I'm an Off-the-Cuff writer. I always have been. This isn't an apology or an explanation. It's nothing more than an observation of my style of writing and the care to which I give it before a word ever gets put to paper or typed out on screen.
In school, as a child, I hated the ubiquitous essay, "What I Did on My Summer Vacation." I always had something to write, but I never wrote about the same things each year, even though many times my summer was, other than my age, quite the same as it was before. I rarely got less than an A in my essays. Even so, I hated those essay assignments.
Yeah, I'm that kid most hated in class. The little scrawny bookwormy brat who always had his hand up, wouldn't let you copy off his tests and was nearly always a Straight A Student. That was me.
And I know the majority of kids were envious, because my three older brothers and my younger sister hated me for it, too. I never really cared. I still had to deal with the bullies, I still had to deal with being a social outcast and I still had to be able to make friends, play on the playground and not get my ass kicked every other day.
Being a straight A student was easy for me. I liked being in class. I loved learning things. I liked being around other people, even though I loved and prized greatly my 'alone' time as well. I never really did homework.
Well, that's not really true, but that's how it looked. In English class, I would finish my assignments quickly, because I liked writing. And, when there was nothing more for me to do, I'd open up my history book or my math book and start doing those assignments. By the time school was over, my math homework, my English homework, my history homework and my social studies were already done.
I never thought of it as homework, because by the time I got home, I had the TV on and was watching Lost in Space, Batman or the After School Specials while my older brothers were sitting at the table and complaining, "Why doesn't Chris have to study too?"
From the perspective of those looking in from outside, this all probably sounds very self congratulatory. Maybe even conceited. It's just how it was, though.
In those days I had no idea and no feeling of being special. I never really felt superior. I was too busy making up stories in my head or imagining me flying off to the moon, or drawing pictures in the corners and margins of my assignments or on a roll of butcher paper a teacher had given me (in the forlorn hope that I would only draw on that and not on my school work.)
From the outside looking in, people complained about me being a "know it all." They didn't like that I seemed to know so much and that I was willing to spit out my knowledge on the slightest whims. Or that I would talk about things no self-respecting six year old, or eight year old, or ten year old, etc, would ever think to discuss with peers, much less completely grown persons!
By the same token, those outsiders looking in never got to see the terror I felt at having to deal with kids twice my size in the same grade who were clearly angry at me for making them look bad in class. They never knew the shaking and vibrating sensations of a stomache ready to spew out lunch at the next and usual occurrence when some tough would knock the books out of my hands and then start shoving me around -- that smallest kid in class that I was.
They rarely, if ever, took into account that not only at school, but at home as well, I was punished regularly for being smart. They didn't see the times when two of my brothers would hold me down while the third took the liberty of being able to give me Indian Sunburns, Charley Horses, Shin Thumps with knuckles and many various cruel punishments that I had to endure as my brothers took out their frustrations on me.
Because they never saw that, most of those who chose to pick on me in school were amazed, shocked and stunned when this shrimpy little bookworm went nuts against sometimes three or four other kids on the playground and beat the shit out of them all. I gained the nickname, The Tazmanian Devil in five completely different schools.
By the time the kids in school were coming after me, I'd been experienced dealing with three to one odds for years. And, while I couldn't get away from my brothers, or my dad, I wasn't going to put up with the crap from complete strangers. I never held back, because, being so small, I thought I couldn't hit anyone hard enough to really hurt them.
I fought all the time. From the time I entered school in kindergarten to the seventh grade I got to know all my principals in all my schools. Some of them I got to know on a first name basis, I visited so often.
The funny part is: I hate fighting. It makes my stomache upset for three, sometimes four days after the event. I get the shakes and can't think straight. I hate the anger and the completely out-of-my-rational-mind rage that can bubble up when I start swinging, scratching, grabbing, clawing and biting that comes from my animal mind. It's scary to me -- and to others. It always disturbed me.
How many times can you hear a teacher or a vice principal or a principal say, "I don't understand it. Everyone says you're a smart, happy, seemingly well-adjusted kid. So why are you here so often?" How many lectures can you patiently sit through about, "not responding on their level," or how it's important to get a teacher for help instead of trying to take care of it yourself, or how violence never solves anything.
