Thursday, January 26, 2012

How to Play with Boys

Who were these creatures? Small, mean, and mad animals who delighted in torturing insects, small rodents, and each other. I didn’t understand how we were in the same species. They appeared to be the most excited when causing harm. I observed kindness mostly between adults and even then this exchange occurred infrequently; when a person was in danger or severe tragedy. The holding pattern for most boys was silent hostility and indifference.
When I was kindergarten a teenager from Highland Oaks Middle School would cross over to our grounds after school to push me down into the dirt, beat me up, and call me all sorts of names until I burst into tears. I was a faggot and it was his duty to hurt me. When I went to the teachers I was informed that I needed to change. Their advice was to stop playing house with girls, join the boys, try to fit in. My bullying was of my own doing. I needed to toughen up. I was 6.
I liked playing house, I enjoyed the company of children who preferred imagination and role playing instead of competition and fear. There was no pushing, no worries when playing house. If I raised my voice in confrontation this would make most of the girls burst into tears or run to the teacher. So we played house with delicate voices and concern for each other’s feelings. Wasn’t this a virtue? Shouldn’t I be praised for having some modicum of kindness and love? And besides, I was one of the only boys in class who actually preferred playing house. When boys were selected to stay inside and work with my imaginary stove and pots, they hated it. They banged the pots, would try to break the chairs, and send girls running away in tears. When I had to stay inside I celebrated. Although I wasn’t crazy about the whole taking care of a baby, I enjoyed the fake meals, cleaning, creating a domestic soap opera.
But if what the adults were saying was true, then playing house could be my downfall. I couldn’t stand the thought getting beaten up for years. My fear of my teenage tormentor won out over my love of playing house. The first time I voluntarily choose to play outside the teacher was startled. Then she smiled as if something proper and righteous had been restored in my action. I was going to give this a try.
Dense blankets of red and brown leaves covered Highland Oaks Elementary school grounds. These musty leaves could be kicked up, thrown around, used as burying material for another kid or gathered in a giant pile to be run through. I was amongst the cavemen now. The boys looked at me suspiciously. I didn’t know whether this experiment was going to work. Once we were outside everyone dispersed into the woods, running around buildings, screaming, climbing up poles, ripping the bark off trees. This was my play now.
The playing was free, chaotic, often destructive, combative, competitive. Playing with boys was both immensely freeing and depressing. On the one hand I found most of our play to be idiotic and confusing. We would create rules but quickly break them whenever it was convenient. I knew enough not to be that know-it-all kid trying to correct others. I stayed back and watched how the dynamics played out. Games would pop up and then quickly end. On the other hand, playing with boys made me more observant of competition, games, arguing, and fighting for a cause.
Our play seemed to divided into 5 or 6 boy tribes. You were expected to play, eat at lunch, and hang out with your tribe. The strongest or most popular kids had veto powers over anything and could sometimes go over into another tribe and temporarily take it over. Highland Oaks was a public school with a mostly Jewish student body. Each tribe had a different level of social power not only with the students but even the teachers. The lowest group was composed of Latinos, Blacks, and some effeminate boys. Although they welcomed me into their games on my first day on the playground, I made sure to never play with them again. I was trying to improve my social standing. The bottom tribe wasn’t worth the effort. The teachers frequently punished them and they were prey to all the boys.
The next two groups up from the bottom was comprised mostly of the same kind of mixture but had less gays and a few outspoken leaders. The highest tribe was the gold stars, filled with alpha dogs, mostly Jewish kids who played together at the JCC, came from wealthy families, and were extremely outspoken and combative. Often it was difficult to tell if these boys even liked each other. They spent so much time trying to outdo themselves, get around teacher rules, and harass the girls that I knew I couldn’t be a part of their tribe. It would be too much of a betrayal to my girls to go from playing house with them to putting gum in their hair. Furthermore, I knew they probably wouldn’t let me in. Therefore I aimed for the silver medal.
