Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hell is for Children (unedited)

this is a re-post of an earlier blog. However in the wake of the recent string of child suicides I've decided to include a lot of the stuff I cut. Originally I wanted to keep the tone of this blog light so I omitted some of the more serious parts of my book, but these issues couldn't be more timley and it's a reminder that not all bullies are other children, sometimes they are adults. .


I was a bad student. That’s the long and short of it. I have the attention span of a gnat. It was that way from the beginning, in fact I distinctly remember my first grade teacher Mrs. Earie who had an enormous head, was so proud of me for finishing my seat work early one day that she paraded me over the other first grade classroom so I could show it to the other teacher. Jesus, I was in the first grade; how established could my bad habits have been? I do know that I never did homework, never. Seriously until I went to college I fought it tooth and nail. Classic ADD along with my unparalleled ability to withdraw into my day dreams proved to be the downfall of my scholastic career. I used to imagine my pencil was a figure skater and the surface of my desk the rink. That occupied my mind for a surprising amount of time, or I would ask myself questions like “what would happen is this entire classroom was filled with Coke?” I would also scan around the room and give all the girls mental makeovers. Actually I still do this sometimes, it passes the time. I was not a bad kid, I never had behavior problems, and in fact I was quite the goody two - shoes. The only time I can remember being in trouble for anything other than not doing my homework was in Kindergarten when a substitute teacher put me in the time out chair for saying the Our Father to loud. That bitch!

I had gone to the same catholic school since Kindergarten, as my sisters Renee, Pam, and even briefly Alli had before me. Most of the children in my grade had gone there just as long, we all considered ourselves friends in that way you do when you become accustomed to seeing the same kids day after day, year after year. You would think that a boy as flamboyant as I was, a boy with the mannerisms rivaling those of Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show would have been a target for bullies. I wasn’t, at least not in the early grades. Not that it was smooth sailing, it is a fact of life that kids are nasty to each other and every class that one person who ruled over the rest of us in a reign of terror. Ours was a quintessential mean girl whose name I dare not mention for the shivers the mere memory of her still sends down my spine. Let’s just call her The Gorgon. On the very first day of first grade I had the misfortune of sitting right next to The Gorgon, who was covered head to two with freckles and stood at least six feet tall even then! We were each given a piece of paper with a circle on it, the assignment was simple, in the circle draw the face the person sitting next to you. I made the fatal error of getting out my brown crayon and drawing every one of The Gorgon’s freckles. She looked at it, looked at me, drew back and punched me so hard in the arm that my entire desk toppled over, with me in it. From that day on The Gorgon was my nemesis, Lucy to my Charlie Brown, only without the heartwarming summations. Still I never got any serious bullying, other than being called “a girl” every now and then. I think I was very good at identifying my comfort zones even at a young age. I didn’t try to hang out with the “A group”. Oh yes, the “A group” and I am not talking about a social cliques here, I am referring to the fact that the geniuses running the school thought it was wise and emotionally healthy for children to split every class into two groups “A and B” with the “A group” working at a faster pace. Clearly to all of us kids, the “A group” were the smart kids and us “B groupers” were the dumbasses. Talk about setting the tone for our future academic achievements. The idea of doing that in schools now is laughable. Seriously, the things I might have accomplished if it hadn’t been instilled in me so young that I was not one of the smart kids. I should sue!

