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This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

School Bus Memories

Armed with Miyazaki films, and the Rhode Island State Plant*, I've been making a lot of emotional breakthroughs into the complex nature of my own personality, of the things that make me tick as a person. It's been very therapeutic, and I thought I'd share some more.

One thing I imagine a lot of people struggle with is positioning themselves in society. Perhaps a lot of us are exactly sure where we stand, but I think more than a few of us don't know if we're on top or bottom, and that confusion is a big source of personal pain as well as a lot of political and social dysfunction in our society.

A core memory in my childhood was being added to a gifted program in 4th grade. There were four people in the class, two girls, a boy, and myself. The other three had been in the class since 1st grade, and on the first day as we waited for the bus to take us from the elementary school to the middle school where the program was, the boy took it upon himself to let me know where I stood.

"You're not supposed to be here," he told me. "If you're supposed to be here, then why weren't you here in 1st grade?"

I'll call the boy Ben, which isn't his actual name. Ben's parents were highly educated and lived in the nicer part of town. Ben was fond of telling me that the reason I lived in a crappy Warner West rowhouse was because my parents must have given all their money to the school psychologist to bribe me into the gifted program. He liked to remind me that my dad was a "cart pusher" (he was an assistant manager at a grocery store) and that my mom was a dumb secretary. And Ben's parents, who were fluent in Asian languages** and had Ivy League degrees and did really important, educated things, were clearly able to give to him access to knowledge I didn't have. Ben would come in and talk about, say, string theory, and what his dad told him about the workings of the universe. I would be flabbergasted. Ben would find me in a hallway and knock my books out of my hand or shove me into a locker.

The first project we did in that program was build balsa wood structures that were supposed to hold a lot of weight. Having been told that triangles were the strongest of all shapes, I went about trying to create this triangular structure that was, in retrospect, very poorly designed and not likely to survive any weight at all. The groups were split, two to each. At some point, the other three students (correctly) realized that Ben's structure was the best, and joined in on his team. Determined not to give in to the kid that called me a cart pusher's son, I opted to keep working on mine. My structure never got finished.

Of course, I'd come back to normal classes, and the kids who weren't in the program had exactly the opposite anger to heap on me. They'd shove me too, but they didn't call me a cart pusher kid, but instead called me faggot for being perceived as too soft and refined. So I found myself caught between a class where everyone thought I wasn't up to snuff, and one where all the kids thought I was an elitist. 

The thing I really like about Miyazaki films that of late has helped me think a lot about my own life is that his characters are never truly good or evil. They have deep wounds inside them that fester and make them act in stupid ways, but the gestalt of their behavior is more like that of someone who is a broken machine, repeating the same bad actions. And one thing I've realized lately is that I've simultaneously held an anger at both groups of people, but I've never thought about how I responded to the situations I was faced with.  I really dug in my heals and didn't cooperate with anyone, put myself purposefully on the outside as if by doing so I would claim some territory of respect. But I became, equally, a monstrous person. Sometimes I look back on the people that picked on me and wonder what their demons were. Why did they do these things? What pain were they experiencing that they had to act this way?

Another memory I have was when my parents were getting divorced. There was a lot of turmoil in my house, and the DCYS (Delaware County Youth Services) had assigned us TSS workers (I have no idea what that stands for, but it's like a one-on-one helper that comes to your house--we had three, I guess (?) one for each child.  Another part of the program was being sent on a bus out to this youth camp in the summer. I'd never taken a school bus anywhere except class trips, and this was a new exercise for me. I'd wait for the bus, that would pick me up. The other kids all seemed to be severely (like non-verbally) autistic, or extremely angry and violent, or otherwise completely on the outside of society. We went through "bad" neighborhoods and picked up African-American kids, who in my mind at the time seemed fairly normal. I had the tools to understand that perhaps the reason these kids were on the bus was because there was some kind of racism going on. They came from poorer neighborhoods than my lower middle class one, and (I assumed) maybe they had families that were even more unstable than mine. The kids from the "bad" neighborhoods always seemed like nice people. 

We arrived at the camp, and this struck me yet again. It was like a sea of children of color, with severely disabled white kids in between. And I remember the overwhelming feeling amidst my understanding that their must be racism at play was "but what's wrong with me?" I mean, I could explain away what was going on with these other kids. But in my cohort, the only white kid was an autistic kid with an imaginary friend named Nadine.*** I looked around in a sea of black--and my town was not lily white by any means--and what I'd intuited from experience was that any place you were in that was that black was a place of troubles. Not out of a direct resentment of African-Americans, but out of just a knowledge that the neighborhoods that "looked that way" were not wealthy or safe places. That fear can overwhelm you when you're 12.

