Different

Looking back on it, I don’t think there was a particular moment in time to which  I can point and say, “Here…here is where I learned that I was different from the other kids.”  But I did learn that I was different, and in some ways, I was never allowed to forget.

There was only one thing unusual about me when I entered kindergarten – I already knew how to read.  I don’t remember how I learned, exactly.  I think it was equal parts comic books, the old Book and Record things that I used to get as presents, and dumb luck.  But I came to kindergarten able to read most things put in front of me.  One of my uncles used to get me to show off by reading the ingredients on a cereal box.

Anyhoo, one of my earlier memories of school (besides the love of my tiny life and the sickly kid barfing, that sort of thing) is standing onstage during the Christmas program when I was in kindergarten, reading the scripture all Linus-style out of a big booklet one of the teachers had prepared with red and green construction paper and black magic marker.  “And there were in the same country shepherds…” (I think this is part of the reason I’ve never been afraid of public speaking.  I was put up there and led to do it before I learned that it was something to be nervous about.)  Because I had this one propensity over my classmates, I soon picked up that wonderful and dreaded label “gifted.”

I don’t remember being in meetings in the principal’s office.  I’m not sure I was ever present, but I have a vague impression that I was.  At least once.  After a series of those meetings I started going across the hall to the first grade classroom every day for reading.  Then I got bumped up to the next reading group.  Then the next one.  And I started spending more time across the hall.  Although I don’t remember this detail, my mother once told me that it just got to the point at which I was spending more time in the first grade classroom than in the kindergarten one.

And so, after more meetings, it was decided that in the following year I’d join my first-grade classmates full-time instead of my kindergarten ones.

Sometime during that year, my “different” perception was cemented.  In my own mind, and definitely in the minds of my classmates.  I had forgotten, but an offhand comment by my mother reminded me how my second-grade teacher encouraged the other kids to ride me for my faults – what I particularly remember is that my desk wasn’t neat to her satisfaction and so she told everyone to refer to me as “Messy Marvin” like Peter Billingsley in the old Hershey commercials.  (I’m tellin’ ya.  YouTube is a hell of an invention.)

More or less, it was all downhill from there.

Two years later, in fourth grade, I was one of a half-dozen or so kids from my school chosen to attend the gifted program, in a series of mobile units outside the junior high ten miles away, one day a week for fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh grades.  Although it never occurred to me at the time, in retrospect I agree with Philip Done who says that whatever is gained by sending the “gifted” kids off someplace is hardly worth the dozens of kids who get to stay behind knowing that they’re NOT “gifted.”  As elementary school dragged on, my life at school got gradually less tolerable, until by seventh grade I was regularly perusing kids’ books on ignoring people who made your life hell, and unsuccessfully attempting to implement that advice.

Instead, I pinned most of my hopes on making it to junior high and finally shedding the same group of kids that I’d seen day after day after day from that first moment I walked into the first grade classroom.  The first month of junior high punctured any illusion that it would be any better, so then I transferred that hope to high school.  Nope.  Not even my deliberate earning of a couple of D’s earned me anything but the derision of ye olde geek.  Then to college.  And then when my NoVa yuppie roommates didn’t like the fact that despite my hick accent I was pulling in a 3.9 without visibly studying (although I had the audacity to actually get up in time to eat breakfast and get to an 8am class every day), that illusion was shattered, too.

I remember waking up one night to the sound of one or two of said roommates having come home drunk, sitting in the common area outside my room, railing at high volume about how I was such a massive nerd.  The point was raised because it was 11:30 or so and I was in bed (see:  8am class, above) but it continued beyond that.  FAR beyond.  I think one or two of the others picked up the refrain, but more painful to me was the fact that the two guys I really considered my friends did NOT take up for me.  At all.

