I’ve always enjoyed Calvin and Hobbes. I think like Calvin and I aspire to act like Hobbes.
In reality many of my attitudes and beliefs about life are reflected in the dry and sarcastic humor of Bill Watterson’s comic. I collect Calvin and Hobbes comic books: the art is stimulating; the storytelling is inspired and the dialogue insightful. In just a few frames he depicts feelings and attitudes more concisely and accurately than many writers who blather on through an entire blog. Calvin has been gone from the newspaper for several years but when I am feeling cynical or somber I can turn to Watterson to find laughter and perspective.
Calvin’s school days resembles much of my school experience. I never liked school. Truthfully, I’m not sure school liked me. Like Calvin, I was socially and emotionally immature, often confused and unfortunately much too intelligent and creative for my own good.
There is a great Watterson strip where Calvin is sitting in the classroom being asked questions he doesn’t know the answer to, ridiculed by peers, disciplined by the principal and longingly pining to be outdoors. The last frame is Calvin imagining himself a fish out of water suffocating on the banks of the pond. The message of course is, while in school, he is a fish out of water both suffocating and drowning in turns.
That was me. When in school I felt I was constantly on the verge of drowning or suffocating. Every day in school was not about education or learning but rather it was about getting enough air while not being seen. Everything I did in school was about trying to survive.
Today I have perspective and maturity and can see the experience for what it was – hell. I was never able to conform or fit into the structured academic and social life of my school’s culture. Whether that was genetic, intellect, temperament or just bad timing I’m not really sure it matters. Entering a small cliquish community of teenagers there are only a handful of ways to break into the social groups – be a jock, be rich or set the school on fire.
In hindsight my best bet would have been to set the school ablaze.
The quickest way to being a middle school outcast is to stand out. For example, I won regional awards for my writing and poetry. Teachers and parents love that kind of recognition. Judges and teachers loved my writing and art. However, my newly-met peers used it as an excuse for a school year’s worth of humiliating taunting.
College poetry professors may get the starry-eyed girls but middle school poets get beat walking home from school.
The camping trip was one more moment of character building followed by six years of terror. Without dwelling on details it involved a dock, a fish-hook, and a dying sunfish. Oh yeah – and 6 boys trying to prove their manhood. I saw it as an opportunity to honor my father’s teaching that to kill something for jollies is wrong. Five of my six peers saw it as a lesson in leverage and physics.
Out of principle I left before the actual killing. I learned many valuable lessons from that experience. Having a reputation for doing the right thing apparently affects your ability to play spin the bottle, is worth at least two weeks worth of beatings on the way home from school and six years of harassment.
And for those who are curious – winning a ribbon at the school science fair for three consecutive years is also bad for your social standing. If you are looking to impress a cheerleader I do not recommend blowing through a funnel onto a Ping-Pong ball while explaining aerodynamics. However, if you are committed to this method I recommend a breath mint beforehand.
My parents often wondered why I was bitter, lonely and depressed. Of course, when I tried to talk to family and teachers in the hopes of finding some guidance I was told not to worry because high school was going to be different. They were right of course – in high school there were twice of many people for me to alienate.
Those things I was interested in – books, writing, science – were not cool in middle school. As such, by the time I reached high school – and had an opportunity to meet a whole new set of peers – I abandoned most of these interests and decided to play football simply in the hopes I could find a way to fit in with my peers.
It didn’t work.
It didn’t work for several reasons. The most obvious being I’d never played football before. Worse yet I didn’t like organized sports – the yelling, the rah-rah and the hypocrisy. Today I know I’m more of a Calvin-ball type personality – the only rule is there are no rules.
This is where principles get in the way again. After all, I knew the cheerleaders and the flag corps (although they didn’t know me because the thought of talking to one of them left me hyperventilating) and I knew what my peers in the locker room were saying about the same girls in the “get-laid brigade” and “whore corps”.