I first noticed the shift in the fifth grade. For this is the age when kids start forming alliances, gravitating towards those they have the most in common with. Being different in any way was the worst thing imaginable. I knew what happened to those kids. Hell, I even taunted some of them myself. Every school has that one kid who smells like poop, or eats crayons, or falls out of their desk for no apparent reason. I did not; repeat did not want to end up as one of those poor tortured souls. I’d seen what happened to my sister at the hands of her peers and I would do whatever it took to avoid it happening to me. I think I was spared a lot because these kids were used to me and I was funny. If they are laughing with you, they ain’t laughing at you. So when the kids at school started to change, I was in trouble. I started to become more keenly aware that there was something different about me. It did not help my cause that the short bus pulled up to my house every morning. Naturally it was there to take Alli to school, and I know it sounds incredibly childish, but I was a child and no ten-year-old wants other kids to see the short bus in their driveway. I had to walk down the street to the corner to catch my own bus. I should mention that I lived three blocks from my school so why I had to ride the bus in the first place remains a mystery. I don’t know what sort of short term memory loss problem Alli’s bus driver had, but every morning without fail she would drive the short bus slowly behind me as I walked down the street. The short bus was stalking me, like Jaws stalking a swimmer with cramps. Then, also without fail, just as my own bus was pulling up and I could see my classmate’s faces through the windows, Alli’s bus driver would open the short bus door and say, “Are you one of mine?” I would turn beat red and hear Alli say, “That’s my brother.” I knew every kid on my bus was watching. This was not a problem I could share with anyone. In my house it was not ok to be embarrassed by the short bus or its passengers, but I was just a kid. I have long outgrown any embarrassment I have ever felt about my sister, but growing up it was a constant internal struggle.

Fifth grade was also the years that boys and girls stopped playing together. This also put me on the horns of a dilemma, because I hated boys. Yes it’s shocking that I ever hated boys but I did. Especially the ones in my class, all they ever did was make fart noises and they only ever wanted to play was football or soccer at recess. I was forced by circumstance to participate; the girls had frozen me out, The Gorgon saw too it that no boy entered her domain. I was forced to play soccer; you cannot understand the magnitude of this, suddenly recess, the one oasis in the dessert of my endless toil became something I dreaded worse than math. “I’m gonna be like Pele and play professionally” said a fat little boy with a permanent pizza sauce stain on his uniform shirt who shall remain nameless. “What’s a Pele” was my adorable, natural response “oh Cooper you’re such a pussy”. I should say that this was the year that all the boys in my class discovered the word pussy. They used it constantly, and most of the time incorrectly, saying things like “that homework was pussy”, or “where’s my pussy transformers backpack”. I guess I really was a pussy. I was not interested in any of the “boy things” whatsoever. We did not even have toys in common anymore because they had all traded in He-Man for football. I was feeling more and more isolated everyday. My cousin Sean was in the same grade but they never put us in the same class. I guess they thought we would team up and overtake the school or something. Other than my cousins, and a few kids in the neighborhood who were younger than me, therefore more likely to do what I told them, I never had many friends. Even the boys in my class that I would have called friends, including my sister’s best friends little brother, who used to play with Star Wars figures with me in his basement, stopped having much to say to me. I got my first taste of real loneliness at the tender age of ten.

After the great pussy epidemic a new word took its place. A word often directed at me, faggot. According to family legend when I was but two years old my sister Pam who was around nine or so had a little friend over. They were on the rainbow colored swing set in our back yard when I toddled out in my belly exposing white T-shirt and diaper. “Oh look at you baby brother” said Pam’s little girlfriend “he is so cute”. In response I looked up, pointed my chubby little finger at her and said, “Faggot”. Apparently that night there was a grand inquiry in our house to find out how a precious innocent little baby like yours truly could have learned such a nasty word. Pam broke down and confessed that all the kids were saying it. Isn’t it funny that almost ten years later a new group of kids was doing the same thing? Apparently I’d known that word since I was two but now I knew what the word meant, but at the age of ten or eleven I never dreamed it might actually apply to me. Every time I was called fag, I let my subconscious absorb most of the blow. I knew I was being called a nasty word, but I ignored the implications of what that particular word meant.

