The first day of 8th grade. 1983. That summer I’d been away for two weeks with my parents and little sister on a trip to Memphis TN, the first time I’d ever been farther away from home than a field trip to Ottowa once to see the Canadian capital. That was only about 100 miles. Memphis was many states away, and was an actual big city. I lived in a small town of around 1500 people. It was the first time I would see so many things that fascinated me. Such as:
- Large, busy interstate truck stops
- A man urinating on the side of a building in downtown Memphis in broad daylight
- The Mississippi River
- Giant beetles
At one point on the trip I was in a large Ryder truck with my father who was driving. We were caravanning down to Memphis with another family moving there. A giant bug, a beetle of some kind, a junebug maybe, appeared from nowhere, crawling up my leg, and I nearly jumped out of the moving truck to get away while my father subtly shamed me for being afraid of it. I can remember exactly what I was wearing. Blue running shorts with white piping at the edges, tall tube socks with RWB stripes, blue suede sneakers, and this light green shirt, not a tshirt, it was knit, and it fit snuggly, and the sleeves connected to the shoulders in a way unlike other shirts I had. In some ways it felt like a girls shirt to me and I didn’t like it because of that. But I wore it, looking back I think I just wore whatever my mom supplied me with. I was only beginning to think of a personal style.
Anyway I was back in school on my first day of 8th grade. I’d ridden the bus to school, and sat with this girl Chris, or Christine. Starting the previous year, Chris and I were in most of the same classes, and we sat next to each other in homeroom, and had our lockers next to each other because our last names were quite close in spelling. That we shared the same abbreviated first name was beside the point, but amusing nonetheless. I was attracted to her, and she was to me, I knew because her friends asked me if I liked her and told me that she liked me. That’s how it worked in Jr High as far as I knew. She wanted to be near me, to hold my hand, even to kiss me. To proclaim that we were boyfriend and girlfriend. All of which I also secretly wanted, but I was far too afraid to admit out loud to anyone. So I sat frozen next to her trying to figure out what to do about what I wanted to do, and what I could actually get myself to do. I remember her friend asking me one day why I won’t kiss her or hold her hand? You know she wants you to kiss her and hold her hand? I couldn’t understand why I both wanted to, but couldn’t make myself actually do it. I couldn’t understand this. Every morning that year I’d tell myself it was the morning I’d touch Christine. I’d get on the bus, sit next to her like we’d been doing daily, and I’d touch her hand. Hold her hand. Put my arm around her. Kiss her. I thought about all of these things every night, and yet every morning I would not do any of them. I certainly never told anyone about this internal struggle. I’d sit next to her, and I’d keep my distance. And I couldn’t explain to myself why I wasn’t seemingly in charge of my own actions. I was somehow frozen in fear next to her everyday.
I guess I write all of this as context for what I’ll describe next. To show what a scared, vulnerable, sheltered kid I was. I’d only recently been exposed to a wider world for the very first time. I was timid, and everything really scared me, sexuality especially.
So we rode the bus to school, we arrived, we all got off the bus and proceeded together into the school, a few hundred of us. The school itself is out in the country in the middle of farmland. Dairy mostly. School held 7th through 12th grades, about 450 kids from the surrounding towns and hamlets. My class was among the largest with close to 90 students. So we all are plodding into the school, day number one; again I can remember what I was wearing. A pair of brown corduroy Lee pants, and an oxford-type long sleeve shirt with a brown and grey small check pattern, and a denim vest. I liked it all when we bought them, my mom and I, but I hated them that day somehow. Especially the vest, ugh. I remember I was thinking about this as I walked into the school next to the girl I crushed on but was too afraid to touch. I was super uncomfortable. And that’s when I saw the kid with the mohawk.
I saw someone with a mohawk while we were in Memphis. They walked down a sunny street in front of store windows like everyone else there, except they had a big black spikey mowhawk. I believe that same day was when I saw the man pee on the building, and the day I was disappointed by the Mississippi River. It might have been the day we all went to Graceland only to discover it was closed. Well, I doubt we did all of that in one day, though that’s how I remember it. And the mohawk won the day. It was spectacular.