I am a smart person. I grew up smart. I didn't ask to be, it just turned out that way. I never thought of myself as so much smarter than everyone else. I always wondered why it seemed that everyone else had such trouble?
While I wondered that, I always wondered why they seemed to have so many friends while I had only one or two at any given school to which I was going? I wondered if they ever felt nearly as lonely as I did? I never, for a moment thought they really could; or did.
All those other kids. Only a few -- like those I counted as good friends or good acquaintances -- knew how I felt. They never got picked last for sports of any kind. They never had trouble making friends, or already had enough so that they could completely ignore others or treat them with a range of attitudes that varied from casual disdain to open hostility, coupled with a desire to ensure humiliation before a large audience.
No, being smart wasn't all that it was cracked up to be. It definitely wasn't shaping up in school to look like how much respect smart people got out in the adult world. I just couldn't understand it either. Smart as I am, the reasons for this totally eluded me for many, many years.
So I retreated. I retreated into books, into studies and into movies, music and art. Or -- was it really a retreat?
I mean, I always liked to read from the moment I could. I always liked to draw. I always loved music, even if my musical tastes were extremely limited at first. If there was a cowboy western, a war movie, a scary movie, a space related movie, an action movie or a comedy, I wanted to see it.
Perhaps it wasn't so much a retreat as it was a recognition that, while I would have loved to play ball with the other kids, or play hide and seek (which I ended up doing during the summers, usually) or just be able to hang out and tell jokes with them, for whatever reason, most of them really didn't seem to think I was worth their time.
Not a confidence builder, I can tell you that.
All of this may seem maudlin or heart wrenching. If it seems that way to you, then maybe I have struck a chord. For me, it was just what it was. Make no mistake, there were many times -- after an extremely rough and humiliating day being laughed at by dozens of other kids for having milk thrown all over me, or being pushed around and teased by an entire class during recess -- I came home early, leaving school grounds, crying the entire walk back home.
I didn't cry, because of the milk or from being pushed. It wasn't ever the physical abuse I suffered that hurt. It was the derision. It was the laughter. It was the superiority and hate that I literally felt wash over me from the other kids. And for what? What did I do?
Oh. Right. I was too smart, I guess.
If anyone says, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," they're a goddamn liar. Words and gestures are some of the most hurtful things that kids can do to each other and are not forgotten or ignored easily. Getting a black eye and a fat lip heals. Being openly derided and scorned -- that's another issue altogether.
This does have a happy ending, though. I like happy endings. Now, decades later and many more experiences later, I am a full grown man. Full of conscience and desire to be helpful to others. I am a happy person.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that those other happier seeming kids weren't any happier. They just looked it, because in those times I was so lonely and so desperate to have someone I could think of as a friend, yet did not.
I realized that a lot of the teasing and humiliation couldn't have been directed at me from kids that were fully well adjusted, comfortable with who they were or were as happy as I supposed them to be. Cruelty, jeering and laughter at the troubles of others is not a sign of happy people. Happy, confident people do not purposely hurt others as a form of pleasure or to feel superior.
If they took it out on me for being smart (which was often times cited as why I was getting such abuse) then it was clear to me, in some subconscious corner of my mind, that they were probably more unhappy than I was. I, at least, liked me. Can you really like yourself if it takes hurting someone else to make yourself laugh? In the time of living I have been blessed to have, I realize that the answer to that can only be, "No," irrespective of the answers you'll get if you ask them directly.
I admit. I'm not the easiest person to take for long periods of time. I talk a lot. I say what's on my mind. I'm honest; tactlessly so at times. I do know all kinds of things, making it hard to be around me, because I do sound like some goddamn know-it-all and I can't help knowing what I do.
I make strange jokes and think oddly; such that I am hard to understand. I have an opinion on damn near everything and think about why I have that opinion. I love to argue intelligently, which means that I prefer not to fling insults and provide facts instead.
I don't follow sports, or movie stars, or even local news and I hate, Hate, HATE gossip, so I'm not much fun at parties where that's the conversation of the day. I'd rather talk about Global Warming, or Clean Water and Food Production. I'd love to dicsuss astronomy, biology or history with people and I have absolutely no interest in talking about whether or not the Steelers are going to win the Superbowl, or who Tiger Woods screwed last month, or if the NASCAR will get a new racetrack near where I live.
