Of Jocks and Fags
Memoir: 1976-80 (-present)
Picture a boy growing up in the same home from birth to the end of Junior High at age 15. The friends he made in first grade remain his friends, and his world, for the next nine years. It is an endless idyll, this childhood: everything and everyone is familiar, friendly, playful. Even school is bliss: he learns easily, his grades are high, he plays Little League Baseball, then junior high baseball, basketball, and football.
His teammates are his friends. They are and always have been teammates in life as well as sport: together they begin as shiny boys playing spaceship and avoiding girl-germs during elementary recess; the seasons roll by until, suddenly, their voices crack; they experience an unexpected stirring at their cores until puberty rips from its cocoon like some mad, winged demon and deranges them all; they read the troubling runes of new hair on each others’ bodies as they shower in the locker room after football practice, and they laugh and kid each other to beat back their fears.
The demon drives the boys to haunt the local mall in search of girls. The boy meets a girl from a distant suburb. They exchange phone numbers and spend the next months talking so late into the night that they usually fall asleep with the receivers next to their ears. They see each other at the mall on weekends only occasionally. It doesn’t matter: the conversations intoxicate them for months. Then he—or she, it doesn’t matter—meets someone else and life goes on. The break-up doesn’t hurt.
It doesn’t hurt because the boy, though he doesn’t realize it, is blessed. Yes, he is backing into the future with no view of the road ahead, and it’s unsettling. But his friends are doing the same, and they are all there for each other. The camaraderie steadies them, like soldiers joking in the trenches, waiting for orders from above that will end their momentary idyll .
That order comes when the boy’s father decides that it is in the boy’s best interests to move to a new community in order to go to an all-white school, rather than the desegregated, predominantly ‘black’ school he is currently zoned for. The boy dutifully packs his belongings—his comic books, his varsity jacket, his “Most Popular” award from junior high graduation—and unpacks them in his new bedroom in the suburbs.
The only person he knows in his new community is the girl from the mall. It has been years since they have spoken.
Summer football practice begins two weeks before he starts classes at his new school. He signs up. He doesn’t know a soul. But on the first day he sees the first girl-friend’s best friend and she is excited to hear that he is joining their school.
Football practice poses problems for him. He has never been a new kid. He has never had to introduce himself to others. He knows nothing about the rituals involved in gaining acceptance to a group. Somehow neither his parents nor his school equipped him for this. So he does nothing, expecting acceptance to just happen.
He doesn’t understand why an upperclassman walks by him before practice and throws such a powerful roundhouse punch to his shoulder that it immediately forms a knot. The boy has observed that the attacker, the fierce star line-backer on the team who always has a lower lip swollen with snuff, is very popular. And that this line-backer seems to be the best friend of the other team star, who is held in almost godlike esteem by all the players for his bodybuilder’s massive, well-sculpted frame, for his two State Championships in wrestling, and his two state records in football rushing yardage—all while a freshman and sophomore. This god is now only a junior, so he has not one but two years remaining at the school to add to his miraculous record. The boy, having come from his old school, which ends at junior high and has no high school, has never seen or known that high school boys could look so much like grown men. He still feels like a boy himself. He has no script for dealing with this new social breed, the high school upper-classman.
So when the god, muscles bulging and lip trollishly stuffed with tobacco (the disfiguration of the face from this was a new visual experience for the boy, and it triggered gene-deep fears) approaches him in the locker room and says with no smile so you’re the new guy, the boy says yes and offers his hand and gives his name. The god looks at the boy’s hand and back into the boy’s eyes and offers no hand in reply. The boy doesn’t understand what is happening but he begins to fathom that it is not good.
The god says I hear you know my girlfriend. The boy doesn’t like the god’s slow, deep, emotionless drawl. The boy says and who would that be. The god pierces him with a gaze strangely menacing and pronounces his girlfriend’s name. It is the name of the girl from the mall that the boy had known in sixth grade. The god gazes deeper into the boy’s eyes as he pauses for effect. Then he says, and I don’t like you, faggot, and walks away. The boy watches him go, and notices that all the rest of the team has stopped to watch this encounter. They all look at him with the same impassive expressions as the god. At that instant, inside the boy a new cocoon breaks and a new demon emerges. It will fill his high school years with one ceaseless chant: Escape. Escape. Escape.