One of the most shameful memories I have of myself was that I told this kid that Nadine wasn't real. It got the kid upset, and I calmly insisted that Nadine wasn't there. It seemed odd to me that this kid had invented an imaginary friend and was able to believe in her throughout whatever counter-evidence of her existence was around him, but could be so easily dissuaded by my statement that she'd gone away. He'd cry. I'd keep insisting, "No, Nadine's gone. She died, actually. She's dead." He'd cry some more. I don't know why I did that. No adult ever knew that I did that. It was really something I only did for one day, and even by the end of the day I felt ashamed of my foray into cruelty, and admitted to the autistic kid that his imaginary friend was alive and well (he was grateful, and stopped crying on a dime). But it still haunts me occasionally. It's one of those memories of myself that I've buried and don't think about, and then sometimes it comes back and realize that it's the cosmic equivalent of smashing a baby against the rocks. I took advantage of someone who had no ability to reason through his situation. It makes me feel awful.

I made friends with the bus attendant on the trip to the camp, and everyday we'd have fairly deep discussions. I think he was a psycho major still in school. I remember sharing my insecurity that there was something wrong with me that I should be in such a place, and he said that he thought it wasn't so. But the feeling stuck with me.

And then, as quickly as I became part of all that, it went away. For some reason, the TSS workers stopped coming. The camp stopped. I don't know if funding ran out, or what happened. But I pushed it all behind me.

We're living in a time when a lot of people are trying to make sense of their existence, and in a time when you aren't sure of yourself of of who you are. I'm frightened by the swell of support that exists for Donald Trump, who I think is truly a fascist, without any exaggeration. I'm aware enough, I hope, to see the many ways that society has privileged my existence. I grew up lower middle class, maybe dropped half a rung in the midst of the divorce, but otherwise had everything going for me. Maybe a touch of gender-oddity or bisexuality, but basically a white, straight kid for all intents and purposes living in the suburbs. I've struggled at times with whether I'm the elite who has to show great solidarity with the poor and down-trodden, or the poor needing help myself. And I think for many people who fall into my rung of society, if there isn't an overt political ideology that guides them through (I was drawn to marxism, personally, in middle school, an idea that was introduced to me by some people in the gifted classes I was in, and totally unknown to the kids in my regular classes) then the people that get blamed are people of color, foreigners, etc. But how can we speak to these people's experiences? They have people above them calling them cart pusher kids, and people below them that they fear being a part of. They're fed convenient lies that help them make sense of it all, and some of them accept those lies.

I still never know who I am. I love when someone tells me that I'll grow up and have a car when I have kids. Or sometimes, it takes the form of someone telling me that the reason I don't have kids yet is because I'm an elitist. And this is partly true. I went on to Temple University, was in the honors program, rubbed elbows with all the right people, and came away with an ability to express myself that puts me in an upper echelon of society. The ability to choose to put off having a family because there's no money around is a choice that comes from education. And then, on the other hand, there's the fact that I'm 30. My parents had me, age five, and my sister, soon a toddler, by that point in their lives. My dad started a job the night John Lennon died stocking shelves at a grocery store and worked his way consistently into lower and then middle management positions, spending three decades at one job without interruption. How I'd wish for such an opportunity, even with my college degree! I feel a deep hole in myself, like I'm at a point where I'd like to move on and be an adult, but I can't.  I feel embarrassed by how dependent I am on others, and I know I could never provide for another human being. And it's usually the territory of women, I think, to feel a biological clock ticking, but I feel mine too. All this research out there that says older fathers caused birth defects or learning and emotional disabilities in their kids. I look back at my TSS worker days and I wonder if the next generation is going to be even more fucked up than me. Do I ride a bicycle and take a bus because I have no money (yes) or because I'm an elite educated environmentalist (yes)? It's all very confusing. Fascism is the conservative revolution, as Slavoj Zizek says, and its strength in people's minds is that it appeals to this feeling of being caught in the middle. It swallows us in its jaws, like a shark.

But as I process memories like this, I realize we have a lot of things to talk about in order not to go blindly off a cliff.


*Quahogs, of course (or is it calamari?). They both really help with the processing of emotions, especially in small doses.

**By the way, in case there's any ambiguity, Ben was white. His parents spoke Asian languages fluently because they'd spent years abroad.

***I didn't protect Nadine's identity, given that she's . . . uh. . . imaginary. That's actually what her name was.

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