Friday, February 15, 2008

Crybaby

The distance created by the passage of time and existential change allows me to say, with practically no ego involvement, that I was a golden child. There are a number of photographs of me in my early years, and I was so cute that it is almost Hitler-Jungen creepy: fair-skinned, hair so light that it typically earned the southernism "cotton-top," bright, attentive eyes and a winning smile. In one photo of my second grade class, even the unprejudiced eye is immediately drawn to the image of the towheaded kid with the ear-to-ear grin.

There aren't any photos of me crying, but I did cry a lot as a child. One telling tale is the one my mother tells of me learning to walk. I would crawl over to the screen door that led outside, pull myself up via the cross slats in the door, turn, take a step or two, fall down and then cry for a minute. Then I would crawl over to the door and begin again. My mom says that I did this for hours.

So we see the early origins of the sort of whiney obsessiveness that has served me so well over all these years.

"High strung" is the phrase that is used for such emotionality, at least in the case of a golden child, for whom everyone makes excuses. My family was tolerant, as were many other adults. My friends were somewhat less forgiving, for the obvious, (and I concede entirely) good reasons. Nevertheless, I got away with it for much longer than would ordinarily be the case in the social system in which I grew up, i.e. the mid-South in the 1950s.

The same can be said of my precocious intelligence. There are some sub-cultures and ethnic groups in these United States where intellect is revered and properly encouraged and guided, but Tennessee in the 1950s was not one of them. Nevertheless, I was again protected from this knowledge for quite a while, by family and accident, plus the simple fact that, however precocious, a young child is generally tolerated, even by the most intolerant of adults.

The hammer finally came down when I was eight, in the third grade, in the form of Mizz R. (not her real name, though I use the correct southern spelling of Mizz). Mizz R. was not well-educated, nor bright, nor particularly good with young children. However, this was Tennessee in the mid-50s, and the three jobs available to white women were secretary, nurse, and teacher. The growth industry was in elementary school teachers. During the peak of the Baby Boom the whole country was throwing up schools like crazy, then putting "portables" behind them to hold the overflow. Class sizes were in the mid-30s, so just keeping control of a class could be an issue.

Given this setup, you can see how it can be a real problem when you have a third-grader who knows more about English grammar and is quicker at arithmetic than his teacher.

One irony of it all was that I still thought that Authority was on my side, or at least on the side of the correct answer. I'm sure that, at the beginning, I thought that I was being helpful when I pointed out the errors that Mizz R. made in class. Truth to tell, if she'd had one whit of sense to her, she'd have taken me aside, explained to me that blurting out corrections in class was disruptive, and that she'd take it as a personal favor if I'd write down any errors I spotted and then slip them to her later, so she could correct the problem in the next class. I'd have gone for that. I'd have even made it "our little secret." It would have been easy to turn me into teacher's pet.

Instead, she was on my case all the damn time. And she really went after my "weakness" which is to say the fact that it was fairly easy to make me cry.

Intriguingly enough, the place where the weepiness really manifested was "playground," the elementary school precursor to "gym class." This meant sports of one sort or another, especially softball in the fall and spring. That was always a weak spot; I tended to cry if my side lost a game. So I was branded a "crybaby," by my teacher and fellow students.

I reflect on this a little and there's a hint of the weird to it, because sports is one of the few places in southern culture were crying after a defeat is acceptable. Even fans are allowed to cry if you've just lost "a big one." But no matter, there was the chink in my armor and Mizz R. slipped the knife in.

So I did what most of the other boys had already learned, from their fathers, or peers, or whomever. I learned to hold back the tears, to cover the reaction with other emotions, especially anger, and resentment. And, I suspect, this led back to more bickering in class, because now I was angry a lot, and I was not misdirecting my anger. No, I knew who the problem was, even if I didn't know all the whys and wherefores.

Some later teachers knew how to harness the little mutant that they'd been presented with. My fifth grade teacher had me working on science demonstration experiments after I'd finished all my other work. (One part of the fight with Mizz R. was over homework. I didn't like carrying books home; she thought that kids should have to do homework. So she kept piling on the work, I kept doing it while still at school, and the other kids suffered the consequences. Sorry guys. My bad). My sixth grade teacher simply let me read in class, so I read the entire World Book encyclopedia during the school term.

Other teachers were, like Mizz R., undereducated bullies, and I locked horns with plenty of them. I believe I held the record for being tossed out of Mr. R's (no relation) eighth grade class, but really, what can you say to someone who has just finished explaining to the class that satellites stay in orbit by balancing the gravitational forces between the Earth and Moon? I don't think I actually called him an idiot; I believe that I said, "That's idiotic."

Well, the interesting thing about all that was that it provided a bond between me and my fellow students. Sure, some of them resented the "brain" that was among them, and thought me full of myself and conceited (fair cop, that). But they knew that my fights with the teachers was their fight as well, and that my occasional victories, or even fights to the draw, gave them some covering fire for their own independent actions. There were times when I got thumbs up from the lower stratum, the shop guys, the "hoods" and "delinquents" as they were nicknamed. And more than one of them turned out to be a pretty decent guy, go figure, just somebody who, at one point or another in the past, had refused to knuckle under.

There was, of course, lasting damage, if one wished to call it that. Like so many men, I do not cry easily, even when it is appropriate to do so. I feel the lachrymatory reflex begin and a counter-reflex pops in, that choked up feeling that says, "No, not now. Hold it in. Don't show the weakness."

But I am fortunate. I know the methods of displacement, projection, identification, and the uses of fantasy and art. I am fairly good at this writing thing, and sometimes I can strike the right balance between distance and emotion. Sometimes I can pull my own strings and write something that can make myself cry.

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