As soon as the sixth grade started I knew I was in real trouble. I had been in trouble in the past for not doing my homework, lying about it and not applying myself. I recall a few instances of teachers getting very stern with me about it. Still, I always had the sense I was well liked by teachers, I was not a problem student. That changed when for some reason other than my academic laziness and easy distractibility my sixth grade teacher, we’ll call her Mrs. Giant Nostrils did not like me. I realize that every kid has a teacher that they think does not like them. This was more than that. I am certain of it. I used to catch her glaring at me from her desk, flaring her giant nostrils; she never made eye contact with me, and on more than one occasion she told me maliciously in front of everyone to stop talking like a girl. Once when I went to her desk to ask a question my gaze must have shifted because she grabbed my face, hard, and jerked it towards hers. I see now as an adult that it is possible this woman recognized me for what I was, and she did not care for it. She didn’t see a sweet eleven year-old boy whose family problems we’re common knowledge among the small school’s staff, no; she saw a little faggot! I don’t mean to imply that she was a homophobic hag who abused her power and bullied a defenseless kid, no; I mean to say it outright! That’s what I think she did! Only in recent years has the likelihood of this dawned on me. I think now that the same might have been true of the mother of some kids who lived across the street from us. Like I mentioned there was a group of neighborhood kids whom I played with, all girls of course, and there was one mother who was always very cold to me. I picked up on it even at a young age because she was not like that with the other kids. She would deliberately exclude me from things. For example she would take the three Schumann kids who lived next door to a movie but not invite me even though we were all playing together in the yard five minutes before. All of the sudden they would be pulling out of the driveway in a mini-van and I’d be standing on the sidewalk. I’d like to give these women the benefit of the doubt. I’d like to think they would never make such assumptions about a little boy and treat him in such a manner. I’d like to, but experience has told me, I am probably right, anyway back to what happened in the sixth grade.

The combination of Mrs. Giant Nostrils and the mounting teasing I was beginning to receive at the hands of children I’d known most of my life began to affect me. I started to notice that other than my cousin Sean, I had no friends. In my desperation not to be different I even joined the soccer team with disastrous results. Once in the fourth grade after being forcefully coerced to play football at recess, I mistakenly scored a touchdown for the wrong team. Let me tell you something people, little boys don’t let you live that down. The same boys, who acted as if I’d broken into their homes and gunned down their entire family that day, did not want Cooper the Pooper Scooper on their soccer team. They froze me out. I was totally invisible, except to the coach who point blank asked me “why are you even here?” “Good question coach! You think I want to be here? Well think again, tubby! I’d much rather be at home giving Barbie a sweeping up-do, but no, we don’t live in that kind of world do we coach? Way, to nurture children there A-hole” was how I wish I could have answered him. The breaking point came for me when I realized I had been sitting day after day on the bus with a girl who put scratch ‘n sniff stickers in her hair and ate her scabs. The breaking point for my mother came when the parish priest came to visit my class and that she-beast Mrs. Giant Nostrils announced to him in front of my whole class that I never did my homework and had failed a recent math test. I felt absolutely defeated. It was the first time I can remember looking around a room and feeling one hundred percent alone. No one was going to defend me. I felt as if I had done something or was something that suddenly made me unacceptable in the only place I’d ever known. I tried everything to fight the tears but there was no way they were going to hold off. Normally to get out of class I would fake a stomach ach. I did not need to fake this time; my insides told me that vomit was imminent. The entire class seeing me cry was bad enough, there was no way I was going to ralph in front of them too. Not I only would I be blamed when the janitor came in with that vile pink sawdust that actually smelled worse than vomit, but kids just don’t rebound from blowing junks at school. Everyone remembers and the story gets told year after year. Even The Gorgon could not escape from the stigma from the time she raised her hand to answer a question and instead spewed all over her religion text book. I asked Mrs. Giant Nostrils if I could go to the sick room, she looked at me for a long time; it was the first and only time she ever made eye contact with me and as the tears were rolling down my cheeks she simply said “sure.” I went to the sick room and called my mother and told her what had happened. In hindsight, knowing that I was eleven I am sure that I painted a picture of personal prosecution to rival the Salem Witch Trials. I have to admit now that had I not neglected my homework on such a regular basis, and constantly lied about it the whole scene might have been avoided, however it was really just the last in a serious of blows that broke the dam, and the flood had come indeed, I remember lying on the sick room cot, and just sobbing. Evidently I must have been so upset there was concern enough to send my cousin Sean into check on me. He was in the other sixth grade homeroom so he missed the whole thing, basically he just seemed confused. Finally I heard the sound of my mother’s high heels on the linoleum and the low rumble of her voice. Whatever she was saying was getting a great deal of protest which she would abruptly cut off. There was fire in her green eyes that day and I had the distinct feeling that there was a fight going on that was bigger than I’d been aware of. She was like a lioness protecting her young. I felt utterly sad and confused but seeing her face was an instant comfort. Nobody messes with her baby, her boy, and clearly she thought I’d been messed with. “We’ll find you a new school, one that’s perfect for sensitive, artistic kid, you don’t ever have to come back here” she said as she led me to the exit. I saw out of the corner of my eye the principle, who was new that year standing with Mrs. Giant Nostrils and the priest whose mouth was agape. My mother had just blown them out of the water. My mother, champion of the underdogs, slayer of dragons led me out the door of the only world I knew and into the unknown. It still amazes me how fast this all went down. I was never unbearably miserable at school until that year; I have many happy childhood memories of that place. But over the next few hours I realized that I was not the only person involved. Divorce and re-marriage had sent my mother into her own private war with the Catholic faith that she’d been devoted to her entire life. Also, she’d fought a similar battle there before, ten years earlier when Alli was six and vehemently chastised for not being able to button her blouse correctly. I think if those two factor’s had not been in play, I would have been calmed down and more than likely would have gone to school the next day and stuck out the remaining two and a half years there. However, it’s easy to jump ship when you have full parental support. Also, it bears mentioning that I was not the lone longtime student to depart my class that year. For years we had been told we were the worse behaved class in the whole school, which always bothered me because I always took great strides to be good and never rock the boat. In fact at one point we were the only class in the history of the school to be temporarily banned from the cafeteria. There is something to be said about the Ritalin generation. Two and a half years after I left, when my former classmates graduated from the eighth grade the once full two classes and been combined to one, and The Gorgon and her minions had successfully whittled the female population to just five girls. That many of us had jumped ship. Clearly something was amiss there.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Jesus & Boy


