Sunday, March 04, 2007

Early Childhood Memories.

Driving home from the other side of town this afternoon, I had a chance to catch a bit of Ira Glass' This American Life* on NPR. My radio is pretty much permanently tuned to local affiliate 90.5 WDUQ out of Duquesne University. While I couldn't imagine myself making it a point to arrange my schedule to listen to Glass and friends, I am usually intrigued when I do happen to hear the show. Today the theme was "children's logic", and there were stories read from the point of view of kids. I caught a segment featuring Michael Chabon reading from his collection Werewolves in Our Youth (1999). Chabon received his bachelor's degree from the University of Pittsburgh, so I made it a point to read Werewolves a few years ago. He's a competent and amusing author, and I would not be averse to checking out more of his work someday. But I didn't remember the story featured on today's This American Life. Although I often find stories of childhood affecting, I have a hard time remembering them. This somehow extends to my own early experiences.

I'm not sure why I have blocked so many early memories from my mind. My childhood was no more traumatic than that of the average American. But when I turned 18, I wasted no time in formulating a plan that would take me far away from my hometown (or at least as far as was realistic). I moved across state to attend college. This allowed me the opportunity to put my own personal history in the past, and recreate myself anew. After the first year or so, I seldom looked back. Perhaps this accounts for the strange feeling that I sprung full-born into my early adulthood. It's too easy to make up a fictional account of my upbringing, and to tailor fit it to whatever situation I am currently in. While that might be mildly disturbing to my family, it seems to work for me.

Having said that, I truly don't recall much of significance. My earliest memory is of a dresser falling on me when I was around four years old. My brother and I had pulled out the botton drawer, and we were attempting to scale the piece of furniture like a hill. It toppled onto us, but neither of us was hurt. I don't remember the aftermath of the event, but I'm pretty sure we caught hell for it.

I also remember an occasion when my great aunt took me out to dinner at a local diner. As we pulled into the parking lot, I broke an awful wind and then sat quietly hoping it would go unnoticed. The pinched expression on my aunt's face is still clear to me, as she turned to look briefly at my face and asked if I was "sick". I guessed correctly that she really wasn't asking a question, and I had no reply for her anyway. For years I wondered whether she had ever farted, and maybe if that was why she had a large belly. Now I know that you can gain weight regardless of how much gas you let out.

As far as school was concerned, I got shuttled around to a few different ones during my elementary years. This was always a mystery to me, as we never once moved while I was growing up. It was a difficult adjustment to come to a new school and know no one. I wondered what was so "special" about me to get passed around from building to building. My third grade teacher had slapped me in the face, and pulled my hair for being "bad". Unfortunately, she also had an inordinate amount of influence over my educational path. She kept me out of the gifted program. My parents had not been happy with her, due to the fact that she had said I was "not gifted material" at a parent-teacher conference at which I was present. I wondered why this was so, when I had always been pulled out for advanced math classes. That teacher went on to become principal at the school I was then transferred from. She was my very first enemy.

For fouth grade I attended the rougher, more racially diverse school in the center of town. The teacher there (a Mrs. Habecker) was wonderfully understanding. She encouraged me to engage with the other students, and arranged it so that I was class president. Naturally I fell in with the worst behaved students, and I was soon spotted beating on another kid in the playground. Mrs. H. impeached me from my lofty position, and I fell in completely with the delinquents. Neither my inglorious fall, nor an incident in which I got caught by the cute girl picking my nose, kept me from forming close ties with the budding criminals in my grade. I was devastated when informed that I'd be going to another new school for fifth grade.

My third elementary school in three years showed initial promise. My second cousin was there, and I worked to impress her by drawing her portrait on the bus. She gave me a quarter for it. I quickly made friends with a few kids from my expanding neighborhood, and gained the confidence to ask out a cute girl. I seemed to be accursed by fate- she already had a boyfriend, and I was gently rejected. Years later (in middle school) the same girl would attempt to rekindle a romance by passing me notes through her book-loving best friend. Still feeling jilted, I refused to forgive and forget. Not having the courage to press the issue, I began to turn inward. I didn't ask another girl out until senior year of high school ( I got rejected that time too).

Despite some setbacks I did ok through middle school and into ninth grade. I had friends and avoided the plight of the social outcast. It was only upon entering high school, when the attentions of the opposite sex begin to take on a crucial importance for social standing, that I felt like a loser. It was during those first two years in high school that I formed the seeds of a subtle misanthropy that I have kept restrained ever since. Although I worked my way into a semblance of popularity by my senior year, I would never again shed the feeling of being an outsider.

And ironically enough, I find myself repeating the ninth grade year after year.

* By the way- if you are a fan of This American Life, and you haven't yet heard... it is being adapted into a television series for Showtime. Though I certainly won't sign up for a cable plan simply to see it, I'll definitely be anticipating its eventual DVD release.


Blogger Dagrims said...

Interesting stories of your elementary school years. Some of that information is new to me.

One of my oddest memories of childhood is "playing flowers", growing up the side of the wall and blooming by poking my head up through the space between the mattress and the wall.

Now for a digression...Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay may be in the top 10 of my favorite fictional works.

9:51 PM  

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