And now, there was a kid with a mohawk walking into school! It was tall and not at all slick or moussed-up looking like the person’s in Memphis, rather almost frizzy and dry. But thick and tall and the sides of his head were shaved to the skin. He also had on some boots, maybe combat boots, I more remember his stride. The way he walked in had an exaggerated confidence, like he knew what he would be facing. To say he stuck out like a sore thumb wouldn’t quite describe the scene. He stuck out like a lobster where a thumb ought to be. Now, I’d really like the rest of this story to be where I introduced myself to the person in my school with the mohawk and we become friends and through the friendship I learned about myself and grew. Or simply that I allowed myself to feel attracted to the person with the mohawk, that I acknowledged and accepted what I was feeling inside as some type of attraction to this boy. But of course that’s not what happened or I wouldn’t be writing this.
This was the year I was in metal shop class. Something I was curious about, but with quite a bit of anxiety due to the teacher and what a kind of brash, tough-guy reputation he carried. Among the boys he went by Chief. Chief was famous amongst the boys of the school for his many insulting catchphrases. Chowderhead was his favorite endearment. Everyone was a Chowderhead. His other famous quip, usually while shaking his head, Son, you could screw up a wet dream! Oh, the boys would roll, he just cracked them up. And I nervously laughed right along with them, wondering what he knew about wet dreams and if I was screwing them up somehow. I really did wanted to know about welding and making things with metal, but the whole place just scared me.
During his class, the first of the day, Chief made a point of commenting to everyone how I’d been his paperboy all summer long, which I was. I delivered papers to his entire neighborhood, and a good chunk of my whole town altogether. Within eyeshot of Chief’s house, there were three other houses I delivered to with girls who I was super hot and horny for. One was a teenage girl a couple years older than me, and sometimes I’d get to chat briefly with her if she was there, and everytime I’d leave more in love with her. A couple more houses down was a stop where there were two more girls, both gorgeous, both older than high school, and other than this stop on my paper route I’d never seen either of them before. I always took my time at their house hoping to catch glimpses of them. I can still remember their entry in my little paper route book: “Union St Girls”.
Then a couple more doors down, and closest to Chief’s house was a stop with a lady I only knew as Mrs. Brown. She was older yet, and I thought she was super, super hot. I looked forward to her house and the promise of seeing her in tight, skimpy, revealing things which is how she dressed. She was friendly and would invite me in as she fished around pockets and drawers for cash on Thursdays when I would collect, my eyes fixed on her round ass and boobs and all her movements about the room. Recently on a nice hot Thursday, she’d answered the door wearing nothing but a white towel. Hair wet, and a small, short white towel, held together with only her hand, and barely able to fully wrap around her glistening, tan and otherwise naked curvy figure. She zipped around the room, looking for cash, readjusting the towel that couldn’t be expected to do anything but excite me. I didn’t actually make it home before I stopped to masturbate that day. Now here we were, a few short weeks later, and after Chief tells everyone I’m his paperboy, he follows up by noting that I had a boner for his neighbor Mrs. Brown, and that I’d gotten a peep show from her recently. He went on, but the intense wave of feeling that came over me prevented me from hearing any more. I felt sick. I felt somehow like my privacy had been invaded, and like something vulnerable of mine had been brought to life and laughed at. I knew this feeling. It’s that feeling I always seemed to get when something I’d thought was private turned out not to be. In a small town and small school, that was often.
Shortly thereafter I excused myself to go to the bathroom and while walking down the hall I saw the kid with the mohawk as I approached a ‘T’ in the corridor. He came flying around the corner in front of me, running away toward the entrance to the school. And then came the boys, chasing him. Past the library, past the nurse, past the main office. It’s a small school, and you might think I’d know everyone, but I didn’t. I didn’t know these kids. They were older. I recognized the one with the mohawk as someone I’d see at the public pool in town. One of my friends called him Freddie the Hungarian, and I don’t know why, or if his name was Freddie. But Freddie the Hungarian slammed into the panic bar of the double glass doors, down at the end of the hall, slowing him down, and echoing loudly. That’s when the boys caught him. He made it out into the parking area in front of the main office, under the school name emblazoned on the stone facade for people to see as they drove past out into the vast rolling cow country. He made it that far and they tackled him to the ground and beat him. I went forward enough to look, wide-eyed, just long enough and then I split and went about my day. I tried my best to steer clear of trouble and the older tough boys.
I never saw Freddie’s mohawk again, though I saw many kids get beat up. Beat up for appearing different, or some other form of bullying. Cowardly people using shame and fear in an attempt to make themselves feel, what? Powerful? You’d think we’d outgrow it eventually. Or at least put some effort into calling it out for what it is; but at least while I was in school, bullying was a fact of life, like school lunch. It was always there, not many people liked it, but it was part of the system. A daily reminder to always play your cards very close to your vest, and do not stand out.