My youngest son wondered aloud this year why my Christmas-tree decorations are all glass bulb ornaments. I like the way they reflect the lights!
I do hang one non-bulb ornament on my tree. When I was in Kindergarten, my teacher gave every student a shiny red plastic bell ornament onto which she painted their name, “Kdg.,” and the year (for me, 1972!). It was her annual tradition. I have ornaments from other school years, crafty, schlocky things made of popsicle sticks, felt, and decoupage. They stay in the ornament box. I like the bell for its simplicity, its purity; it is a just-right reminder of a time I enjoyed very much and hold in high regard.
For me, the holidays are really about gathering with people I love and having good times together. These times inevitably create warm memories. The whole family is coming to my house this year for Christmas, and there’s so much to do! To give me a little more time to prepare, between now and Christmas Day I’ll be sharing with you some past posts of Christmas memories.
Next: The traditional Grey family Christmas music.
It’s Down the Road’s fifth blogiversary!
All month I’m reposting favorite stories from the blog’s early days.
I usually remember numbers because I hear a rhythm in them. It’s kind of annoying, actually. My dad’s 1976 license plate number was 71D7140, my first girlfriend’s phone number was 234-6448, my 7th-grade locker combination was 6-44-40, my student number in college was 14827. I even remember all 16 digits from my first credit card, which I got when I was 17.
When I was 12, I sang in the school choir. Practice began at 7 am, long before school buses came through my neighborhood. My parents did not believe in shuttling their children to activities. “If you want it bad enough,” Dad said, “you will find a way to get there.” So I set aside enough money from my allowance to ride the city bus to school on choir mornings. I walked to a bus stop in the dark at 6:30 a.m. three mornings a week.
Every day, it was the same driver. Every day, he drove the bus with the number 2163 painted on it. Every day, he picked up the same handful of riders going to work. We rode in silence as the other riders got off one by one at their stops. After the last worker exited, it was ten more minutes before we reached the school. The driver and I took to chatting those minutes away. It turned out that he was as much an old-car buff as I was. He told me he was hot-rodding an old Model A, and it was in parts all over his garage. I found the whole thing fascinating. So one morning when he was running ahead of schedule, he stopped his bus in front of his house, which just happened to be on the route. He lifted his garage door and gave me a quick look-see at his Model A. It was pretty cool. The next year, my brother and one of his friends joined choir, too, and the friend’s dad drove us. One day a few years ago a fellow left a comment on a photo of two South Bend city buses that I had posted on Flickr. I checked out his photostream and found out he’s a bus fan – there’s a quiet but thriving group of them out there! He had this photo of an old South Bend bus in its final resting place, a northern Indiana junkyard. And there, over the driver’s window, is its number: 2163.
A few boys started to pick on me a little when I was in the fifth grade. I was never a fighter; I always wanted to get along, and so I always tried to just laugh it away. Sometimes they were a little belligerent, and I tried to keep the peace by appeasing them. When that didn’t work I withdrew, often in tears, which only encouraged them.
There had been maybe 60 sixth graders in my elementary school, where the pecking orders had long been established. When we moved up to the middle school, our seventh grade class numbered more than 400. We boys had to figure out hierarchies anew, with all the one-upsmanship, displays of toughness, and putdowns that implies – made fierce by a puberty-fueled desire to impress the girls. But I was a late bloomer – boyish, scrawny, not chasing the girls yet. I was not tough and I still wouldn’t fight. So I was a frequent stooge for boys trying to impress others or salve their own feelings of inadequacy.
The least of it was the taunting and name calling. If you drop the r sound from my last name it sounds like “gay,” so naturally I was routinely called James Gay. A few boys lisped the s. One boy even made up a little singsong taunt from it. Some boys cut right to the chase and called me a faggot.
The many times my books and folders were knocked sprawling from my hands for me to retrieve from under other students’ feet were not the worst of it either.