Let me start by saying this, I’ve never been super religious although there was a time in my life when you might not have believed that. I have already said that I was born and bred Catholic, Mass every Sunday and once a week at school. I had years of religion class and took all your basic blessed sacraments. I was one of those kids who had Christianity fed to them since birth; however I was not one of those kids who never questioned it. Even when I was very young there were times when I wanted to shout “yeah, right” in the middle of church. One thing I never thought about was what separates Catholics from other Christians. And then I got a sampling of it. When my mother married  my stepdad Jim she started to become disillusioned with the Catholic Church to which she’d been faithful to all her life. Well around the time I was eleven years old mama decided she was on spiritual quest, and she brought me, Alli and Jim along for the ride. I think Jim would have been fine at any church as long as they didn’t frown on golf, but my mother was harder to please. At first she tried Bible studies, and I would be dragged to some stranger’s house where I was corralled into some rec room with kids I didn’t know who always thought I was weird and forced to mingle while the adults did whatever they were doing in another part of the house. Then we actually started to attend a new church. All I was told was that it was a non-denominational Christian Church, whatever that meant. In Sunday school I was told that Smurfs were demonic and that everything I watched, listened to or was remotely interested in was going to send me straight to hell. Um, I was eleven! Then we went to the service where I bore witness to people raising their hands and speaking in tongues and shouting to the Lord. I’m Catholic, the only time Catholics shout to the Lord is when there’s beer. Oh beer that’ll send you to straight to Hell for sure. I was amazed, and if my eyes hadn’t been open so wide in shock I would have rolled them sarcastically. This was the church that I went to the accursed camp with and the legendary pee pillow incident occurred, so I really shouldn’t have been all that surprised. Needless to say we didn’t not stay involved long, well except Alli that is. She was sucked in for a few years. They made her feel somewhat welcome. I think they thought of her as some sort Church mascot. Not to mentioned the fact that she developed a strange obsession with the pastor’s wife, a woman named Debbie, whom she even went dressed as one Halloween. I’m not sure what Debbie would have thought of that seeing as that Halloween was a celebration of Satan. I shouldn’t sound so cynical, there were many people there who I am sure were filled with good intentions and were very kind to my special sister. It used to drive me nuts when she’d go on one of her Holy Roller kicks which were always strangely well informed, but hey if it gave her a few years happiness I shouldn’t have teased her about it. For me, mom and Jim though, no way Jose!