I sat there for probably an hour and a half or two hours listening to this drunken diatribe.  I finally got up, got dressed, and put on my shoes.  Not to leave, but because I was convinced that one more fucking word was going to leave me with no choice but to fight.  And if I was going to fight, I didn’t want to do it in bare feet.   At this point, the loudest antagonist was right outside my door.  It would be easy, I thought as I put my left hand on the latch.  The door opened to the inside, to my left.  I could open the door, drag his tipsy ass into my room, slam the door shut and lock it behind us, and beat the absolute fuck out of him before anyone could manage to get inside to stop me (was 98% sure roommate’s keys were in the room with me).

My hand stayed on the latch for a good solid 15 minutes.  I was at my breaking point – but that “one more word” never came.  As the diatribe wore down, I finally sat back down on my bed listening to the blood roar in my ears.  I needed an outlet…in some ways, I really needed to pound the fuck out of someone, but I couldn’t make myself do it without every possible justification.  I had that justification for a few minutes, but it slipped by.  As I was putting my shoes on.  And then it was gone, and anything I did wouldn’t have been second-degree beating-the-fuck, it would have been first-degree, premeditated, capital beating-the-fuck.  And I just didn’t want that.

Some time later, after the drunk had gone to his room to pass out, my roommate came in and found me, wide awake and fully dressed, still pulsating with rage.  I think I said something like “Thanks a lot for sticking up for me,” and for the life of me I can’t remember what he said in reply.

The truth is that now I realize I wouldn’t have been kicking that guy’s ass because he was an asshole who deserved it.  (Although that could have been applicable and I think any jury would have acquitted me on those grounds.)  I would have been kicking his ass out of sheer frustration, out of the desperation of having that hope that sustained me for a decade – “one day I’ll get to a place where people will understand and not be threatened by whatever level of intelligence I may or may not have” – being finally and utterly shit upon.

Luckily for me and my continued existence on THIS side of the padded rooms, the very next year I was paired up with a couple of guys who were every bit as lovably geeky as I was.  And having finally found My People, my self-image finally quit plummeting and leveled off.  Not too high, mind you, but not abyssal, either.

I still have a hard time of it.  Although I don’t have so much trouble online, face-to-face I’m still pretty hesitant to spout off on any number of topics to any degree like I’m capable or might like to.  I keep my thoughts largely to myself and to a very small group of people who have very slowly earned my trust – because one of my earliest and most repeated lessons was that the tallest blade of grass was just the first to meet the lawn mower.

Thirty years later, while I don’t necessarily believe it’s true, it still hasn’t been proven conclusively false.

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10 Responses

  1. While it’s true we’ve never met, I’ve been reading your blog for a few years now and not once have the words nerd, dork, geek, Melvin (or Marvin or whatever ‘dork names’ are) have EVER entered into my brain. But I know exactly what you went through, except from a girl’s perspective.

    See? Back to bold we are. Oh, Pammy, I am definitely a geek. Bigtime. I don’t look so dorky now because I put a lot of effort into it – I think I’ve vaguely touched on that at another point and if not, it’ll be a good idea for another time, but it has a lot to do with masculine self-image, a topic I’m sure you’d appreciate.

    Moved to Arkansas from Boston and was placed in advanced classes (even went to 3rd grade classes while I was still in 2nd… that sort of thing). Sounded like a little Kennedy amongst the land of slow talkers. Didn’t notice until middle school that I wasn’t “cool”. Was on the Quiz Bowl team in high school. My next door neighbor growing up told me not to talk to her at school where other people could see us because she was a cheerleader and in the high school sorority.

    Yeah, with that Boston->Arkansas move, I bet you got it even worse than me. Ouch. And I never actually had anybody tell me “don’t talk to me in public” because HOLY CRAP. That is wretched. I wonder if it’s just that that particular girl was so awful, or if it is somewhat of a reflection of that high school girl cattiness that isn’t exactly paralleled in guydom.

    I’ve been a dork/nerd/geek my entire life. I thought I’d accepted it because everyone in DC is a dork. It’s a city full of dorks with a daily contest to see who can be the dorkiest (thankfully I usually don’t win this contest). People still call me “Pam Clavin” (you know… as in the character Cliff Clavin from “Cheers”).

    “Pam Clavin.” Guffaw!