No, the worst was the physical abuse.
On the bus, several boys liked to flick their index fingers hard into my ear. My complaints to the driver got me nowhere. Sometimes I’d get lucky and get the seat behind the driver. The boys wouldn’t mess with me there.
At school, teachers and staff seldom visited one dim back hallway. After being deliberately tripped three times and then outright assaulted twice back there, I complained to the shop teacher whose classroom was around the corner. He said that he couldn’t help me unless he saw someone hurting me. I wanted to say, “Then come out of your dang classroom and look!” I finally gave up using that hallway and went the long way, which involved going outside and around the building.
The gym teachers had looking the other way down to a science as the bigger boys would deliberately pass the basketball right into my face, spike the volleyball into my head, pitch the baseball at my gut, run me down on the track, and so on. After showering one day, several boys forced me into the adjacent restroom, all of us still naked, and tried to shove my head into the toilet. I hollered loud enough that the teachers couldn’t ignore it, but when they came into the restroom they only told us to break it up. I refused to shower after that.
I dreaded going to school. I grew depressed and fearful, and withdrew deeply. It was bad enough that my dad, who is not the most emotionally astute man in the world, noticed that I wasn’t myself. I told him what was going on, and he said that it would continue until I fought back. He tightly duct-taped a roll of pennies and told me to carry it for the day it came to blows, as the weight of the pennies in my fist would make my punch hurt more. The pennies in my pocket actually made me feel a little better, which might have been Dad’s purpose all along. An assistant principal discovered my penny roll one day, called it a concealed weapon, and threatened to suspend me if I kept carrying it. Dad said that if I were suspended he would visit that assistant principal to find out why he allowed such bullying to go on in his school. I wondered why he didn’t just go visit the assistant principal anyway.
I needed more help than I got.
There seems to be greater awareness of the bullying problem in schools today. Many schools have anti-bullying programs. In particular, New Jersey is trying to address the problem by passing a sweeping and complex law called the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which took effect Sept. 1. After reading my story, you may be surprised to learn that I have mixed feelings about this law. I applaud that it prescribes training for students, teachers, administrators, and even school board members in recognizing bullying and in their responsibility to try to stop it and report it when they see it. But it is too complicated to administer, defines bullying too broadly, fails to recognize bullying’s pernicious nature, and doesn’t offer any meaningful help directly to the victim.
The law starts to go sideways when it tells teachers they risk their licenses when they fail to report bullying. It adds layers of bureaucracy when it mandates that any report of bullying must be escalated to the principal, who must begin an investigation within one day and complete it within ten, and report all investigations to state government twice yearly. It also fails to fund the additional staff it requires – anti-bullying coordinators at the school-system level and an anti-bullying specialist and “safety team” at each school. Pity the existing guidance counselors and social workers whose workload just increased. I fear all of this will lead overworked staff to comply just enough to avoid the law’s penalties.
The law labels bullying as any act one student does to another that causes emotional or physical harm, but ignores bullying’s inherent imbalance of power. By the law’s definition a simple insult can be considered bullying, as can a straight up fight between two angry students. This could flood school officials with reports that aren’t really bullying, but that they have to investigate and handle as such anyway.
Meanwhile, a determined bully will quickly learn when and where to deal out abuse to avoid detection, and may instill such fear in victims that they will not speak up for fear of retaliation. No law is powerful enough to reach into every dark corner in which a bully can lurk.
In the end, victims need direct help that this law does not offer. They may need counseling to work through the depression and fear they feel. They may need help in setting and defending their personal boundaries. They may benefit from training in self defense, because fighting back may sometimes be their only recourse when their back is against the wall. Through these things they can start to feel more personally powerful, which will make them a less likely target in the future.