The next church we tried was one not that far from our house. In the mid to late eighties this was a church on the move, growing rapidly. We’ll call it The Really Big Church. The Really Big Church began in someone’s basement and now has approximately 17 million members and is roughly the size of the Death Star! when we started going to The Really Big Church I was twelve and it was only moderately big. Theologically speaking nothing changed much in our house, I mean the basics where the same. The Really Big Church was every bit as conservative as the previously charismatic one but much more subtle about it, not that I could perceive such things at twelve. I think my mother did and she only continued to go for a brief while and she was careful to keep us separate from some of their teachings. For all of her religious yearnings and quest for piety she has always been at heart, quite liberal and never really subscribed to the literal interpretation of the bible. I was the same way, but all of that stuff was lost on me anyway, I didn’t see that until much later. For me at twelve the place was fun. I liked it well enough. I still didn’t want to go to church, but I was twelve I did what I was told. I would be lying if I said I didn’t run into the same sort of taunting that seemed to plaque me because I did, but much less of it and by this point I’d become practically bulletproof to that type of mocking. The only time I felt a little uncomfortable was when my mother wanted Jim and I to get baptized. I didn’t see the point in it since I was baptized as a baby. Also I was seeing my dad fairly regularly at this time and he was not happy about anything non-Catholic. In the end I agreed and Jim and I were baptized on mom’s birthday. I am not sure birthday present for your mother was one of the motivating factors John the Baptist had in mind. Ironically, shortly after this my mom seemed to lose interest in The Really Big Church, not Jim though, he really liked it. I still went from time to time, mostly when my mother felt guilty and I was coerced into going. This went on for about two years; we were very much hit and miss in our attendance. This changed when I got to high school though, then I went because I wanted to.

I drifted in and out on Sundays, but I was a Wednesday night regular, and not for any spiritual reason either. By this point The Really Big Church was getting fairly enormous. The numbers started to reach into the thousands. I was on the youth drama team and every Wednesday we performed skits, in front of about four to five hundred teenagers, it was a blast. I joined the youth choir and was featured as a soloist when the choir would go on tour in the summer. Then I was allowed to sing the occasional special on Sunday during the youth service. I should mention that the youth department had an entirely separate building which was down the street from the main church so I never really felt that connected to The Really Big Church as an entity. Still, I was by no means what you would call a diehard Christian. For me it was very much like an extracurricular activity. Not that church and school ever mixed. On no, most of us were very good at keeping our school selves and church selves separate.

I made a lot of friends at The Really Big Church some of the best I ever had. It was on an outing with The Really Big Church that I met my life-long best friend Abby or Buns as we would later rename each other. We were fifteen. Our tenth grade Sunday school class was taking a group of under privileged children shopping for Christmas. I knew Abby only peripherally, we did not go to the same school but we were both core kids. She and I were assigned two young brothers who didn’t want to be separated therefore we spent the day shopping at Value City Department Store together. They younger of these two brothers informed me that his shoes could talk. When I asked him what he meant he lifted up his toes and the holes in the front of his shoes opened up like a mouth. The details of that day are etched in my memory, but I think the reason for that is because that is the day I met my Buns, with her bleached blond hair adorned with a gigantic red bow, chomping her gum. I did not know that day that she was to become one of the most important people in my life. I was getting less and less anxious about what my friends might think of my family. The problem lays in the fact that I wasn’t letting them see the real me at all. I was letting them see the careful orchestrated me in all the right lighting, with all the hidden details safely concealed in the closet. I never let my guard down and the more I hid things from others the easier it became to hide them from myself. I was beginning to believe in my own fa├žade, and that my friends, is very dangerous indeed.

I did make great friends at The Really Big Church; it was a safe place for a kid like me. But I thought that after high school I would go off to college and pretty much be done with it. Like I said I was never super religious. I would get caught up in all the excitement of worship songs and dynamic speakers, and conventions, but it always faded away as I got back to my normal life. But then a couple of things happened. Thanks to my lackluster academic performance throughout my school career I was put on a waiting list for the college of my choice. This meant I was going to be staying home and going to the University of Louisville, which worked out great because Abby had encouraged me to start a band with some other guys in our youth group. I was about to become a member of the Christian world full time, and in it I found the perfect place to hide.