Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Tyranny of Fourteen

I used to love to swim as a kid. Love it. I was afraid of learning at first, but once I got past the fear of having my head underwater (about two weeks into lessons the summer after I turned 6), I immediately flip-flopped over to the other extreme. Instead of swimming "properly," like we were being taught, all I wanted to do was swim underwater, frog-kicking and blowing a steady stream of bubbles out my nose.

The Eutaw municipal pool was up the street from my house, so I could walk there starting in June when it opened, stay all day at the pool with my friends, having fun and engaging in general mayhem, and then walk home, barefoot, my towel slung over my shoulder, tired, sunburned, smelling of chlorine. Marco Polo matches lasted hours, or so it seemed at the time. Chlorinated water would be in my ears pretty much permanently from the crack of June through the last, bitter days of August before school opened and the pool closed for the last time that year.

I guess I've always been a little chubby, but as a child—or at least in the 70's as a child—it wasn't a big deal. We ran around all day, rode bikes, swam, climbed trees...all the normal things kids do when they're being kids. But eventually, you get older and that kid-stuff isn't so much fun any more. It actually hurts to fall out of a tree or off a trampoline. It's boring to swim all day long or ride bikes over streets you've seen every day for the entirety of your young lives. And homework gets harder, and social lives get more complicated...

...and at some point in there, it suddenly starts to really matter what you look like. What other people think of you. What they say about you behind your back.

I was a naïve child. I can admit that. I was twelve before I had the first inkling of what sex was, and that everyone in my class was changing around me. I was changing, too, but I hadn't really noticed. My voice changed early, and it went two octaves down in one weekend and stayed there. My skin got oily, and I was the first boy in my class with greasy hair and pimples. So I was changing, but it was slow enough that I didn't really notice.

But they had. The other kids. I was now not just chubby. I was fat. Not obese, but fat. And they never, ever let me forget it. During PE, I was literally the last one chosen, no matter what the activity was. It would always come down to me and Willis. Willis had the distinction of being the shortest person in class. At an age when most of the girls were six inches taller than the boys, most of them were a foot taller than him, or more. So it would come down to a choice between whether the team had to take the fat kid or the short kid. The fat kid was usually the last chosen, and, kids being kids, no one on the team felt the slightest twinge of guilt that I heard the remarks they made. "Oh, God! We'll never win with him on the team! He can't run, he can't hit...Hey, Gary, play right field. That should keep him out of trouble. Kel, catch the fucking ball if it looks like it's going into right field."

So, really, what was my motivation, again? I wasn't being taught anything; I was being purposefully excluded from everything. In baseball, I could hit the ball, but never right where they wanted me to. I couldn't run fast enough to catch a pop-fly. I couldn't throw hard enough to get it all the way to home. In basketball, I had no clue what the rules were—I still don't. From my point of view, the goal of the game was to elbow me and get me off the court, preferably in the first two or three minutes. But it was always my foul, not theirs. I never did and still don't understand that. In soccer, I was completely hopeless as a goalie because I couldn't jump to catch the ball, and refused to hurt myself for a game. I never quite understood any of the positions on the team, so they always put me back by the goal with the other "weird kids" and we talked until the action came back our way. All I learned from soccer was not to get in between two players who both wanted the ball or you'd get kicked hard on the shin. Track? Forget it; not fast enough. Football? No way; not willing to get hit. Golf? Not good enough. Tennis? Hopeless. The only thing I was ever any good at was warball, which is a version of dodgeball played with two balls initially, and then that increases as more and more people get knocked "out," so that the people who are left are constantly having to dodge balls from every direction and thrown at random times. What was my secret? The guys delighted in trying to hit me really hard, so I learned to dodge really well. I was almost always one of the last people in the inner circle, although I never actually won. The coaches never bothered to actually teach me any of the stuff I didn't know. I was never going to be on their teams, so I was beneath their contempt. I was "the smart kid." It was clear that athletics wasn't my forté.

