6. Children Will Listen
I’ve been to eleven different schools. Eleven. When I first counted it I figured I must have counted wrong. Eleven. Who goes to eleven different schools? And of course the first thing everyone thinks of when they first hear this? No, nobody in my family has ever been in the military, unless you consider my step-brother Clark’s membership in the christian army of god. It’s no wonder I’m a social basket case. After the fourth school, I’d pretty much given up on making friends.
I was hardly a social butterfly as my mother might say, well, knowing my mother she HAS said it. I had few friends, and lived in fear of losing them should they discover the real me. By the time I got to the fourth school it wasn’t worth the effort, I was convinced I couldn’t make friends. I was bruised enough that I felt I shouldn’t make friends, and I was scared enough that I didn’t make friends. Damaged people make damaged decisions. This is why I vowed Pete, William, and I wouldn’t leave the house we bought when William was 4, until he graduated from high school. William would have stable, long-term relationships until he went to college, from then on it was all on him.
To be fair, eleven schools includes preschool and cosmetology school.
I barely remember kindergarten. I remember I really liked my teacher, but when she embarrassed me in front of other students I would be so angry that I literally couldn’t see straight! My father took me to the eye doctor because my teacher told him I had a lazy eye. I think I had anger issues. I’m not sure when I got over them; most likely some time after I moved in with my mother. She was never as strict as she should have been, but she was never stricter than she needed to be.
I don’t seem to remember as much of my early years as others do. Things changed too quickly for me to reinforce the memories. There are a few things that seem to drift to the surface occasionally. I remember my father coming to get me when I fell out of a tree onto a sprinkler. I fell on my back, and I remember I couldn’t breath well enough to cry, until just about the time my father arrived and of course I was crying by then. My father could never stand a “crybaby”.
He took me to the doctor, no permanent damage. And all I can remember is how bad I felt for hurting myself. I can’t be sure it’s true, I was pretty young. I can only remember how angry he was that he had taken me to the doctor even though I was fine. It wasn’t until I started writing that I realized how weird that kind of story sounds. If my son had done that he would have had no trouble knowing how ecstatic I was that he wasn’t hurt, and why I needed him to be more careful in the future. As Stephen Sondheim famously said, children will listen.
In kindergarten, I remember, I lived for snack time. I would volunteer as often as possible to go get the snack. Oh what a magical trip! You got special permission to go to the cafeteria, you got out of class, and you got to bring the wagon of milk back from the wonderland that is a kitchen!
I flash to those days any time I smell slightly sour milk, or eat graham crackers.
And my strongest of all school memories: in kindergarten, we were told by the teachers never to go into the park next to the school without having an adult present. There were bad men there that would “do bad things to us”. It hurts to think that I knew at age 5 what they meant. I knew enough about the world and my place in it very early. I thought they were talking about people like me, and I didn’t really understand the difference for many years to come. Children will listen.
We moved at the end of that school year. I remember where we lived like it was yesterday; an apartment complex in Carmichael. It’s still there, but now it’s condos. It wasn’t a great area, but my friends and I terrorized the apartment grounds, wild and unattended, and always felt safe. We were bad children when left to our own devices, which I firmly believe is every child’s natural state.
My mother tells me my sisters and I lived with her for the last few weeks of that school year and then we flew to Arizona to live with my father who had moved for a job promotion. There’s a hole where the memories of staying with my mother should be. I find that odd, but no more odd than half the other crap that life threw at me as a child.
I don’t remember how I felt about the move to Arizona, either. The new school didn’t seem too bad I guess; I started in the first grade, so it wasn’t like I was the new kid in school that time. For the most part Webster Elementary was a typical 70’s era primary school. I think I got a pretty good education, but I probably would have almost anywhere in those days. I spent most of my time in the library during free times at school as I grew older. Over time they made up rules specifically for me, banning students from the library until a certain number of minutes after lunch started, no students in the library during the shorter late morning recess, and simply even resorted to telling me I had to go outside and play.