    Last year, i was talking to my 12 year-old nephew on the phone and decided to discuss the pros and cons of the use of the guillotine during the French Revolution and the axe chopping of Henry VIII. I like people who spout off bits of randomness… because I feel at home with those kinds of conversations. Don’t hesitate to share yourself… you’ll rob us of your true self.

    Heheh. Did you hear that, folks? Somebody told me not to hold back. ME. Mr. Thousand-Words-On-Nothing! 😀

    Seriously, I understand the sentiment expressed here, and I appreciate it. Thanks, Pam.

    • I’m gonna actually reply to this one so it shows up when people check their “My Comments” – looking at it now, this didn’t come across the way I wanted it to. In my defense, it was late in the day and I was in a hurry to finish the damned thing. Heh. It came out sounding like “Woe is me, my life sucks, has always sucked, will continue to suck.” That’s not how I wanted it to come across…although after I got done typing it I did feel pretty crappy, hence the downer at the end, I think. If I’d had the time to sit on it for a while I might have caught that in time. But now I’m just gonna leave it as-is.

      Honestly, I was just tired of all the fluff I’ve been posting lately and wanted to post something a little deeper and more personal. This topic came to mind, and I rode with it. I just didn’t sufficiently note that this describes me more at certain stage of my life than now – and to the extent that it does describe me in the present (which is still slightly true) it is MUCH more true of my in-person life than my online life. I think that’s because I feel more free to express myself with you people than my coworkers and/or the other people I may meet from time to time.

      Now back to my regularly scheduled responding-in-bold schtick (that I shamelessly stole from Allison or Sarah or somebody).

      • I didn’t see it as a woe is me thing. You were stating your facts. I was lucky (in an odd way) to get my ass handed to me early in life. By the third grade I’d stare back at the teacher (who clearly hated me) when she’d give me shit. I wasn’t being defiant (although opinions may vary). I was standing my ground when I felt wronged or didn’t seem to be getting the answer I was looking for or understood. Regarding her (or others) ‘opinion’ of my work, I’d take it, but when it seemed personal or I could quantify the correct answer, I was less likely to bend.

        The earlier anybody can learn this, the better. Good for you, man.

        Needless to say, I clapped a lot of erasers that year.

        YOU? NO!

        But it taught me to shut the fuck up and do the work. It felt as if I wasn’t going to get much help so I’d find a way to get what I wanted on my own.

        Also, STFU and doing the work is the best way to get by while being defiant.

        I do it as a joke but it’s the absolute truth, I wanted to make sure I knew what was always being said to me so I spent a summer (when I wasn’t playing ball) reading the dictionary. You weren’t going to sneak any of those ‘adult’ words past me!

        At this point, I think you’re the last person I’d try to slip an “adult” word past. You’d wing it back at me, followed by six of its closest friends.

  2. “I was one of a half-dozen or so kids from my school chosen to attend the gifted program, in a series of mobile units outside the junior high ten miles away…whatever is gained by sending the ‘gifted’ kids off someplace is hardly worth the dozens of kids who get to stay behind knowing that they’re NOT ‘gifted.'”

    I have these memories too. I just remember thinking it was WEIRD for them to send us outside of school, and wondering what the non-gifted kids were doing back in school, and betting it was a lot more fun. As an adult I really don’t get it; seems designed to sow discord and unhappiness everywhere.

    I will say that I never spent a second wondering what the other kids were doing. But a lot of our activities were “self-directed” which for me meant a lot of goofing around.

    “one day I’ll get to a place where people will understand and not be threatened by whatever level of intelligence I may or may not have”

    I wish you’d been able to attend a private college instead of a giant university. Believe me when I say I do NOT shit on your alma mater, because I consider it one of the finest schools in the country, but I think in a college setting rather than a U setting you would’ve had a better time of this.

    Ah. I see how you came to this, but in fact I would never shit on my alma mater. In the end, I WAS in fact matched with guys like me, who appreciated what I had to offer, geekiness and all. It was just a bad experience with a bad roommate match. Those dudes were assholes in general – I just think I threatened their self-image a little too much and they chose the most non-creative route possible to strike back – deride me as a nerd and a hick. (Last I heard, one of the two was in med school. Joy.)

