotions to cause others to feel. This was not a small thing, and it led me to the rest of my life.
Yet the confusion and self-hatred never went away. It was diminished by success, by sex with girls and a discovery of self-worth, but the old fear never died. In my mind I was, am, still running away from that teen in the tenting taupe trousers. I am not a geek. I play video games - write about them even - but I am not a geek. I rarely leave the house if I can avoid it, but I am not a geek. More than half of my clothes are black, but I am not a geek. I've played Dungeons & Dragons, recently, on the Internet, but I am not a geek. I've built computers for a living, wrote about them and produced a television show about technology, but I am not a geek. I refuse that label. I must. Because I believe in some part of my mind that I am still, even as a grown man with a beautiful young girlfriend, a massive resume, strong arms, keen reflexes and a truck full of power tools, still a fat, weak, little boy too afraid of his own shadow to stand up for himself and too weak to do anything other than cry.
In other words, a geek. And that thought terrifies me more than anything. Nuclear war, running out of mayonnaise; anything.