Libraries have always been my refuge. The books, my god, who can pass up all those books? And in elementary school, you’re not going to find anything too disturbing, violent, or overtly sexual, so you can enjoy everything without risk! I could have read through the entire library if they had let me. At times I would get burnt out on certain types of books, or feel like I had read everything I could in the library, so I would read the encyclopedia! The encyclopedia (and now Wikipedia) are, in my opinion, the god’s gift to humanity. Education is what makes us human, and even the laziest person on earth can browse wikipedia. I lose hours there. The library was my escape from the growing realization that kids were figuring out what I was.
Faggot is a horrible word to throw at a scared young boy, and you don’t ever really recover. So I hid, and I coped. This is where I discovered Judy Bloom, E. L. Konigsburg, and Madeleine L’Engle. Equally lucky for me, at around 4th grade I met Chris. He was the best friend I could ever have hoped for. I persuaded him to join the band when I learned he played trumpet just like me, and after a few weeks we were inseparable. I have to admit to a very large crush on Chris, but I never found out if it would have meant anything, and I had no intention of hurting our friendship by trying anything, and besides, we were only children. I still search for him on Facebook, but so far no luck.
When I found out half way through sixth grade that we were moving back to California, again I wasn’t sure how I felt. I was secretly thrilled that I would be moving in with my Nana. My father and step-mother were moving to Las Angeles, and according to them they weren’t sure what area would have decent schools. I didn’t mind that situation in the least! There was no one as loving and accepting of me as my Nana. I’m pretty sure I was her favorite. It didn’t hurt that I’m the youngest, I’m sure. But moving meant leaving Chris. He was quite literally the only friend I had had for the past three years. From my perspective at the time, the only person in my life who cared. He would let me cry when I had some perceived grievance against my father or step-mother. Childish stuff, but important to a lonely boy. And on some level I knew we would lose touch. I called him once, I don’t think he was allowed to call me because of long distance charges. Eventually I lost his phone number, and we haven’t spoken in 36 years, but I haven’t lost hope.
Antioch, where my Nana lived, was a completely foreign experience for me. It was a revelation! For some reason, all of the kids at the school I transferred into thought I was amazing. I was instantly popular. I assume in some way I was exotic. Antioch’s a pretty small town, interesting was good. I was in the band, I was in a dance group that was trying out for a talent competition (swear to god), and I had the most supportive home life of my entire 11 years. Until it all fell apart.
I don’t clearly remember the chain of events. I think I was staying with my mother over the easter break. She was taking me to the train station to go back to school from what I can piece together. But somehow we got a message that my Nana was sick. She was in the hospital, and there was no way she could take care of me any longer. She didn’t die, but she was not healthy for much longer. I don’t think I got to say goodbye to her, but in my heart I know we were good.
I ended up staying with my mother. I was awful to her those first few hours and days. I didn’t mean to be, but I was so sad that I wasn’t living with my Nana that I was practically inconsolable, I only very slowly realized how amazing it was going to be to be with my mother. It had just never occurred to me. Since I hadn’t been living with her up to this point, I figured she didn’t want me. Also, it didn’t help that my mother was used as a threat all through grade school: i.e. “If you’re not happy here I can always pack you up and send you to your mother’s. Is that what you want?” Actually, I couldn’t decide, yes/no? I decided that I probably didn’t if it was such a bad idea. Which led me to believe that that wasn’t what I wanted. In fact, however, when it happened, it was the best thing ever. My mother is an amazingly loving and supportive person, a little too much at times, but nobody can deny her obvious devotion to her family and friends. She helped a damaged little gay boy find himself, and though I didn’t do it very well, I like to think I succeeded eventually. Children will listen.
The school in Sacramento was odd. I don’t remember any school work. I think there were only a few weeks of school left, and the teacher didn’t see the point. I was always a straight A student, so it didn’t really matter in the long run. The kids were nice, but with less than two months of school left, we all figured why bother. I made a few friends, but I never saw them after those few months, so whatever. I decided friendships were too hard, so again, why bother.