I wish my dad had enrolled me in martial arts in the seventh grade, or at least taught me how to fight. I would have benefited from seeing a therapist to help me work through my emotional pain, deal with my depression, and help me build my confidence. The middle school owed me teachers and administrators who took me seriously when I complained. Fortunately that’s just what I found when I escaped to the high school two years later. One day in the ninth grade one of my tormentors shoved me into my locker and shut the door. A custodian popped the lock when he heard me yelling and banging frantically. The teachers in the adjacent classrooms came to investigate and told an assistant principal what happened. I’m not sure what the assistant principal did to the boy, but he gave me a wide berth for a long time after that and never harmed me again. I got some of the help I needed, and nobody needed a law to compel it.
I’m still not tough, but I will stand up for myself today. It all started when I came to accept myself for who I am. Read that story.
I last stood in the wings of this stage when I was in the sixth grade, so it was 1978 or 1979, but I didn’t particularly want to be here. I would rather have been singing with the choir at the foot of the stage.
As part of a concert, a few of us entered the stage from here and danced our way across, strumming ukuleles while the choir sang Fascinating Rhythm. I hated to dance! But Mrs. O’Hair, a teacher who helped with the vocal music program, had considerable will. When she decided you were going to be in a production, there was no discussion.
And so I danced, badly. Then with great relief I returned to the choir.
I loved to sing. I could carry a tune, and I sang out loud. I joined the school choir in the second grade, a year before students were normally allowed to join. Miss Seidler, the music teacher and choir director, wanted my strong voice in the choir and so she asked my parents if they’d mind. They didn’t.
Practice was a lot of fun. I enjoyed mastering new songs and hearing my voice blend with others. I never really enjoyed performing, but the joy of singing every day was worth the two concerts each year. My dad never missed a concert. He still tells people that I carried the choir, but I think he suffers from too much fatherly pride. I was proud to have him in the audience, and I’ll never forget looking out over the dark auditorium trying to find him in the crowd.
Dad liked to sit in the balcony where he could get the best view.
I stuck with choir through middle school, where we sang in four parts. I sang tenor, but had enough range to cover the alto and often the soprano parts, much to my fellow tenors’ surprise. Then as my eighth grade year drew to a close, one morning I woke up and found that I was a baritone. My voice changed literally overnight. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to relearn a dozen songs quickly enough, so I just quit going to early-morning practice. I found I really liked sleeping in, so I didn’t join the choir in high school. (It’s funny how things turn out – not being in morning choir practice freed me to spend time in the school’s computer lab, which led to my career in software development.)
But I didn’t stop singing. I couldn’t; it just felt too good. It soothed me when I was upset and lifted me when I was blue. When I was out of sorts I’d take long drives in the country, singing along at the top of my lungs to my favorite tapes until I’d regained my peace. And later when I found Christ, I was part of a congregation that sang a cappella in four-part harmony. I found great joy and pleasure in singing powerfully with a group again.
The only time in my life when my voice was still was during the last few years of my marriage, as things got really bad, and in the first couple years after my wife and I separated. But as I began to put my life back together, I found my voice, too. When I wanted to sing again, I knew that the worst was over.
I still sing nearly every day, mostly as I drive around in my car, accompanied by whatever CD I’m playing. If I’m ever behind you on the road, if you look in your rear view mirror you’ll probably see me belting out a tune! My sons riding in the back seat are the only audience I ever have. Sometimes they sing along. That’s just how I like it.
Taking a public speaking class in high school was also critical to my career in software development. No, really. Read how.
When I was a teenager, I didn’t enjoy how being uncool marginalized me. So I tried to improve my coolness quotient. I wore hipper clothes. I joined clubs at school. I tried not to talk about things that really interested me, like writing computer programs. But it was all like stepping into an ill-fitting suit – uncomfortable for me and obvious to everybody else.
So I gave up and just started following my unusual interests. I came to accept that I would hang out around the fringes in the high-school social pecking order. Sure enough, that’s what happened.
The only thing that kept me from having no social life was that my best friend, who was as much a geek as I was, had a viable social niche – acting. So sometimes I got to hang out with his drama club friends.