The boy doesn’t quit the football team. Nor does the football team quit sucker-punching and insulting the boy—except for one player, a wrestler and student council member who the boy would learn many years later was gay. This player treats the boy kindly. But he cannot help the boy. The boy is too busy over the next two years with his daily strategizing for survival: how to pass from class to class without crossing the athletes’ turf in order to avoid the choruses of faggot they would hoot. How to disguise his depression and act normal when girls he likes try to get to know him. How to prove himself to the football coach he overhears at practice telling the one friendly teammate, who had nominated the boy for a position, you know that boy doesn’t want to play football, and saying this in the midst of a huddle of almost the entire team. How to care about geometry. How to care about his sudden decline to a C and D student. How to skip school. How to find the students who sell pot and quaaludes. Whether to fight the group of tens calling him faggot every day. How he can alter his face by maybe paying someone to pummel the prettiness out of it. How to find an adult who can help (he never does). How to express himself in art class with a block print of a boy hanging from a noose. For which he earns a B, and teacher feedback suggesting how he can improve his technique, and praise for the print’s title: Escape, Escape, Escape.
Where are the boy’s parents? They are working more hours than ever in his life because the economy has taken a downturn due to the OPEC oil embargo. Interest rates for home-buyers have skyrocketed, his father’s real-estate sales have dried up and threatened the family with foreclosure on and loss of their new home in a safe suburb with all white students. One day, however, the boy’s father seems to get wind of the boy’s troubles, and pulls him aside and offers his solution: we’ll just go up there together and whip those boys’ tails. This was a noble possibility in the time of Odysseus and his son, but the boy is not interested—there are dozens of them, and there are laws against such things too.
“Self-medication” and a few unpopular country-boy friends get the boy through the first two years at the school, and the god graduates. Maybe the final year will be easier.
It is, somewhat. The god’s devotees in his class are still around to carry on the tradition, but the boy is not so scared of them. One day he picks a fight with one of them in the cafeteria. After his suspension ends, the boy returns to school and the best friend of the guy he fought invites the boy to join the jocks at lunch. The jock means it. All of his group seconds the invitation. The boy realizes that this must have been the ritualistic key to acceptance from the start. But he hates these boys now, and their type. He declines that sick ceremony. He also decides against playing sports with these fools his senior year.
In the first month of his senior year the guidance counselor holds a transitional session with the boy. The counselor congratulates the boy for scoring the highest SAT score of all the boys in his class, but regrets the boy’s GPA is in the bottom third of the class. What does that matter, the boy says. Look at my SAT. The counselor explains that GPA is as important for scholarships and admissions into good schools. This is the first the boy has heard of the practical value of the GPA.
It doesn’t matter anyway. The demon has decided the boy’s future. As soon as he graduates, the boy will escape, escape, escape, on a one-way Greyhound bus to Los Angeles and never look back. He will never again live near his family and his friends from childhood.
He will he never again find it easy to like athletes and popular, group-oriented people. He will like the solitaries, the dreamers, the readers, the rebels. He will always, often unfairly, harbor a certain skepticism sometimes bordering on scorn for officials of all stripes and people desiring power. He will always be somewhat aloof and never assume goodwill in others. He will always be uncomfortable in groups, and feel that he never did learn the social skills that other people use to escape that discomfort. Often he will find himself wishing that he had.¹
But he will go on to study, to discover a home in literature and philosophy and history and art and religion and classical and jazz. He will make his way into college, despite his guidance counselor, and even graduate Phi Beta Kappa. He will go on to experiment with his life, to see lands torn by war, to see Michelangelo in Florence, Mahler in Prague. He will kiss Wilde’s tomb in Paris and lay a flower at the graves of Abelard and Heloise. He will play hacky-sack with saffron-robed novices in Laos, swim a species-bridging five-second spiral with four wild dolphins off the coast of New Zealand, hike bamboo forests in Thailand with a simple Buddhist guide who seemed the most perfected human being he’d ever met.
This boy from a respectably middle-class, all-white suburban high school in Tennessee will even go on to trust a few people, though awkwardly.
In his 38th year, he will meet a woman beautiful and intelligent and kind beyond his wildest expectations, and be unable to understand how she could agree the following year to marry someone like him. He will follow her career path and become, like her, a teacher.²
And he will come to understand, late one night in Spain while writing a story about a boy, that he owes it to that boy to always watch over the new student, and the one who doesn’t fit because he is too pretty or she is too large, and the one who doesn’t fight, and the one who doesn’t know how the present shapes the future. And he will try to help them learn what he was never taught.³
¹Funny, five years later he has found that comfort, that confidence, that pleasure in good society.
²The marriage ended in benevolent divorce; “irreconcilable difficulties” indeed.
³This was written years before the “My Suicidal High School Years: A Happy Ending Bullying Story” podcast post. It was my first attempt to write the story. I’d change the tone now.