8th grade is an awkward year.
You are still part child, but you are also adolescent—seething with hormones, self-conscious, wanting to be noticed but not wanting to stick out in any way.
I was burnishing my new shield—sarcasm. Buttressing my vulnerability with venomous humor became second nature. Take a swipe at me, and I’ll make you feel really, really bad about yourself.
I had a reputation for making girls cry. I don’t remember much of my meanness, only what these girls told me later in high school, once they had forgiven me and we were friends. One girl, Rachel, told me that she spent an extra half hour every morning straightening her hair because she was afraid I would make fun of her if she wore it to school curly.
Underneath this defense of mechanism of verbal parry and thrust, I was a sensitive person, adapting to an ugly environment, an experiment in social Darwinism at a Christian middle school. Perhaps I’m being overdramatic. Perhaps I was simple after all: better to make the other boys in my unstable confederacy of friends laugh at someone else’s stupid question in class or weight problem than absorb any more of their cruelty. When in Rome…
I regretted what I became. I know because I wrote a poem called “Reflections.” Of course, no one knew I wrote anything outside of class, especially poetry, and this was very uncool, I knew. Writing songs and playing guitar like Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin was one thing, but writing poems would be perceived as nothing but “gay.”
I wrote in secret, and “Reflections” was a meditation on the devastation caused by unkind words. I thought of one boy in particular. He was always on the fringes of the popular crowd. He wanted in, but his social awkwardness and eagerness to please made him an easy target. Two of the popular boys gathered the rest of the chosen together and told the group that we were to tell the pariah that boys got their periods too. If he asked us if we’d “shot our dot,” then we were to say yes. A well-orchestrated charade in which we all played our parts, further wounding and degrading a classmate who wanted our acceptance and friendship. I participated with all the rest, and was ashamed of perpetuating the lie.
I was, after all, sensitive, and just a few years before, I had been the victim of tag-team bouts of public humiliation.
I wrote my poem for him, a confession to God and a plea for forgiveness.
When our 8th grade English teacher began soliciting submissions to the writing anthology, I gave her my poem.
In the words of the saint from Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail, I “chose poorly.” I couldn’t just be like the other kids and turn in a piece about our trip to Washington or my grandparents or the neologism that she made us define.
Oh no, I had to turn in something original.
Mrs. Walker liked my poem so much that she used “Reflections” as the name of the whole anthology. My poem became the front cover complete with an illustration by David Lavender.
What this meant is that when a copy of the anthology went home with every one of my classmates, their parents would at least read my poem.
No longer did the Hastys or the Wests or the Howells simply say, “Hello,” and show me up to the playroom where the rest of the kids were hanging out.
No, they now regarded with a mixture of admiration and concern. I had, after all, written a thoughtful piece about the consequences of sarcasm and this from a pubescent boy! On the other hand, maybe I was depressed, and would grab a knife from the block on the countertop, slash my wrists, and bleed all over the kitchen floor.
I stigmatized myself by sharing that poem. Parents and classmates alike treated me as the oddball who had “deep thoughts” and wore my heart on my sleeve.
I learned to keep my writing to myself unless I was writing a humor column for the school newspaper or research papers for English classes.
I nurtured this contemplative side and resigned myself to never belonging, never being able to share all of myself with the people around me.
Of course, I believed a lie. People want and need that vulnerability from others.
Humor has, at its heart, deep sadness. Many comedians are people with deep pools of pain.
Laughter transforms the brokenness of our lives into hope.