My parents had told me school would be a fun place where I could make friends and learn fun things. Like a fool, or maybe just like a small child, I bought into it. Either way, I was prepared for fun…but not much else.
My late birthday basically made me a year younger than most kids in my class, so I was also shorter than just about everyone. This would be a problem for me. A girl much taller than me called me a shrimp. I asked her not to be mean to me, and she pushed me to the ground.
What. The. Doo-doo.
(Four-year-old me knew precious few bad words.)
Looking around that day, I was not seeing a lot of fun. Kids seemed to constantly make fun of people’s looks, they accused other kids’ families of being poor, they swiped things from each other and would not give them back. One boy was pinching everybody in places nobody wanted to be pinched. The teacher seemed to accept this lawless state of chaos as an acceptable learning environment. I was seriously upset by the end of the day and could not imagine going back, so I figured I would tell my parents that school just wasn’t for me.
I was pretty shaken up back at home. I asked my parents why kids were so mean. How can kids treat each other that way? Why didn’t the teacher stop them? I don’t think I really got to the root causes, but my mom told me I actually had to go to school. I don’t think this was actually mentioned before? She also said that it would get better. That wasn’t a total lie. I did get more used to things. I kind of made friends with a kid that brought some cool toys to class in his backpack. This kid also knew some bad words, so I felt like I did have some real learning opportunities cropping up. But there was more frustration on the horizon as well.
One day we were all supposed to bring kites. I was into spaceships and planets, and had a space shuttle kite–translucent and brightly colored like stained glass, it had a silver shuttle framed by a dark blue field of stars, with red and yellow streamers to mimic the blast of the engines. It flew high, and it looked real good with the bright sun shining behind it. At the end of recess we were walking back to the classroom, the teacher waking ahead to lead the group back to class. A kid shorter than I was said “Hey! Lemme see that.” Without waiting for me to grant permission he grabbed it with both hands and put his head right through the middle of it. I couldn’t believe it.
My once beautiful kite was now decorating this dumb kid’s skinny shoulders, and he was grinning like a moron. He looked like an evil version of piglet from Winnie the Pooh, and he seemed stupidly proud of himself. Like he had done something clever and funny, and like he was expecting me to be impressed instead of upset. I didn’t really have any face-punching skills yet. I had to rely on my tattling skill. So I told the teacher what had happened. She stopped and asked the other child if it was true. “No, ma’am,” he said, without a trace of shame in his voice. None of the other kids said anything. The teacher turned away and kept walking.
I didn’t know if the kid that wrecked my kite was jealous or if he just wanted to impress his friends. I didn’t know if the teacher thought I was lying or she just didn’t want to deal with it. I was mad. I was sad. I did cry a little.
My mental timeline gets pretty hazy here, but I remember getting increasingly dismayed and upset. It’s not like I was getting singled out or had a particular nemesis, it’s just that I was constantly getting upset at other people’s behavior. Why didn’t anyone seem to care about me here? One time a girl told me that the inflatable learning mascot “Mr. J” said that the way I wrote the first letter of my name was wrong and “not a real J.” She really wanted me to change it. But I persevered with my wrongness.
At some point I felt like I was perpetually frustrated. I hated getting out of bed and I hated going to school. At some point, and I forget the exact reason why, I punched another kid hard in the stomach. The poor bastard was probably almost as small as I was, but I got him good. He did not expect something like that coming from me, and he actually went down to the ground and rolled around a bit (though I kind of suspect he was hamming it up to ensure I got punished). I would not punch another kid at school for the remainder of my academic career. Someone tattled, of course, and I had to sit in a classroom all by myself and miss the entire recess period. I cried. I really felt like I was the victim.
Most of my flailing during those first few years of school wasn’t literal. I just didn’t understand what I was supposed to do and while I was smart, I didn’t do as I was told and got pretty bad grades in most subjects. In second grade, my best friend decided he didn’t want to hang out with me anymore. The only explanation I could come up with is that his family was quite poor, and though my family was by no means rich, I think he must have resented me even though I shared stuff with him and bought things that he said he would pay me back for later (but never did). He actually got me sent to the principal’s office by goading me to make faces and then telling on me. I literally received a paddling for acting up. I won’t get into the specifics of the paddling, but it was another unreal moment where reality once again surpassed my expectations in a really crappy way.
Sometime that year I legit tried to get my parents to let me stay in the basement and not go to school anymore, and they were baffled when I agreed to the ridiculous terms which were clearly meant to dissuade me (I would have to not make any noise, never leave the house, etc.). I stuck it out for about a week until I was convinced to go back and give it another go. I almost failed and was held back that year. Which is funny now, because later on I ended up skipping a grade and getting into university where I was, again, at least a year younger than most everyone around me.
But that was later. In those first few years, I had started to think that maybe I was messed up. And maybe the whole world was just messed up. At this point I had heard a few stories on the playground, like people hurting animals (which I always told myself were just lies). I figured out what it meant when a kid “probably had a bad home environment,” and I could see something really sad in those kids’ eyes. The unspoken but implied ramifications of news reports on accidents, violence, robberies, and things like that had started to register with me. And worse than seeing my space shuttle kite destroyed, I saw the Space Shuttle Challenger break apart and burn away on TV, with real people inside.
I didn’t ask why bad things like the Challenger explosion happened; by this time I’d figured out there was no explanation for a lot of the awful things that happen in the world. But I kept asking my mom why people acted the way they do. When was it going to get better? Is it something people grow out of? Do people stop being bad? At some point I remember my mom telling me “it’s not just kids” that are bad and treat each other poorly. And that made sense. Many of the adults I knew were horrible disappointments. They didn’t believe what I told them. They didn’t think I was smart, and they treated me like they treated other “bad” kids. Like an inconvenience. Something to put up with. I was starting to get the feeling that my mom did have the answers to my questions, but that the answers would probably make me feel worse instead of better.
One day I quietly asked told her “Mom, I think I need to see a psychiatrist.” I said I thought I was depressed. She looked surprised and sad. My dad seemed confused. After talking things out a bit, my parents told me that if I really wanted to go, they’d take me. I never did go and see one, but we talked about things a little more after that. Maybe it was luck that got me through the tougher times. Maybe I could have avoided some of the pain and difficulties I experienced later if I’d actually seen a professional. Somehow I ended up mostly alright. I know way more bad words now, which helps me better express and exorcise my disappointment in the world and humanity. Even so, I think I’m able to hide my cynicism pretty well. I don’t think anyone would easily guess that I’d once been a depressed little boy.