Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Fence

Sure. I was a restless, unfocused, could-not-concentrate youth, which my parents tried to cure by putting me on Ritalin twice a day, every day from the age of 7 to 17, but it wasn't so much misbehavior on my part as it was the inability to sit still.

My teachers all liked me. I wasn't known for calling out or disrupting class or bothering other children. Rather, it was my constant seat-shifting or "perching," as my second grade teacher Mrs. Wilson called it. To this day, even as I type this post, I'm sitting with one foot tucked underneath my tush and the other foot on the ground, pushing back and forth so that my swivel chair is in constant motion. When I stop to take a thought I instinctively take my hand off the keyboard, put my finger in my mouth and gnaw at my fingernail. Then, back to the keyboard.

"You're a smart kid, Eric. If only you would sit still for a little bit would you get out of these classes in no time," my 5th grade special education reading and math teacher, Mr. Cantalosi, said to me as I bit my bottom lip and looked down at the ground. But something that day clicked. For the first time I felt recognized, realized, noticed and was given encouragement opposed to instruction. It wasn't the "Oh Eric, would you just sit down and pay attention" mantra I had heard ad nauseum throughout my entire elementary school career. I felt like I could do this and immediately I got a sense of breaking out. It was a feeling of wanting to kick, of wanting to punch my way through and succeed. I wanted to prove people wrong. This is the same feeling that would visit me when my mother told me I'd be seeing a "special doctor" who wanted to "run some tests." It was around Passover when she delivered this news and despite her code words, at 10 years old, I knew exactly what a "special doctor" meant. I was going to a therapist! What? Did she not think that I watched TV for hours on end every day and knew what it meant when a kid was told he was about to see a special doctor? My family was hosting that year for Passover and because of this my mother was clearing out the cupboards to find the once-a-year fancy plates off which we eat. When she removed the giant stack of plates I crawled into the cupboard and slammed the door behind me and shouted, "I'm not going!" My Mother opened the door and said quite sternly, "You're going," and shut the door, leaving me in the cramped darkness. I remember the feeling, laying on my back, that I just wanted to kick. I just wanted to kick and scream and keep kicking until the walls of the kitchen island were split apart and broken. Of course, I did none of this but instead kept a feeling of rage very alive within the pit of my stomach. Therefore, it was no surprise on the first visit to the therapist when the doctor asked quietly and softly, "Well Eric, why do you think your mother brought you here today?" and I responded dryly and smugly, "She's sitting right next to me. Why don't you ask her?"

The Special Ed classroom I went to twice a day was located in a separate building on the school campus. When school started it was easy to hide the fact that I wasn't in any mainstream classes, but by the time winter came around, I could not keep it a secret any longer, for I had to wear or carry a jacket which inevitably told the other students milling about the hallways that I was one of those kids who left the building each day to go to one of those classes. Everyday I had to walk along side James, notoriously known for his semi-retardation and who caused a stir amongst the students each time a teacher would reprimand him for having his hands in his pants. I remember walking past a group of students waiting outside their class when one of them got out of line and said, "Eric is going to class with James? Boy, he must really be stupid!" Once again I felt the rage build up. "I am not stupid," I said to myself as if I were saying it to that particular student, "I have a learning disability!" Regardless, I remember wanting to punch the bricks at the entrance of the separate building.

The days carried on. Winter became spring and the support from Mr. Cantalosi continued. I had made a plan to sit as still as possible, to take my Ritalin, to do well and by next year I would be back in classes with the normal kids. However, being on Ritalin, seeing a therapist and walking with James everyday had afforded me the perspective of being on the outside of the fence looking in. Before the weather called for shorts I was carrying a sense of confidence about being different, about not being just like everyone else, and I had Mr. Cantalosi, a teacher nobody else had. My confidence grew. I began to like going to a therapist and being able to talk out loud about anything and play games and get to answer questions, not based on math or reading but about emotions and feelings. Through Dr. Elfenbein I had learned that I wasn't taking "stupid pills" and that I wasn't "dumb," it's just that my brain functioned differently from others. Soon enough I was explaining to other students and friends what taking Ritalin actually meant, and I enjoyed teaching them about how every one's brain works differently and James no longer was an embarrassment for me to walk to class with everyday. In fact, he made me laugh and became my friend. I stuck up for him when the other kids made comments. He was under my watch now and that made me feel good.