The silver tribe had a Latino kid in it. The leader seemed strong but not too mean. I would be the Black kid in their group, offering my unique perspective. When I first approached them, I put on my most casual stroll and walked into the middle of their games. I looked around, smiling, looking for an invitation. None was forthcoming. In fact, their leaders pulled the tribe away from me and into a different part of the woods. This was going to be more difficult than I thought. I wandered through the woods fighting back my tears. I wanted to go back inside for a nice cup of fake tea and a bowl of fake soup. I trudged around thinking, my feet kicking massive piles of leaves. One of the boys from the silver tribe came over to me and started kicking leaves at me. I realized this was some sort of aggressive ritual invitation to play.
I kicked some leaves back at him. He picked up and giant pile and I picked a giant pile. Pretty soon we were hurling these mud-covered lumps of leaves at each other, laughing and running around the trees. I pretended to enjoy myself by screaming in my loudest outdoor voice and waving my arms around. I was faking it. Soon two silver tribesmen came over and joined in this chaotic mess. I discovered that I had some outstanding traits: I was quite fast and strong in comparison to my fellow classmates. Perhaps this Black thing was already working to my advantage. I could jump and outrace most of the kids on the ground. Furthermore I could add in some of my role playing skills from my times playing house. The leaf toss became a battleground and I was leading the charge.
I made sure to advertise how much fun we were having to others. When an effeminate boy from the lowest tribe tried to join in, I ignored him and pushed our game farther in the opposite direction. I couldn’t risk my entrance by associating with my own kind. Pretty soon we were making so much noise that I had dragged away half the tribe to my side. Fearing a mutiny, the leaders joined in my game. I keep changing roles, new story lines when the boys started to get bored, I added in an interesting rule or a twist. And I could outrace them to the gun warehouse (i.e. where we stocked our special leaves) and back to the front lines.
My time playing with girls greatly benefited me. I used my attuned sensitivity to manage relationships, avoid conflicts before they started, and practiced playground diplomacy between different tribes. I also stood by silently when effeminate boys were beaten up. My loyalty in the boy's club would have been threatened by any signs of compassion for the weaker kids: the faggots, freaks, and unattractive girls. The teenager stopped beating me up. A few years later we played basketball together. He considered me a friend and confided in me his girlfriend decisions. I could barely contain the desire to stomp his face in when he smiled at me.
Playing with boys helped me learn to stop crying. Pain was something to endure. My feelings and emotions weren't discussed or considered. Power was the only currency honored. Underneath my skin, I burned. My childhood was filled with fevers, flu bouts, phlegmatic congestion, headaches, and electric fire that rippled through my little hands and feet. No one knew how my often my physical body ached from psychosomatic rage. I consumed the fire. 
Suicide became a viable option by the end of the 6th grade. I was fascinated with my final solution. The idea seemed easy enough. The devil was in the details. I didn’t know enough about poisons, hanging looked gruesome, and slitting wrist appeared to be unsuccessful most of the time. The easiest way was with a gun. My Dad had at least two stored in his closet, high above the raincoats and sports jackets. Gun one was a black and dense. The snub-nose reminded me of my favorite novels. James Bond, however, probably used something which was thinner and not and with a lighter trigger. Gun two was a shimmering chrome revolver with a cream colored handled. The Lone Ranger would holster a gun like this. I felt heroic when I held the Lone Ranger pistol in my hand. Death didn’t seem so flawed. The voices encouraged my hobby.
You will always be alone.
You are disgusting.
How could anyone ever love you?
Planning satisfied the voices and kept me occupied. How does an adolescent prepare for death? You have to map these things out very carefully. I agonized over the location. The living room, my bedroom, the bathroom.
What about the note? What should I say? What could be said? I was unhappy, but who commits suicide in a festive mood?
When I turned 13, I made an agreement with myself. One year. If my life didn't improve in one year, I would kill myself. Six years of this fire was enough. I began shutting down, seeing how long I could go without saying a word in class or at home. Some times I lasted for days.
I began thinking about my last year and what I wanted to see out of my life. My interests in music faded. I quit playing the violin and stopped listening to the radio. Oblivious to my thoughts, my parents left me at home and I stewed in my last year, clutching my Dad's guns, writing out notes. 
