Are grown men more confident than their twelve year old selves?
My boyhood was spent in observation of others, a tourist being gradually led through a series of museum exhibitions. I heard tales of examining the undersides of logs, the origins of creeks and the tops of trees. Classmates spoke about weekends spent building forts for fighting, rockets for launching, go-carts for racing, rafts for floating and hide-outs for hiding. I saw the games move closer to the groups of girls – or did the groups of girls move closer to the boys playing the games?
Sometimes I joined in the activities, but soon became convinced I was a ghost that had perished long ago on the school grounds, cursed to roam among the other students. I was a spectator to their development, and watched as arguments on the playground changed from the size of end zones, to the size of breasts, and discussions changed from who had what baseball card to who had what Valentine’s Day card.
My information on the opposite sex came sparingly, usually from overheard conversations, stolen magazines and bathroom walls. I listened as wise freshmen held court, chain smoking by chain-link fencing, pontificating on “doing sex,” swearing expert knowledge and definitive technique. I cringed as certain classmates unfamiliar with such subjects were ridiculed for their ignorance, praying I’d remain unnoticed. For years I believed the belly button played a vital role in the act.
During that time, absent physical love from a female I sought fraternal love from my male peers. I was desperate to be a part of a brotherhood, a group, a clique. I longed to be cool.
Ever since I had first heard what cool was, saw it epitomized in a fourth-grade Trapper Keeper, witnessed it striding in stone washed jeans across a strobe-lit floor, smelled and felt it in overpriced clothing stores in overwhelming malls in overcrowded suburbs, I knew I wanted it, but had no idea how to attain it.
For boys, being identified as cool at that age was a fickle title, bestowed by despots who might be overthrown at any moment. Sure, some had the instant bump in coolness; a victorious fight in the schoolyard, a good game on the court, a touching of a breast at a party…those kids were immediately indoctrinated like a mobster who had taken out a don.
But for most everyone else, coolness was a gradual acceptance. And one action, at least in the mind of a child, meant a Dantesque descent into the horrid oblivion of those not chosen at dances, those whose Pogs would not be traded, or worse yet, those who played with the girls.
I had one of those moments. I was twelve years old and sitting in the back of a station wagon.
We had just finished playing war. Another boy’s parents were the ones tasked with driving that day and they had a gray Buick station wagon with the seats in the “way back” that flipped down and faced outwards to the car behind you. There were seven of us. I can still see their faces.
We talked about important stuff – who had what fruit snacks, the recent game of war, who had died, who had cheated when they “totally knew they were dead” –and I laughed along with the others at speculation someone had peed themselves on the field of battle. I recall actively trying to capture the moment as a memory.
These were my friends, this is what friends do, this was what we’ll be doing for years to come. My friends, and me. This was cool.
Then it came my turn to be dropped off. The driver, one of those anonymous, mustachio-gutted father figure blurs from childhood, grunted as he rolled out of his seat. He had to drop the back gate of the car down, and I was busy distributing guy goodbyes – high-fives and slapped backs.
When the gate dropped, I scooted to the edge, turning just before I left.
“Bye. See you later. Love you!”
It was the same farewell I’d give my mom when she would drop me off at school each morning.
I remember a distinct, low humming in my ears after those words were said. The tingling started in my fingertips, spread quickly up my arms and lodged in my throat before finally exploding into my cheeks.
I stared at the craning, mop-topped heads of my six classmates as they collectively tried to comprehend what had happened.
“Did Sean just tell us that he loved us? But…he’s a guy. We’re guys. This is not right. We must attack.”
It wasn’t laughter at first; it was more than that. It was just… noise.
The jubilation at what had occurred was so great that words couldn’t form. Fingers were pointed and faces were pressed, groaning, squirming, convulsing, licking the windows, anything to express their joy. And as the car pulled off, I sat in the middle of the road listening to the shouts fade down the street.
“Bye, Sean! Love you! We LOVE you!”
When I got inside my house, I went upstairs and packed a bag. I brought it down and laid it at the front door, calmly informing my mother that she should begin getting her affairs in order because we’d be moving.
Then I burst into tears.
I’m thirty years old. Technically, I am an adult. Technically, I am old enough to be a parent to my former twelve-year-old self. Technically, I am two feet taller than he was, about a hundred pounds heavier, can legally drive, vote, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, go to war and be executed by the state…but technically, my twelve-year old self still holds all the power.
After all of my life experience, I’m no older than I was when I first tried to fit in. No man is. We don’t ever leave the playground; it’s just the scenery that changes.
Our school bell has evolved into our alarm clock, and signals we have to go sit in a room with others to do work we don’t understand. Recess takes place at the water cooler or at coffee machines, and our lunch still comes from brown paper bags. We still go home to talk about our day, what we’ve learned, who we got in a fight with, how we’re not appreciated, how we have too many projects and how we long for a break.
We still take sick days, make up excuses for why we’re late, have mandatory trips, judge others on their clothes, who they hang out with, their weight, their intelligence. We stare out the window and think about where we want to be, anywhere, instead of there, looking at the clock, wondering why time moves so slow on weekdays.
We haven’t stopped seeking love and acceptance from strangers; we’ve just found more places to look. We ache for approval. We hunger for head nods. We crave cool. Part of us – the part that gets daytime drunk looking at Facebook pictures of former loves – is nostalgic for the sweet pain of adolescence. Back then, we had our whole lives to change. To be cool, someday.
I remember thinking when I was younger that I couldn’t wait until I was an adult. I remember thinking of how easy it would be, away from the insecurities of youth. I remember thinking about how I couldn’t wait for it all to begin.
photo Dave_7 / Flickr