[A continuation from Vagabond – Travel Leg 1, although this one is kind of ridiculously long and boring. I wouldn’t blame you for skipping it.]
My sister pointed out to me that the reason Jr. High and High School failed my formula is because there is no “recess” per se anymore. That’s true. We are given tiny breaks between classes—usually just long enough to get from one class to the next—and then, of course, there is the dreaded lunch period. But even without this crucial factor, I might have been able to adapt, as I did,… for a time.
However, while I could deal with one significant alteration to “the formula”, there was another alteration occurring that completely blind-sided me: puberty. All of a sudden—or at least what seemed like all of a sudden—the boys started being… different. Always before the boys had been either my comrades-in-arms or the somethings to pit myself against. Girls were a waste of my time, always wanting to play boring games, or swing on the swings, or talk about stuff. But the boys were fun! I hung out with the boys; played with them on the play-ground and liked their games wa-a-a-ay better! They played things like “war,” and had races and tests of skill and strength. Yeah! That was my M.O… um, before puberty.
In Jr. High, something started happening to the boys. They started looking kind of… lean and their muscles stood out a little more. A few of them started getting really tall and their voices did this funny little yodel-thing when they spoke. It was cute. Very cute. As a matter of fact, the boys started getting really cute. Just about everything about them started getting really cute.
I caught myself daydreaming one day in a History class, staring out the window. But wait, I wasn’t staring out the window. I was staring at Jim Carroll’s adam’s apple as the sun glinted off of it from the window. He moved his hand up to brush his bangs out of his face. His tan skin and white cuticles seemed to gleam against his red polo. Oh, he has pretty thumbs. I love how he holds his pencil; how it rests just so perfectly in the arch between his thumb and forefinger. And those eyelashes! How can a guy have such long eyelashes? They’re so dark and perfectly match his eyes…
Crap. He’s looking at me.
We’re reading,… um,… What are we reading? The page is right in front of me. I’m looking at the letters and I’ve forgotten how to read English. All I can see is the dude on the horse in the drawing in the textbook and he isn’t nearly as cute as Jim Carroll… who is now smiling at me with his blazing white teeth.
And my name is… what, again?
This is what I mean by blind-sided. Oh, sure. The health classes teach you what is clinically happening to the body. With my sights set on eventual doctor-hood, I have fully understood the clinical explanation of it for years. But it’s just not the same as actually having it happen to you. Understanding with the mind is one thing; but understanding with experience is quite another. As a matter of speaking, it’s an entirely different universe.
So, while all these amazing things were happening to the guys, I felt the exact opposite was happening to me. Hips! and… thighs! Gaaaah! Where did these come from? And,… oh, dammit: Breasts. I felt like someone was playing a cruel joke on my body. What was once a lean, streamlined, nimblesque athlete is now this gawky, awkward, disproportioned automaton. And the emotions! Holy cow! Puberty is SO wrong on SO many levels. Can you believe the sheer intensity of the emotions! No wonder teenagers are crazy. We are all bipolar-manic-depressives when we are teens and I blame it all on the hormones.
Nevertheless, I am a fighter and a survivor. I am also an actor. So I figured out the careful tightrope that one must walk in order to “win friends and influence people.” I figured out how to be one of the cool kids; and I didn’t even have to do drugs to do it. I played the game and became popular. For the better part of my seventh-grade year, I ran with the “in” crowd.
Then, as in all good stories because it’s true, something happened. My ecclesiastical leader called me in one day, sometime in… oh, about March of my seventh-grade year. He asked me if I would be a leader for our youth group. When I agreed, he then recommended that I go home and pray about whom I should choose for my two counselors and a secretary.
Now, those of you who share my religious upbringing know exactly whereof I speak. This is one of those cases where the actualness of the situation is substantially less important than what it feels like it is. Couple this with the previously-mentioned teenage angst and the responsibility of such a call is nigh unto crushing in its psychological weight. In reality, it’s no big deal at all. But to my limited 13-year-old perspective, this was a life-changing moment in the history of me.
