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In the Middle School Sleepover Dog House

Thursday, October 4, 2012 | 2 Comment(s)

Back in middle school, when i was 11 or 12 years old, I got invited to Jimmy O'Malley's sleep over birthday party.  This was incredible news for me.  Jimmy was a part of the group of kids that I desperately wanted to be friends with.  To me, they were the cool kids.  Now, they weren't the smoking and drinking delinquents that movies depict cool kids to be. but let's all take a second to remember that I was coming off a phase that had me looking like this:

Unfortunately, seeing as we are talking about the late 80's, i "updated" my style with JAMS, a variety of colored sweat pants, glasses that darkened in the sun and had strings attached which hung around my neck, Umbros, and the occasional Hypercolor t-shirt.  I refused to wear jeans.  Refused.  They were too restrictive.  So, my bar for being considered cool was considerable lower than John Hughes'.

And this was no regular sleepover party. this party was at Jimmy's dad's house.  Jimmy's parents were the first people i knew who got divorced.  Back in the late eighties divorce was talked about like herpes is today (in a hushed voice and only amongst adults).  Jimmy, therefore, was a "child of divorce" back when that was a thing instead of the ever-increasing majority.  Jimmy's dad was a dentist and he was now living in the apartment above his practice.  This is relevant because as part and parcel of Jimmy's dad's dental practice was a waiting room with a full arcade.  My childhood brain remembers this as a glowing Mecca of fun.  I mean it was a full room, in someones "house" (close enough!!!), with probably 15 to 20 full sized arcade stand-alone consoles.  This is what made Jimmy's party so special.  This unfathomable perk which Jimmy alone held the access key to, made me giddy with excitement when the invitation came.

And if we are being a bit more real, I was also giddy because i didn't necessarily expect an invite.  Sure I was in pretty constant contact with these kids, but while they were all personable and friendly with me one-on-one, as a group they would call me a tag-a-long and keep me on the outside looking in.  And, since I was 11 and still had the beautiful ability to see all people as intrinsically good, I spend days and nights trying to figure out what defect in myself i could fix in order to be more completely accepted by these particular peers.

The party night came, and i remember my mother dropping me off downstairs.  It was a pretty big group of boys, probably 10 to 15 kids.  I remember my survivalist brain saying that the large number was a good thing for me, it would cut down on the chances of unexpectedly sticking out in a negative way, while maximizing opportunities to enjoy the safety of fading into the background.  As the Nintendo power pads were pulled out (Jimmy had all the latest video game equipment), I figured that watching kids run feverish in place next to each other was going to end up amounting to me being 'in-the-know' come Monday.

"Oh did you hear about what happened at Jimmy's party?"
I would casually reply, "Hear about it ?!? I was THERE!"  Cue heroic music.

Unfortunately, I have never misread a situation quite so badly as i did that Saturday night.  It began in the game room.  I noticed, slowly at first, that the other kids were getting on me.  Small shit at first, little pokes and jabs.  But what was peculiar about the situation, and what set off my tiny internal alarm system, was the disproportionate number of insults slung at me and one other kid who held a similar social standing.  I was kept off the best games, generally playing solo matches instead of enjoying the 2 player camaraderie of competition with the others.  I wasn't saying anything stupid . . . I wasn't dropping touch football passes . . . . why were they picking on me now . . . .at a party!?!

The picture became clearer as we returned upstairs to the apartment proper.  Somehow, mysteriously, my shoes had ended up on the 1st floor roof.  As the distance between myself and my shoes became apparent, the panic began it's way up from my stomach, surging into the back of my throat.  The pressure behind my eyes built as my powerlessness was put on display.  I was powerless to be able to retrieve my shoes, and I was powerless to escape.  I mean, how big a loser are you if you call your parents to take you home early from the cool kid sleepover.  It would be social suicide.  So I stayed.

The only time i remember Jimmy's dad being around at all was to help get those shoes off the roof.  I don't believe he was there when they pulled my underwear out of the freezer (In fairness to my lack of memory-- i can't remember if it was the other picked-on-kid's underwear or mine that got frozen at that party.  That said, if it wasn't me during this party, it was me during a subsequent one).  By the end of the personal item vandalism stage of party fun, i couldn't escape the now chest-stabbing reality that my presence at this party was in lieu of a piƱata.  I was the entertainment.  Come pick on the skinny defenseless kid.

As we got ready for bed, the final part of the plan was set in motion.

Grover, our older pup, is my first pet.  Previous to that i had sporadic, and often frightening, experiences with dogs.  I was also allergic.  I didn't understand them, and i didn't have enough exposure to get over said fears.  jimmy had two golden retrievers.  and while i am sure that those dogs were huge cuddle-bears who wouldn't hurt a soul --  i was wary and visibly unnerved around the big dogs.