Then I discovered the aerobics tapes my sister left behind. I started working out that summer, first for 30 minutes, then an hour, and pretty soon 3-4 hours a day. One aerobics tape after another, all day long. The living room smelled like sweat. No violin, no music, no friends. It was just me and Charlene Prickett. She was my saint. I listened to her every day as she pushed through these bouncing dance moves with her two disciples, standing on opposite sides. We worked cardio, floor pilates, abs. Discipline. I discovered self-discipline in figuring out foods to eat. I quit eating candy. I stopped drinking soda on a whim one day (and have never picked it up again). My own private boot camp prepared me for my last year and the beginning of school.
When I returned to junior high school something had shifted. I was still pudgy and soft around the edges. But my beer belly was gone. I could take my shirt off in basketball without gasps of laughter and falling rolls of flesh. I  found refuge once again in play. Sports equalized myself and the bullies. 
 In basketball I was a tough rebounder, shot blocker, and would rip the ball out of opponents hands like I was picking oranges. In football, I scored every time I caught the ball because no one suspected the dough-soft Black kid had any speed or skills. In boxball I beat all challengers. My hands and feet were quicker and stronger most challengers from hours of aerobic workout tapes and I used those appendages to their fullest. The teasing lasted only as long as it took to change in the locker room. I wouldn't have to see these kids in my honors classes. I just had to endure them in short bursts. I managed the fear. 
Honing myself year after year, I became an award-winning tennis player, then all-state wrestler and football player in high school. I sought validation in the very boy's club I despised. I picked up with my music listening strictly from what was played on team buses and before games. Gangsta rap and grunge music. The fade was pitch perfect for my feelings. Years before Columbine I imagined walking through the lockerroom and school gyms with submachine guns blazing. I saw blood explode out of their mouths as I gunned down my own teammates over a soundtrack of Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. Nightmares were frequent. 
At the end of the year, I found myself tolerated by most, liked by a few, and grudgingly respected by the bullies. Maybe I could wait another year to decide? No, I had made an agreement with myself and I was determined to keep in strict adherence to the contract. Discipline is needed for these types of situations. It was either all or nothing. Suicide now or never. But what had I been doing this whole time but killing myself through abusive negation and self-disgust? It wasn't suicide now or never. It was suicide: slow or fast? For most of my childhood I had been choosing slow. 
Suddenly it occurred to me that maybe I was asking the wrong question. Instead of choosing the method and speed of suicide, maybe I should make a decision between this way and life? What would a life look like? I may be alone, I may be unpopular, but what do I want in my life? I didn't want peer approval. I found it thoroughly unsatisfying to judge myself according to the opinion of others. These were cavemen, boys who still enjoyed torturing little animals and humiliating themselves. After all these years I had no more respect for them now then when I was in kindergarten. So what did I want? Not ten years from now, or next week, what did I want right there in that moment? Music.
I haven't listened to my own music all year. Not locker room, pre-game songs blasted out on a stereo. My music. I turned to MTV. Soulful cooing and up-tempo grooves blasted out of the speakers. A woman in a baseball cap and spandex shorts was dancing around in a group. She was searching for a 'real love." To this day I always remember what the song I broke my music celibacy to: Mary J. Blige's "Real Love." Nothing could have been more appropriate. Every time I hear that song I think about that day when I was trying to decide between suicide or life.
Then it was Guns N' Roses "November Rain" and a flurry of songs that were all about the same thing: love. The issue was settled then. No more suicide, not now or ever. Not fast or slow. I wanted music, friends, and a chance at real play. Not competition, not blood sport. Real play. Joy, fun, doing what kids do. School became different. The teasing that once tortured me, now rolled off my back. I was a little fat. So what? I was gay. There had to be at least someone else in history who was also. There had to be others. Someone else out there has to be having a similar experience of alienation whether gay, straight, Black or White. Maybe one day we'll meet. Maybe I can seek them out. And then we can learn how to love and play.   


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