Is it any wonder that I hated sports then and today? As an only child, I never had siblings to play any of those sports with, and most of my friends were already athletic and didn't want to play those games with me because I sucked. And I just couldn't ask them to explain the rules, because it seemed to me that they had all just picked it up by osmosis, and so I must be an idiot or something.

At the time, I wasn't aware of withdrawing, but when I look back on it, now, I started to pull a little shell around me. I was smart, which didn't help. I consistently got A's and won spelling bees and science fairs and made high scores on tests like the PSAT/NMSQT or the NEDT. I was never without a book, and it was usually science fiction or fantasy, with pictures of spaceships or dragons on the front cover.

Then in the 7th grade, it started to really hurt during PE. My legs would just ache. Naturally, no one believed me. They just thought I was trying to get out of playing whatever sport it was. (Gee, I can't imagine why I'd want to get out of being ridiculed, being laughed at, and being the person the last team was forced to take.) But my mother believed me and took me to the doctor. "Osgood Schlatter," said the doctor. "Your bones are growing too fast for your tendons and muscles to keep up. That's why it hurts when you run, jump, or bend excessively." He prescribed several weeks of abstinence from physical activity.

It was as though the warden signed a reprieve. The coach was disgusted, but let it go. I knew the other kids made fun of me as I sat reading during PE, and often they yelled some really awful things at me, but I ignored them. The shell got tighter. My homeroom teacher, seeing the predicament, took pity on me and asked me to be her assistant for that period and help out in her classroom, which I gratefully did. It got me out of PE and away from the taunting.

Well, this went on for a lot longer than the doctor actually recommended. And after 6 weeks or so, I got an "I" in PE. The worst grade I had ever received. The coach told my parents what had been going on and I was in deep trouble. I was back in PE with a vengeance. Only now it was worse. The coach was awful, my classmates were relentless, and as an added bonus, the upper classes were now in on the taunting. I remember walking through the gym once with my bag slung over one shoulder and suddenly there was this enormous BANG! right behind me. I jumped half out of my skin and probably yelped in fear. A football had hit the wall inches behind my head, leaving a hole in the wood paneling. A high school junior had thrown it at a 13-year-old. If it had hit me in the head...well, I don't know what it would have done, but I'm sure it wouldn't have been pretty.

About this time, the kids noticed that my name—Gary—could be perverted into "GAY-ry," and took great glee in shouting it across the school to try to get me to acknowledge it, and thereby give it power. I never once answered anyone unless they pronounced my name correctly. I was the only kid in school who never had a nickname; I simply refused to accept anything they picked, because everything was cruel. Just ask "Limp" or "FrankenMoon" or "Skeeter-Bites."

By the way, have I mentioned that my school had a total of 150 kids in it? From Kindergarten through 12th grade? My class was never much more than 20 in number. We had all the same cliques the big schools did, except smaller. I was in the weirdo clique. Population: me, my cousin/friend/classmate Kathy, and a girl named Belinda, who it turned out later was a drug addict. Fun, huh? But back to the story.

My ostracism from pretty much everything was complete. Not that my attitude helped. I was either oblivious to the effect my constantly being the one in class who had the answers had, or I didnt care. I was the butt of every practical joke, every stupid remark, every insult, so I learned to feign disinterest and to pretend that I didn't hear any of it.

One effect this had was that after the summer before I entered the seventh grade—this would have been 1978, I believe—I never went to the pool again. I knew I wasn't wanted. I was picked on constantly—even by a parent or two—and not just about my weight. Anything they found was fair game. My hair wasn't cut right or was too greasy, I didn't walk right, I didn't carry my books right, my bathing suit wasn't right.... That last swimming summer I made a new friend who was a new kid in our class. Steve and I struck up a friendship that lasted exactly as long as the pool was open. By the second week at school, he was exactly like the rest of them. And then couldn't understand why I didn't want to hang around him.

I have never gone to a pool since then. Never. I didn't realize that until the other night. Swimming was once my favorite thing to do. It was something I was fairly good at. In the water, I was somewhat graceful. All that mattered was making to the other side of the pool the fastest, and if I did it underwater instead of on top, that was fine.