So I'm not much of a social butterfly. I suppose that could be a problem if not for one thing. By the time I was eight, I just didn't care if people thought I talked too much, or if I was weird, or if I was strange, or too small, or too smart or too whatever. I was going to be who I was, and they could all deal with it however they chose.
By the time I reached High School, even though I was still often lonely, and felt alone in a party full of people, I somehow had managed to transition to something closer to a socially normal person. I didnt' try that hard, but I did try. I was regularly invited to parties.
Of course, by then, listening to comedy albums like George Carlin's "Occupation Foole" or "Class Clown" or "A Place for Your Stuff" and others from Bill Cosby, Red Skelton, Woody Allen, Andy Griffith, Flip Wilson, Foster Brooks, Alan King, Richard Pryor and Cheech and Chong (this was before Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy and others of the late 70s) I had learned to incorporate my weirdness into being a fairly good class clown myself. I had managed to transit my goofy nature and odd outlook on things to comedy. I had learned to take my observations and knowledge and twist it up into odd slices of life humor.
It didn't always work, but well enough for the most part. I never felt truly accepted, but I wasn't as often rejected, either. One time, I was invited to a rocking party by one of the most popular rich kids at my school. I remember saying to the guy, "You know, I don't have any money and I can't bring anything. No pot, no booze, not even food. I don't have anything to bring."
He looked at me, smiled and said, "That's okay, Chris. We think of you as the entertainment."
It seems the cruelty of children tapers off around high school for the most part. Kids learn to respect others for the things they do and are and not how well they conform to each other. They also learn to recognize that most of us feel alone, don't feel accepted and are not nearly as socially confident as some might appear.
I realized at that moment, when the most popular kid in school told me he wanted me to come, because he thought I was funny, I really had been accepted. I had a great time at that party, even though I didn't perform as a comedian, per se. I just talked with people, told jokes and made my normally odd observations as I always did. It was one of the first parties I ever had a great time just being me.
You'd think with all the sorrowful and upsetting moments I describe in brief and allude to, that I might be a candidate for suicide or be one of those kids that show up with a gun and start shooting. Nope. Remember, I talk too much. The ones that kill, either themselves or others are always described as, "quiet, polite, kept to themselves."
Oddly, the guy who invited me to the party, did kill himself three weeks before the end of school that year. The most popular kid in school, football captain, class valedictorian, baseball MVP and straight A student (like me) from a well established and well-to-do background is the one who shot himself in a fit of anguish and anger after having a verbal fight with his father over where he was going to go to college.
Was it because I suffered the way I did that I was less likely than someone who didn't suffer to kill himself? Was it just one of those moments? Is it an argument for gun control? If we had cell phones then, would one call to his poor, funny friend who was clearly a social misfit, have avoided it?
We may never know. I will always wonder. It will always be there, part of my experience and part of who I am now.
Meanwhile, this is a slice of memory and life and my views on it; totally off-the-cuff and extemporized, right here, right now. This is a first draft and it will, in all liklihood, be my only draft. Is it because I'm smart?
No. It's just the way it is. No matter how well I think I do and how well I can write, I stand in awe of the skill of someone who has to apply themselves to the task and work at it. They turn out some amazing stuff. Stuff that I never thought of. Stuff that I never could see the way they do until I read it.
If anyone finds value in what I have to say or write, I can only be thankful for all the things from all the people that I have read, heard and been asked about. Once I hear or read it, I generally remember it and becomes one more aspect of who I am now. So whatever comes out of all that, can only come out, because of all that has come into me from before.
So, if I do appear smart, it can only be due from all the people and experiences in my life who have helped to educate and train me. This is inclusive of the cruel children who taught me compassion to others. It includes all the confident kids who teased me; who taught me that I wasn't special and neither were they. We are all walking around, looking for meaning, looking for acceptance, looking for that thing that makes us feel as if we belong where we are and should be exactly who we are, right here, right now.
If I have learned anything in all that, it wasn't because of how smart I was. It was, because of how like all those others around me I really am and have always been. If I can see that, then anyone can. This means you can, too.