It felt as though the weight of the world had been placed on my shoulders. Now, there is no way to accurately justify the severity of this experience without first making clear the background from whence it originates. For those of you who may not share my religious upbringing (LDS), please allow me an ever-so-brief illustration, if for no other purpose than to convince you that I’m not so crazy as I sound.
Imagine please, a calendar week beginning with Sunday. By the time I get out of bed, my father is either already dressed in his suit and tie, or out of the house at his first Sunday meeting of the day. Inevitably and always, my father served in Church callings which took him away for the better part of every Sunday. My sisters and I know that whoever is last to get to the shower will have the cold water, so we either bolt or skip breakfast entirely to try to make it to one of the showers before the others. (Even though we have two bathrooms, only one person can shower at a time, else there will be NO hot water for either.) Mom has already had her shower and is now working on her primary lesson.
Beginning at the age of 12, every Sunday at church becomes a rehash of the previous week’s lesson: how to stay morally clean. Occasionally, they may mention something about repentance, but mostly it’s about how NOT to sin in the first place. Over and over. From age 12 until one graduates from high school at 17. Every Sunday. How many ways can one talk about being morally clean? I would put money on the fact that I have heard at least 99% of those possible ways.
Then sometimes there was choir practice after church—for which I always accompanied and therefore was always obligated to go. And then we had at least one youth activity every week on one of the weeknights. This is, of course, not counting any special youth event get-togethers like Youth Conference, Girls’ Camp, Trek, Service activities, and the like.
Monday evenings were set aside for Family Home Evening: a gospel-study time for the family. And we read scriptures together and prayed as a family every evening. On top of this, practicing members of the LDS Church are encouraged (expected) to set aside time for daily personal scripture study, meditation, and daily prayer. We are also encouraged to keep a current journal, perform service regularly (so many ways to do this), and as teens from freshmen to senior year, attend early-morning Seminary every weekday before school at 6:00 am.
So, in a nutshell, my time at school was completely cocooned in scripture study and prayer: morning, noon and night. With every weekend filled nigh unto capacity with service projects and warnings about staying morally clean. All of this created a kind of mummified wrap around my awkwardly budding body.
I do wish I had known then what I know now. Of course, much of what I know now is probably a direct result of what I didn’t know then. So,… Meh. That’s life.
Back to the “calling”. I went home and fell to prayer on my knees. I felt so unworthy. So imperfect. I pulled out my journal and wrote down all the reasons why I didn’t deserve to be a leader for anybody, let alone these girls whom I respected so much. The bishop told me that even though I was being called to serve this small group of girls in our congregation, I would be responsible for being an example to every girl my age, whether she was a member of the LDS Church or not. I needed to be Christ-like: to be aware of their needs and show forth love in any and every way I possibly could.
I refused dinner that Sunday and stayed on my knees for hours. I wept and wrote and made lists and then crossed them out. I prayed for forgiveness for being so imperfect. I was sorry—truly sorry to the core of my soul—for every slight I had given to someone who was “less popular”. I thought of all the times I had acted my way through conversations, “working the room” so to speak, to gain my hard-earned popularity. Here in the dark of my room, on my knees, with papers strewn all over my bed, it all seemed so deceitful. I was playing a role. I wasn’t being my true self. I wasn’t being honest in my communication. I was being selfish. Was I aware of the girl with polio, who walked with crutches to class? Did I ever bother to offer to help her carry her books? How many others had I not seen because I was so wrapped up in myself?
As the sun set, I turned on my lamp and continued to write. Mom had come to my door several times to check on me, but Dad advised her to let me be. He knew this burden of leadership much better than I. My guess is, he understood what I was going through behind that closed door.
Eight o’clock rolled around and I sat back on my heels. In front of me, barely visible through my swollen eyes, lay two sheets of paper. One sheet contained the names of my two counselors and the secretary: names I would call to give to the bishop in a moment. On the other sheet, a list of “Promises to Live by”: goals I had set for myself to live a more Christ-like life. This is a sheet of paper I have shared with… no one.