As the boys started getting tired and ready for bed, Jimmy came up to talk to me.  With the rest of the kids looking on, he told me i wasn't good enough to sleep with him and the rest of the party goers.  I was to sleep outside of the "sleeping room", by myself, in the living room.  With the dogs.

If you have ever had the pleasure of seeing an ice pick pierce thorough the layered muscles of the human heart, then you are familiar with the emotional reaction i still, to this day, remember experiencing.  On top of being ostracized like a leper, i additionally spent that night in absolute terror, sleeping alone, in the dark, with two dogs i didn't know.  It was my version of childhood hell.

Why am i telling you this story?  I am not telling it because I want you to feel sorry for me.  But I do want you to realize that the details of this story are still so firmly imbedded in my psyche 20 years later. The scars of this emotional abuse have shaped the person i am today.

There is this cultural fallacy that one day we wake up and, *taadaa*, we are older.  And the time that came before was our 'childhood'.  And just because a whole myriad of experiences happened to us when we were kids, now that we are grown-ups, any negative effects from our childhood are somehow mentally expunged, like our criminal records, at 18.

But that never happens.  We are all our 11-year-old self from time to time.  We are always the product of the ever compounding events of pain, triumph, elation and failure that our younger selves compile.  We are the pride of pushing through fear at a musical recital, as well as the despair of missing the shot as the buzzer goes off.  We are the child who feels incomplete following the death of a parent as well as the budding entrepreneur who made two grand shoveling local driveways.  Childhood is not a dead skin that can be shed as the season changes.  Childhood is the acorn that grows into an oak tree.  You can't remove the nut from the oak because it is inexorably connected to the impenetrable barked trunk of the mature tree. Sure, different people are faced with and react to the trials of grade school differently, but no one has ever gotten through childhood completely unscathed.  No one.

And while this is partially why this story is important, it's still not my point.

I got lucky.  And I know that making a defenseless kid sleep with the dogs and not with other human beings seems decidedly unlucky.  But, had this happened today, you can bet that there would be pictures of me sleeping with those dogs on Facebook, comments abounding.  Twit-pics of my shoes dangling on the tiled rooftop.  Someone would have surreptitiously videoed me crying, and that would find its way to the internet as well.  And on Monday, instead of just walking into school deeply scarred by the very people whom i craved acceptance from, I would walk into that terror being public knowledge across the school.  Momentum would have already begun (teenagers have the ability to feed on the weak like sharks smelling blood in the water) and i can only imagine that open season on little Matti could have commenced well into high school.

And had that happened, I'm not sure i would have come out of the experience a stronger person.  I mean.  There is no guarantee.  As it stands, i am deeply committed to the defense of those who cannot defend themselves.  i will always gravitate toward the uncool.  I never stay silent in the presence of emotional abuse.

But i got lucky.  Had cell phones been around, they might have cracked me.  They might have kept me underwater long enough to lose myself.  I may not have bounced back.   I may not have bounced at all.  Technology and the extinction of personal privacy make it scary to be a kid these days.  How are parents supposed to keep track of Facebook messages, tweets, instant messages, emails, tumblr, and video chats all simultaneously?  It is a daunting prospect.

October is Anti-Bullying month.  Let's not pretend this is an event geared only toward kids.  Let's not pretend that grown-ups don't pull the same power-play, mind-game, exclusivity bullshit.  And let's not pretend that the hate we project at home doesn't pour into our elementary and middle schools.   Tim didn't call me a kike in middle school because he looked the word up in the dictionary.  He called me a kike because his dad probably called my dad a kike at home, and Timmy diligently decided to pass that message along to me.  Thanks Tim.

Let's make an effort to be more empathetic.  Let's try to make each others' days better.  Do some little things.  It is not by accident that I have found myself living in a small, tight knit community where I know the people in my neighborhood.  And, most importantly, let's take a minute to think about the challenges that our children face growing up these days.  The lack of privacy.  The deception.  The ability to make a secret public with the click of a button.  As I've said before, if our politicians haven't been able to master the art of appropriate online behavior, how do we expect adolescents to use those tools responsibly.

We can't go back and defend our younger selves from the slings and arrows of our outrageous misfortune, but we can move forward with an effort to protect our youth from the heart-piercing icepicks of today.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for that. As another skinny, unpopular kid in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I completely relate. And I completely agree that letting go of that stuff is so hard. Even today I sometimes catch an expression of myself in the mirror and suddenly I'm that same lonely, lame kid who really just wanted to be liked by others. I spent an inordinate amount of time in my formative years saying to myself, "Why is life like this? I didn't ask to be born." Which is a shitty way to spend your formative years, I think we can all agree.

    I've made my peace with it, more or less, and that kid that I used to be. I couldn't imagine being a kid today, in an age of social media. My own completely unhappy and lame childhood is one of the reasons I'm not so hot on the idea of having kids myself — I couldn't imagine bringing someone into the world to face that on a daily basis.

    Anyway — thank you for the story, with all of its humor, honesty, and a great conclusion at the end. It is appreciated.

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