By 6th grade I was back in mostly mainstream classes. I was out about seeing a therapist and all my friends knew I took Ritalin. In fact, a new friend Matt was also taking Ritalin and we shared our thoughts and feelings about being on medication quite regularly. I had a big group of friends and we became famous for playing handball every day during recess. We played against a giant brick wall next to the exit steps from the gymnasium doors. Everyday that we played handball, a girl named Marsha would sit silently on the steps and read her books.

Marsha was a brainiac- she was socially awkward, chewed her hair, wore pink 4th grade-esque jump suits while we all wore jeans and shirts from The Gap. She didn't curse, she didn't know about making out yet, she didn't have any friends and all she did was read. She was an outcast. Too smart for her own good and too geeky to be understood. I would notice her more regularly than I wanted to and I tried to avoid looking at her because I knew, at this point, what looking at her would cause me to do: feel. And I also knew, if I felt, then we would both wind up disappointed. But I couldn't help it and so the day came that I approached her and invited her to play handball. She stood in line behind me. Our hearts both racing at the same speed just waiting for the inevitable outcry from one of my friends. Then there it was, said by none other than Sherry herself. Go figure. "No, she cannot play with us!" "There's too many of us already," was Sherry's excuse but all three of us knew the real reason was simply that Marsha wasn't cool enough and we were no United Nation accepting open applications for friendship. Marsha, used to this treatment, simply walked out of line, found her spot on the steps and resumed reading her Beverly Cleary. I remember the feeling that surged through me at this point. I related to Marsha. I knew what it was like to be on the outside of the fence. It wasn't fair! She deserved a chance just like everyone else. I wanted to rip Sherry's head off and make her feel the pain that we felt. It's been more or less 15 years since that incident and I still cannot forget how Sherry acted that day and how Marsha just assumed her role.

This feeling would continue to aid me through my childhood and up into my adolescence. The feeling of pride-as-an-outsider. It was the feeling I had when I picked up Punk Rock to sooth the relentless pain of the stress-related canker sores I would break out in when I was reminded of my same-sex attraction I so desperately tried to avoid.

The feeling would return as I read Jack Kerouac and learned that life doesn't have to follow a cookie cutter mold and that everyday can be its own special adventure. That life doesn't have to be an experience from one day to the next, but rather, an expansive journey with no end in sight.

The feeling would return when I was forced to grab my balls, suck it up and enter the LGBT Center at my college student union. It was the feeling that would force me out into the world, to ride my bike to IBT's, Tucson's premier gay club with my fake ID in hand, and just "do it!" This is the same feeling that would thrust me out into the world, meet people, shake hands, listen in and appreciate different points of view. To understand hippies and mushrooms and raves and music and goths and queers and punks and artists and people afflicted with disease. It would be this same feeling, which I would use as armor, to never again allow myself to return to that angst-ridden angry teenager with the painful canker sores and the plea to be just like everyone else.

It would be the same feeling when I would learn first hand of the thousands and thousands of deaths caused by AIDS and our government's slow response because the only people it seemed to affect were those on the "outside of the fence."

I've spent my entire life on the outside of the fence looking in and I would not have it any other way. So it was this same feeling that boiled up last night as I spoke with a gay man who is undecided, yet leaning toward McCain/Palin as his choice, because "gay is just one aspect of me." This feeling made me speak fast and point my finger in his face and shout, "They think they can pray away our lives! They don't give a shit about us! They would put us in camps! Don't let them put us in camps!" My friends pleaded for me to calm down. But I didn't want to. I wanted to kick and scream just like that little boy hiding in the cupboard because it isn't fair that they don't recognize our lives and feel like they can pray us away. They would put us in camps, I don't care how "radical" that sounds. Things like that have happened before, history will tell you, and I'll fight for my life to prevent myself from ever being on the inside of any of those fences.


Marc said...

Wow. Powerful story here, E. Part of me wants to jump up and down and scream at the guy right along with you, and part of me wants to join your friends and tell you to calm down. Calm, reasoned persuasion will (usually) be more effective in convincing an undecided over irrational ranting. But the ranting can sure feel good, can't it? :)

Mike said...

1. sits on foot. Check.

2. Nail-biter. Check.

3. Under-achiever in school. (you're a smart kid, if only...) Check.

Luckily, ritalin wasn't invented yet.