Monday came and school was there again. Jim Carroll was lookin’ mighty fine in his purple and gold basketball jersey. My friends greeted me. As we walked down the hall I asked, “Did someone change the lights? The colors are different today.” They all looked at me like I was crazy. “Maybe it’s just the rain.”
Between English and History, I walked with Lianne—that was her name, I found out—and helped carry her books. She thanked me. This became a ritual and we became friends. But as I stopped acting like what I was not, other things changed too. You can imagine.
My father’s work moved us again three months into my eighth-grade school year. What timing! Given my “Promise” list, I refused to play the game of social butterfly and became an outcast. A ghost moving from one class to another, putting in my time and dying a little more inside each day. I understand why there are so many teen suicides.
Everything is so present. Everything is now. Maybe there is a tomorrow, but it’s so hard to see through the veil of unspent tears coating my soul and drowning me from the inside. The breath comes in, but it can’t reach my brain. The blood squeezes out of my shackled heart, but it never comes back again. I can’t blame it. There is no color in the sky. I am ash.
I am clean. I am on time. I participate little, but do well in school. I get sick a lot and am grateful when I get to stay home. I don’t do lunch. I barely visit the bathroom, except when I must. Even then, it’s a matter of holding my breath, getting in and getting out as quickly as possible. The place reeks of weed. I am invisible. I still have to pretend a lot. Pretend that I’m not dying inside. Pretend that it doesn’t hurt. Pretend that the seizing ache in the middle of my soul isn’t there. Pretend that I’m fine: that I’m… happy. I must be the example. What I would give for just one friend.
Then a freshman.
Then a sophomore.
Then a senior.
I did not go to prom. I never went on a date—not one—until I went to college. [See “Further Ramblings About Dating“] Ironically—and I really mean IRONICALLY—I continued to be called to positions of leadership and responsibility in my church. I never understood this. Most amazingly, my senior year I served as a lead co-chair over a 500-youth three-day conference. This thing was HUGE! My cohort-in-crime was a dashing young man for whom I had a very silent crush. The reason I term this experience as “amazing” and “unbelievable” is because these positions—the “co-chair” positions over the entire conference—were always reserved for the coolest of the cool kids: the class presidents and prom kings and queens. Not people like me. When the Stake President told me about it, I literally looked behind me to see if there was someone else in the room. Nope. Just us chickens.
It was perhaps this youth-conference experience that helped me step-off into college on the right foot. I dated a lot once I got to the university and I didn’t even have to be a faker about it. If high school was hell (and it was), that first year of college was the ultimate heaven.
So, I am not a parent nor a youth leader. I have no background in psychology nor social development, except for the few classes I completed in college to cover my general credits. (I did get A’s in those classes, by the way, though.) So I know I am certainly not one to hand out free advice.
Nevertheless… You knew I had to say it, right? As a result of my own experiences, if I ever were called upon to raise a child or be a youth leader at some point, I would hope to do this: I would teach nothing but love and respect, and show nothing but love and respect. I’m not blaming anyone but myself for my misunderstandings as a youth and I am still a practicing member of my faith now that I understand it a bit better. And while I am grateful for my pain and that which I have learned from it, I really wouldn’t wish it upon anyone else… ever.
I wish every child and every teen in the entire world could know how wonderfully amazing they are. I wish I could somehow instill in them the absolute certainty that no matter what they do, or who they are, or where they come from, or how they look, or what they feel; they are perfect just as they are. That God loves them exactly as they are. That He and She and We and They will always love no matter what or who or when or why or how anything happens. It isn’t about the happening. It’s about the being.
And this is probably why I’m not a parent, nor will ever be a youth counselor. I don’t know how to speak English when it comes to this subject. When I write it in music, it gets all sappy-n-crappy and stuff; and when I set it to poetry, it turns all black.
So there it is: the story of my vagabond days. I’ve moved around as an adult as well, but I figure most people do. So that’s nothing special. Thanks for listening, fellow traveler. Until we meet, I wish for your journeys to be covered in friendly skies.