I wonder how many times growing up, especially in high school, I was told by an adult that I ought to enjoy these years because they would be the best of my life. Does anybody really look back on childhood and adolescence and see it as the best years? I don’t believe I am unique in saying that I wouldn’t relive childhood for any amount of money, and adolescence even more so. Unless, of course, I could do it again knowing what I know now.
Childhood was not a terribly unhappy time, but it was a stressful one, during which I felt unable to meet the expectations that were imposed on me by the various adult figures in my life. There were no unqualified triumphs. I remember coming across an old 1st or 2nd grade report card of mine, and among the good grades was a bad one for penmanship. I don’t recall getting accolades for a job well done, but I clearly remember being chastised for my handwriting, which to this day is atrocious. On the other hand, I believe my parents and teachers would have done me a grave disservice had they heaped unearned praise, or if they had praised my successes but ignored my failures.
I don’t think I am overly disappointed in this particular aspect of my life. Perhaps childhood isn’t supposed to be the happy magical time that we like to imagine it to be. After all, what are the alternatives? All too often we see unearned praise given to children in order to boost their self-esteem, but doesn’t that create an unrealistic expectation of life?
No, it isn’t that I regarded my childhood as terribly unhappy. It’s only that to call them the best years would be untrue. Because, although our level of responsibility increases as we become adults, so too does our capacity for coping with the concomitant stresses, and we typically enjoy a much greater autonomy. My childhood was, however, complicated by a number of issues that in childhood can be serious liabilities.
I was fat. Overweight children suffer terribly at the hands of their peers. Children can be quite cruel, and look for easy victims. Add to this a lack of physical coordination that made me more than a little awkward in sports, an exceptionally high IQ and a vocabulary that would have been impressive on an adult and I didn’t have a chance.
My physique was the result of a well-intentioned over indulgent mother who came from a culture in which a little fat was considered a sign of healthy contentment. I’d come home from school every afternoon, and she would encourage me to have some chocolate milk and cookies. After dinner, she would offer me a large helping of chocolate layer cake, my favorite. Later on, just before bed there would be a nice glass of warm chocolate milk and cookies. I had no inclination to refuse, although I wish now that she had never offered. And on the rare occasion when I did refuse she would become concerned that I might be either ill or in love. And so, I gained weight.
I hated the way I looked. I hated that the other kids were cruel to me. I hated that I couldn’t wear “cool looking” clothing. The euphemism for the size and style of clothing that she had to buy me was “husky size.” I hated that I felt weak for not being able to control my eating. Ironically, people who know me as an adult find it hard to believe that I could have ever been fat, but that’s because at some point I made a conscious decision to change how I ate. That decision was more of a change in identity than a change in diet. I decided that I had to become someone who eats differently.
Had my weight been the only problem I would have probably been able to navigate the straits of my youth a bit more easily. But I had other “problems”. My vocabulary probably made people (even many adults) more than a bit uncomfortable. People probably thought I was talking down to them or trying to show off and show them up. But the truth is I didn’t know any better. It never occurred to me at the time that I was speaking in any way other than clearly. My parents were both very highly educated, and had spoken to me on a high level from the beginning, so I never knew that some people didn’t really “get” me.
On top of it, I understood the local Long Island accent better than my peers. I can recall a discussion over the word, “bastard.” I was in high school, and one of the kids had just called another a “bastid.” It became important to the group that the legitimacy of the word be established. For some reason some of the kids felt that if this were “in the dictionary” it would be an acceptable part of their vocabulary. One of them claimed to have already looked for it and was unable to find it. Some believed him others didn’t. I remained silent through all of this until I couldn’t any longer. I knew it was in the dictionary, and didn’t immediately figure out why this individual hadn’t been able to find it.
I finally put my two cents in, “I’m pretty sure bastard is in the dictionary.” There was a long silence. Then the entire group burst out laughing, as one of them shrieked, “Phillips put an ‘r’ in bastid!” I suddenly realized that they had been looking it up by spelling it the way they mispronounced it. I informed them that there actually is an “r” in the word, but they just laughed and all went their separate ways, having their opinion of my stupidity firmly reinforce in their little minds.