    As for college vs. univ – Honestly, I considered that, but coming from such a small place as I did, I desperately WANTED that bigness. The speed of a non-rural place and the anonymity of the crowd. And I’m not sure a small college would have been that much different. A women’s college like yours, I can absolutely believe – but I don’t think you can surround yourself with guys aged…uh…with guys…and not have at least a handful of them behave this way. The trick is to avoid that handful, find another handful that likes you, and stick with them. As soon as I could choose my roommates instead of being stuck to them by lottery like my first year, that’s exactly what happened. *waves his orange-and-blue flag*

    Why does it bother you so much that you didn’t fit in then? And how does not fitting in then have any bearing whatsoever on whether you fit in now? Maybe you do – I mean, look at where you work, for fuck’s sake – and you’ve just been dragging around the baggage that you don’t all along.

    For the first – honestly? I really don’t know. That would probably be good fodder for a counselor when/if I decide to see one again. What bearing it has on what I do now? Mostly just my reticence around people that I don’t know fairly well. It takes an hour or two at the minimum before I really warm up around new people. It’s a self-protective thing that I’m not terribly proud of, but I do it instinctively.

    Except online, where I’m a shameless ham. Watch me play a drum solo on mah belleh!

    And anyway, fitting in is hella overrated. You can take that check to the bank and tell them I wrote it, and they’ll just nod and lead you to the vault. I’m a proponent of keeping yourself to yourself depending on where you are, but not at the cost of feeling rotten about yourself.

    Hee hee! I love that damned paragraph from top to bottom. Remind me that I owe you a big hug next time I see you.

    • I’m not asking what effect it has on what you do now. I’m asking what bearing it has. The shit that happened to the kid in that dorm fifteen years ago? How does it have any relevance at all to this man – the brilliant one with the beautiful, vibrant wife, the awesome kid, and the master’s degree, the one who writes this blog? How the hell could the things those young jerks said to that boy possibly matter to this man?

      Yeah. Chew on that.

      I cannot argue with your logic!

  3. Yeah, I had an experience like that. I knew how to read in by the time I started school. Came from my grandmother reading my sisters and I stories all the time and I getting a wild hair and wanted to try reading to her. Anyway, there wasn’t much reading that I recall in kindergarten, but in first grade was when the other kids would learn to read. Reading was my favorite part of the day, and often after that day’s story, I would read ahead in our reading book. One day, I exclaimed to my teacher that I could read this word that I figured out all by myself. She literally told me that I wasn’t supposed to be getting ahead of the other kids and that it would make them feel bad because they didn’t know what that word was. I think that was what set me up to be the failure I was in school. “Don’t get ahead of the other kids, even if you are better than them cause it won’t gain you any respect”. That’s the message I got.

    So, I know a little about where you’re coming from. Smart kids always get the shaft.

    Yep. Shades of Harrison Bergeron, they are. I definitely identified with that story as a kid.

  4. Geek? Sure, I can see that. It’s the smart thing I’m having trouble wrapping my head around!

    Fucker. 😀

    Seriously, as difficult as it was at the time/is still I’ve always taken it as ones perception which is often tied neatly into their own bundle of insecurity. The opinions of others, good or bad, hold little sway over me. Sure, if it’s someone I like and/or respect (those two aren’t always combined) I will listen. It’s not to say it ever changed my direction but I’d give it some thought.

    I guess I started coming to these conclusions very early in life. I found that the truth was often missed. I’d beat you in boxing but yet you’d call me a loser. Huh, that’s not what the permanent record says. My team would win and you’d call us all kinds of names on the way out (it was really ripe when I was the only white guy on a basketball team). If I disagreed with you on a subject I’d state my case calmly. If you lost your shit because I either ‘didn’t get’ you or didn’t kowtow to your beliefs it didn’t effect me. In the face of one situation there can be many opinions. Even when dead solid facts are being discussed.