And then I went off to engineering school, where I was surrounded by geeks. Many of them had elevated their geekiness several levels beyond anything I could ever summon. On the relative scale, I seemed average! In a place where everyone was a geek, being myself was easy.
I started to branch out, finding new interests. I got involved with the campus radio station. I grew my hair and started listening to heavy metal music. I studied theoretical mathematics. I went on late-night drives in the country with a friend, exploring old roads.
I had a ball being myself.
I came to realize that in high school I felt like there was something wrong with being who I was. I was glad to have left that feeling behind in college.
Most of us leave high-school social nonsense behind as we age, of course. But I also think that most of us feel a flood of those old anxieties before each reunion. I sure do, at any rate. But because I’m comfortable in my own skin, I always have fun talking to everybody – most of whom I recognize but do not really know because I kept to myself so much back then.
A bunch of us went out for drinks after my 20th reunion five years ago. Because some things never change, I was there with my old best friend and several of the old drama club crew. We were all talking and laughing when suddenly the fellow who had been the leading man in all the plays exclaimed, “Jim! You used to be such a dweeb! But now you’re so cool!”
It felt good to hear it. But he’s wrong; I’m still not cool. I’m just okay with that now, and it shows.
During my 1970s kidhood when schools started after Labor Day as God intended, my mid-August birthday always meant summer was beginning to end. By then, the afternoon sun was at its hottest and most intense, the annual August dry spell began to toughen and dry spring’s tender greenery, and the street lights switched on earlier to send everyone inside for long quiet evenings with our families and our TVs. The dozens of children all up and down Rabbit Hill, as our parents nicknamed our prolific neighborhood, always sensed these changes and we all began to squeeze in as much play as we could before time ran out. One fellow down the street, thinking he was Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms, always organized and directed an end-of-summer show, an extravaganza that nobody would come and watch because everybody was in it. I would push to reach the new tree-climbing heights my brother and his best friend had mastered weeks before, heightening their schadenfreude when I would inevitably fall, land on my back, have the wind knocked out of me, and make that loud but hilarious sucking noise that only sounds like death is imminent. Somebody would connive their mother into have a big running-through-the-sprinkler get together at which gallons of Kool-Aid were served. Several kids sold lemonade or toys at a family garage sale to raise money for Jerry’s Kids. The chubby fellow who lived where the street curved sang his slightly naughty rhymes more often (“In 1944/My father went to the war/He stepped on the gas/And blew out his ass/In 1944!”) hoping to squeeze out another laugh. And then came the telethon, which was on almost everybody’s TV, and we all knew it was over.
Sure, we could still play war in full army gear in the wide easement behind the houses, ride our bikes and Big Wheels up and down the hill making siren sounds as if we were a horde of ambulances and police cars (imagine 20 children doing this on your street!), play endless Red Rover in the freckled girl’s front yard, and watch the four-year-old girl next door eat sand with a spoon (oh, if her mom only knew) the day after school started too. We simply lost most of our enthusiasm. It was time to button ourselves back down and return to school-day routines, which we did.
Rabbit Hill conditioned me well; I still recognize and lament the signs of summer’s end. My kids are back in school (since the day after my birthday, what nonsense). Jerry Lewis has had his telethon. The grass hasn’t grown much in weeks because of the annual dry spell. My air conditioner has been off more days than it’s been on; it was even too chilly the other morning to drive to work with the window down. I’ve crammed as much outside time as I can into these days to enjoy their freedom, but the end is in sight. Shorts will soon give way to long pants and short sleeves will give way to long sleeves. I’ll be in a windbreaker with a rake in my hands, collecting my trees’ considerable deposits. The snow will fly and I’ll be hunkered down at home. I still feel restricted, buttoned down, in fall and winter.
My stepson just moved to Orlando. Maybe he has the right idea!
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