One of the first rules of locker room talk is to participate in the locker room talk. However, as this rule of locker room talk fell way below my number one rule of survival – arrive late, leave early – I successfully avoided participating. The downside of this rule of course is that it provides your peers plenty of time to hide your equipment.
Thankfully the coaches had my back. As such, when I arrived late to practice after rounding up my equipment I would run punishment sprints. This was easier than holding some of my peers accountable for good-natured hazing. After all, as we know, character isn’t really important if you can run or throw the ball. Ask Maurice Clarett or Michael Vick.
At school social events, such as proms and dances, I constantly felt inadequate. As if at any moment I was going to die. I would break into sweats and inevitably find myself trying not to be seen. The results were often mortifying – and in hindsight hilarious. As if, like Calvin, I was going to be called to the board on a day when I had a huge tear in my pants and was wearing rocket-ship underwear. I felt that way almost every moment of middle school and everyday of high school. Terror is hardly conducive to learning.
I joke of course. Terror taught me a lot – starting with trust no one, avoid crowded hallways because someone may be waiting to ambush you and slam you against a locker for fun and avoid any public transportation that involves bright yellow busses.
Of course, this wasn’t other people’s fault and not everyone was wrong. I was often an immature and undisciplined student. The worst offenders were often immature and undisciplined peers. My perceptions of course were warped as I gradually became obsessed with the idea of belonging.
Ironic considering the groups I wanted to belong to consisted of the same people who were doing the bullying. In hindsight, this would be funny if it weren’t both tragic and true. I simple wanted to be liked. Actually I simply wanted to stop being insulted, ignored or harassed. Calvin had the playground bully Moe. The five primary bullies in my life were much more committed and half as bright.
Because of my immaturity, coupled to a misplaced and naïve belief life should be fair I incorrectly perceived school – and my life in general – as karmic punishment for some crime against humanity in a previous life. I started to believe I was getting what I deserved. I think this was the result of repeatedly being “jumped” on the way home from school – it may have been brain damage.
Naturally, one might think this might make someone cynical and bitter. You’re right – I was. I was angry, cynical and bitter for a longtime. I even made poor choices for years after high school simply to prove something to a group of people who didn’t care. But that is a whole other story.
I went to two class reunions – the fifth and the tenth.
I spent the fifth reunion talking to the deaf boyfriend of a woman I barely knew from school. Not one person walked up to me and said hello or asked what I did. When I tried – and I did – my approach was met with monosyllabic responses.
I went to the tenth with a woman I graduated with after we reconnected at a random meeting at the Columbus Auto Show. Neither of us really wanted to go but we thought perhaps we were being close minded.
It was like high school all over – the same cliques, the same drunken conversations, the same hormones and the same harassment from the same knuckleheads. My date and I decided to do the Macarena with everyone else. Only after we got onto the dance floor did we realize it was the same cheerleaders – now aging – doing a routine for the same drunken dolts – also aging – who called these women whores and sluts back in the day.
Then I was insulted again for blocking the view by some drunken has-been jock who wanted to watch some drunken has-been cheerleader gyrating on the floor. We left and I’ve never been back.
Don’t misunderstand the vast majority of the people I graduated with are great people. I just never bothered to get to know them out of fear. Truthfully, though they never really got to know me either.
My wife, also an alum from the same high school, is flabbergasted at my lack of interest in attending reunions and class gatherings. When I explain that I spent every day for six years praying for it to be over so I could get away from that environment she is confused. Out of ignorance, she suggests I am exaggerating my experiences and lovingly attempts to minimize my humiliations. She doesn’t do it with maliciousness. Her experience in school was very different from mine. She graduated six years before me and she had a home and friends in school. She wrote for the newspaper, she was in the choir and she was in the top of her class. My senior year I took a class that allowed me to leave at 12:00 to go work a job. She loved school. I loved leaving school.
I imagine Calvin understands.