It’s the 1980-1981 school year. Mount St. Helens erupts. The Rubik’s Cube craze spreads to my corner of the world and I discover the pleasure of puzzling over one. Adults won’t shut up about “Who shot J.R.” Pac-Man fever is sweeping the country. I’m in fourth grade.
Things are not going well for me.
I’ve struggled a great deal with what to say about this time period. This is a very ugly stretch in my life. I don’t want this series to be a chore to read. I don’t want this to deteriorate into a long screed of complaints and self-pity.
I could skip these events, but that would leave a curious and continuity-breaking hole in my life. I could be explicit, but that would involve a lot of ugly stories that would, I think, be unfair to the adults in my family, and my mother in particular. The only way to avoid making her look like the bad guy would be to tell the whole story, which would be incredibly long, bleak, and not terribly compelling.
Here is the best I can do:
Some adults entered our lives who were no good for us. As a result, my brother and I ended up spending a lot of time under the care and influence of some very rotten people. Just to assuage your worst fears: I wasn’t seriously beaten, I wasn’t molested, nobody died. Nobody gave me illegal drugs. (Although given the witches’ brew of prescription medication I was on, I was arguably higher than the adults in my life.) This isn’t anything that serious. This was a time of neglect, not abuse. Lots of people had home lives that were far more dangerous than the one I knew in these years. But it was rough, and it hit me in an area where I had very few coping mechanisms.
So instead of belaboring things in a litany of complaint, I’ll just pick through the anecdotes of the time and we can move on. Sound good?
I feel like I have very little control over my life. I don’t decide where I go, what I do, what I eat, or who I associate with. This is normal for kids, but it doesn’t feel normal to me.
I have a terrible relationship with our babysitter, who cares for us before and after school. I have a worse relationship with my teachers, who are frustrated and annoyed by my odd behavior and aversion to schoolwork. Worse still is my relationship with the other students, which ranges from apathy to open hostility. During an entire day, my mother is the only person that I can trust to not hurt me on a regular basis. I spend my mornings just waiting to leave the scorn of the babysitter’s and move on to school. Then I spend school waiting to leave and go back to the sitters, where I’ll spend my time counting the minutes until Mom arrives to take us home.
Perversely, I take comfort in the routine itself. Sure, the day sucks, but it sucks in a predictable and ordered way. The familiarity makes things more bearable. The only thing worse than the routine is having it change. Moving to a new sitter, riding a new bus, or entering a new class fills me with intense worry, and it can take me days or weeks to get used to a new pattern.
This year, I’m going to have to endure the biggest disruption to my routine yet. We are moving to a new house. A smaller, draftier house in a much worse neighborhood. A house at the bottom of the hill from the hospital, where wailing ambulances will pass by at all hours.
Home life is a little weird. Mom has a new circle of friends. Or perhaps, these are old friends and they’re just visiting more now that we’re living here. It’s hard for me to tell. I don’t keep track of names or faces, particularly of adults. At any rate, these people are scary, and my home is no longer a refuge from the outside world. There is no longer a wall between myself and the madness at the end of the day.
A lot of the adults around here like to roll their own cigarettes. These are crooked, tiny things, wrapped in special white papers you can buy at the corner store. They smell funny. One day I’m sitting on the couch, sorting through this handful of shredded leaves they like to smoke. I’ve folded an Omni magazine to cradle the stuff. As instructed, I’m pulling out the seeds to put them into a little pile. Apparently the seeds are bad, and you don’t want to smoke them?
I don’t mind doing this. It’s fun, in an arts & crafts kind of way. And unlike the stuff I do at school, this has a practical use: When I’m done, people will smoke this weed. I still didn’t understand why they go to all this trouble instead of just buying cigarettes, but I’m glad to be useful. I also know to clear out before they smoke these things, because that’s when things get creepy. I hide in my room, or (even better) leave the house for a while. (They actually ingest other stuff besides weed, but that’s not nearly as visible to a ten year old and I won’t understand it until later.)
I’ve begun getting headaches. Terrible, agonizing, frontal-lobe assaults that generally last several hours. Everything seems exceedingly loud, and I get tunnel vision. The pain comes in waves, starting as a dull ache and building in intensity, until I start clenching my jaw. It oscillates up and down, like a sine wave, gradually burning out as the amplitude falls in the last hour. These headaches will remain with me throughout my adult life. Eventually I’ll have the freedom to treat them by hiding in a cool, dark, quiet room and putting ice on my head, but for now there is no escape. Classrooms are unavoidably noisy and relentlessly bright places.
“I have a headache,” I tell my fourth-grade teacher. All I can think about is the quiet dark of the nurse’s office.
“So do I,” she says dismissively, and sends me back to my seat.
On another occasion, someone puts a “Kick Me” sign on my back. I have never heard of this before, and I don’t know what to make of it. I discover the note, and a wave of snickering passes through the kids around me. I’m not sure that to make of it. My first impression is that this must be a note from someone, to me. Are they asking me to… kick them? But why? Is it like a dare, to figure out who wants to be kicked? And why tape it do my back? I really don’t understand these people.
I do sort of get the sense that this is a prank, based on the reactions of others. Nobody kicked me, so I don’t really get the idea. It’s just a dumb note that makes no sense that you can’t read because it’s on your back.
As with most of my really serious social blunders, I decide to imitate. I take the note and put it on the next available back – that of the girl in front of me. She notices right away, tells on me, and the teacher is angry with me.
“Would you like it if someone did kick her, Shamus?” she asks indignantly.
“No,” I shrug. My face is bright red, and the kids who laughed at me before are now laughing at me again. I didn’t want to hurt her. I wasn’t even sure what to expect. I try to explain that someone had done the same to me, and the teacher reacts as if I’ve just told her a lie. I give up and stop talking, because I have no idea what to do from here.
I can remember the teacher’s name, and the fact that he used drop a fat textbook onto the floor with a loud “smack” when he wanted to startle the students into paying attention. But that’s it. The rest is gone.
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