God, we have so much in common.

Blue Eyed Texan said...

Eric, Thanks for the powerful story. I needed to read this for some reason this morning.

I'm sure that the 'undecided man' that you wrote about has since made up his mind. Who knows? Maybe you 'spit some sense' in his face.

Thank you Eric.

Coke Brown Jr. said...

It's good to have a struggle in life. Those who don't have them end up very passive. Your struggle was and is a noble one, unlike the sruggles of so many that are concocted in defense of the indefensible.

Fighting for fighting's sake, fighting without thought for the truth of the matter, this is what I see happening on the conservative side. "Conservative" means angry defense of the status quo without thought.

Thank you so much for being strong, for defending yourself, for learning the truth of yourself, the truth of kindness and of encouragement and thought.

You grew up strong, right and handsome, boy.

rptrcub said...

Struggle is the crucible which forges us into better people. Defending and feeling for those who are left out, downtrodden, spat upon is the compassionate spark that is all too dead in the hearts of many people.

Anonymous said...

I was really moved by your article. Although I didn't have ADHD or take ritalin (probably should have) I was taunted from junior high on as the school fag. I really get it. Thank you for the wonderful post.

Michael said...

Excellent writing, and parts that we can all relate to.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great story, and for sharing some of your life with us.

Me? Yeah, I'm ADHD, but it wasn't diagnosed until my late 30's. It sure explained a lot though. Even though I wasn't on Ritilan (not invented) and didn't go to special classes (but always the "you're smart, if only you'd apply yourself in school"), I was also an outsider growing up, and seen as wierd and geeky and undesireable. Truly, my first friendship was forged when I was 14 years old. With another outsider, of course.

Thanks for reminding me today that the struggle is important.

Uh, time for more coffee so I can focus and stop being distracted and go, uh, struggle. GRIN

BigBearHugs ELeven!

RainbowDishes said...

Thanks for sharing this powerful story.

Even though we grew up in totally different times and locations, our childhoods don't sound that different. You seem to have done pretty good. Congrats for being you!

evilganome said...

Great essay. It brought me back 40 years to my own painful adolescence and not belonging anywhere.

Moving away from small town America and coming out in the big city 30 years ago changed my life in a great many ways, but I know what you mean about still wanting to find that safe, dark, enclosed space to just hide from it all and rage.

rptrcub said...

I thought about it, and the marginalization you talk about is kinda like that Howard Jones song, No One Is to Blame:

you can look at the menu, but you just can't eat
you can feel the cushion, but you can't have a seat
you can dip your foot in the pool, but you can't have a swim
you can feel the punishment, but you can't commit the sin

WilyCuban said...

As the friend who tried to calm you down, let it be known that I tried to calm you down not because you were wrong, but rather because you were right and the screaming wasn't getting through. Education with honeyed words might get through to that kid, and he did owe us some patience, after that endless story he rambled off that night.

Anonymous said...

Eric -- I often lurk, but this post hit SO MANY things on the head. The fence, and being on the other side of it so often throughout life. Your final paragraph about the undecided voter rang so true to me. I used the samr statement last week with a very sweet and supportive friend who was telling me how much she admired Sarah Palin's "Spunky-ness". I think everyone in the room stopped and looked at me when I said "She thinks my life is a sin and wants to put me in a camp". I agree. It has happened before. It could happen again. Let the kicking and fighting commence.

iwantthatone said...

Great story...very powerful. There are SOOO many other resons to vote Democratic besides their views on gay issues. I am a VERY proud gay man but I am also a VERY proud man of intellignece, compassion and rationality. The Republicans have not shown any of those traits in the past decade and this has led to the demise of this country. Their is SO much more at stake this year than Gay issues. The Republicans are destroying the economy and dividing this country in very dangerous ways. I can assure you the worst is not to come and I am not talking about "camps".

Jeff said...

Right on! Thank you for this post. They would totally gas us if they thought they could get away with it. I imagine that some of them dream about creating a national climate that would allow for eliminating the gays. Of course they'd try to pray the gay out of us first, with killing as a backup.

We need a revolution.

Father Tony of the Farmboyz said...

Did I read you correctly to say that at your college student union you sucked your own balls? I didn't think that could be done, at least I've never seen it on video. Can you still do it?

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