I declined to go on our senior trip because it was to the beach, and I made some lame excuse, but the real one was that I didn't want to be the butt of every joke yet again. I turned down invitations to class parties at the houses of some of my classmates that had private pools (and this was in the 70s when that was actually not commonplace). Same reason.

As time went on, I came out of my shell a little, some of the other kids grew up and started treating me like a human again, and I was able to be a little more accepted into the class. I helped design the decorations for the senior prom. I played the lead in the senior play. I had a date for the prom. I went to the after-play party at Allison's house. I went to the after-prom breakfast at Lisa's house. And finally, we graduated and went our separate ways. But yet....

I have never gone back to a pool again. Never. All through college, there was an olympic-sized pool open and free for any student to use. And I longed to use it. But I couldn't make myself go. Now my excuse was that I was "too embarrased" for anyone to see me in my bathing suit. My fat was my solace, my shield, my all-encompassing excuse. "Want to come with us to Gulf Shores for the weekend?" "No, I...don't like beaches, that much. And I sunburn too easily." I love the beach. I burn once and then tan in spite of my red-hair gene.

I even got so far as going to that Olympic-sized pool once. Late at night when no one else was supposed to be there. I got there, and there was a small group of guys there who were apparently on the swim team. I took one look at them, their tight, flat stomachs and tanned skin, and beat a hasty retreat before ever changing into my suit so none of them would have to see my pasty-white flab and to keep them from having an excuse to laugh at me.

After I graduated from college and got a job, my first boss once invited our whole department over to his house for a pool party. I was the only one who declined, citing some lame excuse that I was going to be out of town or some such thing. I wasn't. I sat at home, wishing I could go, but hating the thought of being seen in my bathing suit. One of my co-workers—who is to this day one of my best friends—caught on to what was going on and tried to reassure me, but he's a rail. So was our boss and the others in the department. Once again, I was the "fat kid." No one was making fun of me or playing cruel jokes on me or talking about me in front of me anymore. And they genuinely wanted me to come. But once you've been the fat kid that no one likes, it's very, very hard to overcome it. And I'm sorry to inform the general public, but one person saying "Oh, come on, no one cares" is a lie. Everyone cares. If you're fat, the entire fucking world feels like it's their business to care.

I may be 43 years old; I may have a decent job where I'm respected and valued; I may have a group of good friends who like me for who I am and don't care what I look like; I may appear to be well-adjusted and happy and at peace with my size. But...deep down inside, there's a 14-year-old who has been beaten down by years of constant ridicule and taunting and just downright obnoxious cruelty. And he would desperately like to go swimming, but is terrified of looking like a freak when people see him in his trunks.

The little kids too honest to know not to stare who then pull on Mommy's sleeve, to which she replies, "That's what happens if you eat too much sugar!" The adults who probably have their own 14-year-old inner self who see the vulnerability of mine and somehow know exactly what buttons to push. "Hey, big-guy! When's it due?" <insert stomach pat followed by uproarious laughter here>. The store clerks who say, "I'm sorry, sir, but we don't have anything in your size," before you ever start shopping. The people who roll their eyes when you buy a diet drink, because it's obvious that you drink pure gravy at home, or you wouldn't be that size. The thousand little ways every single day of your life that people have of letting you know that you're fat, as though you weren't aware of it.

Otters are one of my favorite animals. I can watch them for hours. How I long to be able to just...let go and have that much fun, again, swimming and splashing and cavorting in the water just for the sheer joy of it.

That inner 14-year-old has woven a tight shell around himself to keep from ever being hurt again. And the only one doing the hurting is him. Because he has given up a very special part of himself. The part that didn't care what he looked like and just swam because it was fun.

I want to get that inner kid to let go already. It's been 30 years. It's time to move on. I want to be the otter, not just watch them. I want to enjoy the thing I once enjoyed more than anything else. I want to enjoy exercise rather than having to do something that's boring.

Thirty years is long enough to be fourteen, don't you think?