A memory came back to me last week. Let me share.
Growing up, I was my generation’s Dennis the Menace. Bart Simpson was a kindred spirit. I was the proverbial little shit. I was (too) smart (for my own good), I didn’t do what I was told, I was imaginative, and I had a temper. That said, it’s amazing how much I got bullied. But this isn’t about the bullies. At least, not straight up. This is about friends. Or one friend in particular. And his family.
There were several kids around my age in the neighborhood I grew up in, but it was rare that we all got together. There was Kurt (three-four years older than me), Scott (one year older), Eric (one year younger), Jimmy (one year younger), Chrissy (three-four years older), and several children who would be closer in age to my younger sister. Scott and Eric were brothers. Jimmy and Chrissy were siblings, too. I met Jimmy and Chrissy when I was about 6 and they were friends until they moved away when I was 12 or so. However, they weren’t around much. Eventually, Eric and I became best friends. Even though we’d known each other for nearly our entire lives, we really didn’t start being close until I was around 8. Eric and Scott’s mother was very by-the-book. She once told my mother that my overactive imagination was a bad thing that would probably get me in trouble one day. Anyway, once we were both able to go outside by ourselves, Eric and I became best friends.
I think Eric liked me because I always had something to do. We could play with action figures or, better yet, we could role play. That’s what I did a lot outside. I’d be Batman. Or Luke Skywalker. Or Axel Foley. Or Freddy Krueger. Or Marty McFly. Or—most likely—a character I’d made up. And when I played—just as I did with my action figures—I didn’t just play an endless stream of make-believe until I petered out, oh no, I played movies. I gave them titles, and ratings, and had a beginning, middle, and ending. I was also like Bart the Menace—I did what I wanted. I defied my parents. When there were no grown-ups around I swore. I did what I wanted. And we had a good time. When I was 8 and 9 years old, Eric and I had a blast.
Except…Eric would sometimes take those bad habits home, I guess. Or at least, that’s what was always implied. Eric, who was the second child, Eric, who was the lesser child, was trouble, so said his mom. He wasn’t, really—he was just a typical little boy, into mischief, curious. Unlike his older brother (who would also be a close friend for a period of time in the years that followed), Eric wasn’t perfect (so sayeth his mom). So, Eric would get punished.
Eric, unlike me, couldn’t get out of punishments. Eric was rational and could be reasoned with. He became a scientist as an adult. It was there all along. So when Mom and Dad said he was punished, he was punished. And his mother’s favorite punishment for Eric? You can’t play outside with Billy.
He could go outside. He could play outside with his brother and Kurt (who became the closest friend of all of them, and for the longest period of time)—fuck, he could play outside with whole goddamn neighborhood, except if I came around. He couldn’t play with me.
At that time, I wasn’t friends with anyone else in the neighborhood. Or if I was, they weren’t around. So for Eric’s punishment, I would sit in the window and watch him laugh and play with Scott, and Kurt, and the Grand Army of the Republic, and the Fellowship of the Ring, and Cirque du Soleil, and…. That was some punishment he had. I wonder if he learned his lesson.
My mother was appalled and called his mother, who was (and still is) her friend, and asked how could this be punishment for Eric? Billy’s sitting in the window watching his best friend playing with everyone on the planet but isn’t allowed to play with him.
And Eric’s mother responded, “I read that to punish a child you should take away his favorite thing, so since his favorite thing to do is play with Billy, I took that away.”
As a kid I didn’t think that was fair. At 35, I still don’t see how that’s something a sane person would do. If we lived across town, okay. But to make it so Eric and I couldn’t hang out but Eric could still run around with everyone else—who at the time did not like me—is punishing the person she outright saw as the cause for her son’s insubordination.
The memory came to me out of nowhere last week. And it saddened me. And angered me. And made me shake my head. No wonder I am the way I am.
The senior girl has been coming to me during the day with her college essay and I’ve been helping her edit it. She’s really bright and she has the idealistic dreams a high school senior should have. Today she brought me the fourth draft. We went over it. I sent her away with instructions for draft five. She thanked me profusely.
Students stayed after school with me yesterday to talk about this year’s school magazine. Their ideas and ambition energized me.
A group of freshmen who will only be in my class for four-and-a-half days crowded my desk and bombarded me with questions and listened to me.
I have three books published by small presses under my belt. Work of mine has appeared alongside work by bestselling writers. I’ve been contacted by other genre legends and writers I admire.
My 14-year-old is one of the most intelligent kids I’ve met. She amazes me constantly. Born to young parents with little money, the odds were against her. She’s not only surpassing those odds, but have blown the motherfuckers away.
My wife is amazing. We laugh all the time. In bed before sleep falls. In the morning. We have so many in-jokes it’s hard to keep track of them all. I’m extremely lucky.
Another daughter is due a month and a half from now.
I have more work to do and many, many stories to tell.
I have lives to help shape who have not come into mine yet.
I will continue to do things…my way.