    You had a healthier way of looking at the world, that’s for sure. I’m not sure where it came from – if a couple of fragments of memory don’t deceive me, that one second-grade teacher had something to do with it – but I gathered at some point that it wasn’t just the other kids, but the teachers also didn’t like it when I did too well. And they were the authority figures, weren’t they? What should I do? It’s a fucked up way to go through life. Particularly when you’re too young and stupid to know any better.

    I guess I took all that crap internally and didn’t think of the whole ‘different perception’ concept until I became a professional tennis player. I’d been fortunate to get some wisdom from some older pros who mostly had a similar refrain, “Your vocation is others avocation so no one will ever think you’re working.” Damn, if that wasn’t true. But the real turn came when folk after folk would say the same thing to me,

    “Don’t you ever smile?”

    That actually made me think. When I was working out I probably wasn’t a laugh riot. When I taught top students I probably wasn’t Mister Cuddles. But I knew I made my average students lessons fun so was always joking. I was also sure that, sometime the day I was asked that question, I most likely smiled.

    But, because of the shear amount of times that question was asked I gave it some thought. After that my response was always the same,

    “I’m at work. Do you smile all the time at work?”

    Excellent answer to that question.

    It’s all perception based on the reality, perception, and prejudices of others. I know how difficult it is to not allow those things to have a detrimental effect on your psyche but the bottom line is a line I’ve used since I was a kid,

    “Consider the source.”

    In the dorm situation that consideration was a drunken buffoon was rambling while wasting the money his parents had worked so hard to save to better his life.

    And there was you. Well rested, fully shod, with the ability to take the sod out with a single punch. But, you didn’t. Instead you chose to use something you’d cultivated over the preceding years (your intellect) that he’d find may have come in handy later in life.

    Sounds like a win to me.

    You know, in some ways I think restraining myself was a win – I didn’t give in to temptation, break my hand, get kicked out for murder, blah blah blah. But in other ways, like the infamous Jamie story, I sometimes wonder if that was an opportunity to stand up for myself that I passed up. One thing I’ve learned is to not let those opportunities pass by.

  5. The line between Geek and Dork is a thin one. But you cross between them easily.

    Yep, like speed-skating. Swish – I’m on this side! Swish – I’m on the other side!

    I think looking back at things like this can be relevant. The day I finally snap and wind up on a therapists sofa…they’ll lock me up.

    These past experiences are a part of what makes us what we are today…and still say a lot about us….or in this case…you.

    Definitely true. It’s one of those things that you look back on, say “That sucked, but if I had to go through that to be HERE, then I’ll take it.”

  6. This is another one of those times where I stop and am just amazed how similar our life experiences were. If you substitute a few place names, the part up to high school could have been taken directly from my memories.

    Yep. Scary, dude.

    We diverged when I went to boarding school. No matter what, there’s always a dorkier group somewhere, even in a school of 200 kids. I can say that I called the members of those groups friends, and I’m certainly not sorry for being different as a kid. Perhaps that’s because I found myself a bit younger than you did, and because I found myself being married and largely self reliant right after that.

    All I can say is THANK GOD I didn’t get married any younger. I got married a good 6-7 years BEFORE I found myself. I think doing it the other way around is what I’d recommend.

    For what it’s worth, who you were and what you’ve been through makes you everything that you are now…and gosh darn it, lots of us like you that way!

    Thanks, man. You’re welcome in the group hug anytime.

  7. Nice post TB. The nerds will inherit the world one day, forget the meek, they’ll get nada. I love people that spout random crap, speshly when I’ve only just met them and I have to refrain from hugging them. I’ve only just about to finish my B. of Info Management (I started my academic career late!(THINK I’m going to go for a Masters, but not sure yet )), and I keep telling all my friends with young (and teenage) kids, that the best thing they can do for their kids is read with them and get their arses to libraries. I think they are starting to get sick of it, but it’s so bloody important!! Keep telling them there’s a billion times less chance their kids will go to jail if they read for pleasure. I’m such a nerd. And I thank *insert divine entity* for it every day.

    Thanks, Ellie. Nerds unite! We invent all the coolest weapons of mass destruction anyhow!

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