Junior high school was so much different from anything I had known (and yes we moved, so I didn’t know anybody in the new school), that it wasn’t really bad that I didn’t know anyone. I made friends, I was in the band, I was starting to notice how cute the upper clansmen were. Gym was becoming torture, who’s idea was it to have naked young men parade around during adolescence in the locker room. Does nobody see how naturally erotic that is? Even straight boys are affected by it. Shit. I spent the first half of my day dreading gym, and the last half dreading the next day. I was obsessed with it. We only had communal showers for god’s sake! And then, to add insult to injury, the very hot, strangely older boy (you know the one, the one who started shaving in grade school, and now appeared to be in his twenties even though you’re in middle school), and the rather hot gym coach were extremely chummy! Nothing out of the ordinary, but he was obviously coaches favorite, and coach showered after our gym class! Thank god he had his own private shower, I don’t think it would have ended well for me.
I stayed at Howe Avenue Junior High School for the whole year, and half the next. Yes, half. Halfway through the year we moved to Novato. I have to admit I fell in love with the little town of Novato, but it didn’t quite fall in love with me. My mother and my oldest sister rented a condo together on the newest, and most expensive side of town. The condo WE lived in wasn’t expensive, that word could never have been used in conjunction with the much too stereotypically cheap landlord. Nevertheless, we were the poor people, on the rich side of town. The junior high school on that side of town, honest to god, they had a rich side of town junior high (Novato Junior High), and a poor(er) side of town junior high (Hill Junior High). Let me paint the picture. You arrive at Novato Junior High School (long since closed, it is now a youth activity center), and the first thing you notice is the beautiful redwood buildings. They are sighted perfectly, with the rolling Marin County hills set behind. A creek bisects the campus, with two picturesque bridges to either side of campus. It was the prettiest school I’d ever attended, unfortunately, the kids were all much better off than my family, and once again, there was only a month or two left of the school year. Nobody needed to go out of there way to befriend me, and I just didn’t have the energy to try. I remember at one point I stayed home sick for over two weeks. You would think this would be a problem, but there just wasn’t that much to do for my classes anyhow, as I said, I was already a straight A student, and they just didn’t seem to be too worried about my work, so everybody seemed to figure, meh.
It seems crazy that my mother would let me stay home for so long. Every morning she’d ask how I was feeling, I’d say my throat still hurt, and I would stay home. Maybe somebody brought my school work to me, but I don’t remember it.
When I was at school the library at Novato Junior High School is were I fell in love with Ray Bradbury, Heinlein, and a host of other science fiction authors. There were no rules barring me from the library, if I had a break, and the library was open, that’s where I would be. I haven’t been to a library in years, but I know if I stepped inside one, I would feel instantly at home. The slightly moldering pages, the dusty books on row after row of shelving, the Dewey decimal system, the card files for checked out books, it all is so fresh in my brain. Oh wow. That made me sound so old. Do they still have file cards at the library? Are there books?
Once again I had come to this school so late in the year that they didn’t even try to teach me anything. A few perfunctory projects, some worksheets, but really, since I had come with a completely different curriculum, there wasn’t much hope of integrating me. I think I made one or two friends here, but nobody I can even remember.
Over the summer we moved to an apartment in the middle of town. I liked it better there. The school that I transferred to, Hill Junior High School (closed in 2011), was a pretty average school. Academically it was in the middle of the spectrum, but I got to start fresh with the rest of the classes. The kids were nice enough, not snobby like other parts of town and I managed to make a few friends. At this point I didn’t try for good friends, just kids I could hang out with at lunch. I spent my after school time with comic books. That fantasy world was much easier to navigate. Of course we moved half way through the year from Novato to Vallejo. At this point I put my foot down. I refused to change school. I told my mother that if I had to go to school in Vallejo I would get on the bus in the morning, ride it to campus, and walk home. We worked something out.
I commuted with my mother’s boyfriend from Vallejo to Novato, and then I would hang out in the library (where else) until it closed, and then out in front until my mother picked me up around 5 or 5:30. I learned a lot of patience during that time. Somewhere around the last six weeks of school we moved again. Away from the boyfriend, quite a little story in itself.
I moved in with my sister so I could finish out the year. She lived in San Rafael so theoretically I could ride the bus. But in fact, the librarian at the school would pick me up in the morning to take me to school, and I would only ride the bus home. What would I have done without the library?
At the end of that year I moved to Benicia with my mother. I actually stayed in the same school all the way through the end of high school. I don’t think I would have gone to another school. Knowing me, I would have just taken the GED test and called it quits.