I was also, as I said, highly intelligent, with an IQ that apparently got the attention of my teachers and then my parents. They were right to expect a high level of academic achievement from me, but overachievers are never popular among their fellow students, so I was teased and bullied mercilessly. I suppose I felt like I was, as the saying goes, between a rock and a hard place. It was nearly impossible to completely satisfy my parents, and the very effort to do so made me fair game for the less charitable interactions of my peers. The plethora of good grades on my report cards was worthless as social currency among boys whose pubescence was just emerging.
And what about my teachers? I was rarely – almost never – in any kind of trouble in school. But the good Sisters of St. Joseph seemed to believe that children, especially those of the male sex, were invariably up to no good, and they used every terror tactic in their strategy book to ensure that we were kept in a constant state of fear. There were probably only 2 times in my years of elementary and middle school that I got into any kind of trouble. The first was in 4th grade. It was literally the day that the school opened for business. Sts. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church had just turned the key on its new school that very morning. Prior to that there was no Catholic school in our town. The school was part of a newly built complex that included a new larger church, a rectory, and a convent.
My father, being the product of a Catholic education, was a firm believer in the superiority of parochial schools. In his mind the clergy knew how to educate the young better than lay instructors. I would be among the first group of students to enter the new school. I’d spent the first 4 years of my career as a student at the local public schools – kindergarten at May Moore School, and 1st through 3rd grade at Abraham Lincoln School.
So here I was, my first day in a new school, standing in the lunch line in the cafeteria. There was only one problem. I apparently never received the memo regarding putting ones hands in ones pockets. The nuns knew exactly why young boys put their hands in their pockets, even if those young boys didn’t yet know about THAT. So I stood in line, hands in pockets, completely unprepared for the explosion of pain when the sister who rang the large brass lunch bell (Sister Mary Quasimodo?) used that instrument for a purpose other than that for which it had actually been designed. The bell caught me at the base of the skull at exactly the same instant that the palm of her other hand impacted my forehead. And as her only words were, “That will teach you how to stand in line,” it took me quite a long time, years actually, to figure out why I’d been attacked.
The other time that I nearly ran into disciplinary problems occurred in 6th or 7th grade. I had had a bad head cold, and in its aftermath was suffering from a bout of bronchitis. After lunch every day we would be released to the playground, where as often as not we were required to stand in line silently. On this particular day the cool crisp air irritated my already raw bronchi, and as hard as I tried I couldn’t seem to suppress a cough. The nun in charge of us glared at me, squinting her eyes, and in a low growl said, “Stifle that. One more outburst from you and…” She knew she didn’t need to complete the sentence. I’d witnessed boys being slapped until their mouths and noses bled for lesser offenses. I recall seeing a friend of mine have a comb driven into his scalp because the sister didn’t like the way he had combed it that morning, a smallish pompadour with a wave in the front.
Theoretically I should have had nothing to fear. After all, I was almost never subjected to abuse, and the one time that I was it was over quickly and was not as bad as it could have been. I was a well behaved student. But witnessing these unpredictable outbursts of violence often caused me to wonder if behaving would really insulate me from it. And, being well behaved also made me a bit of a “goody-two-shoes” so, once again, I was faced with unrelenting peer disapprobation.
In high school things got better, but not enough. I had lost just enough weight to no longer be the butt of everyone’s cruel humor. My face blossomed into a mine field of acne, but so did everyone else’s, so I got something like a pass on that issue. The good grades were no longer the liability that they had been in middle school, everyone being focused on their eventual college applications. And the nuns in Seton Hall High School – the Sisters of Charity of Halifax – were more true to that name than I had hoped for. But to say that this lead to a bucolic secondary school experience would be untrue. The problem was that I was socially awkward, which shouldn’t have been surprising given the bullying that I’d dealt with in the previous few years. And, to make matters far far worse, I was terrible at sports. In a school in which the only social currency that mattered was athletic prowess, to be musically inclined and unable to throw accurately, catch, dribble or hit a ball was to be a pariah and a fool. So my social status improved not one bit when I entered the Shrine of Truth. (Our school song, sung to the tune of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance began with the words, “Shrine of Truth we glory, to belong to thee…”)
It wasn’t that I had no friends. There was a small group of socially and physically awkward young people who bonded well and formed a loosely knit society based on the one thing we had in common – we were unpopular. It wasn’t until the summer of 1970, the summer when I turned 17 that things changed for me.
To be continued…
(And for your listening pleasure, but with no real connection to my childhood, Julia Florida by Agustín Barrios.