When we moved to the suburbs from the little town where I was born, my world was turned upside down. Up until that point, I must have been unconscious, because in my mind, life began when my Mother took me by the hand into the principal’s office and “signed me up,” for second grade. The school year had already started and I was about to discover that I was the chubby, shy kid, whose parents both worked.
The reason I mention that that last bit, is because when I was a kid, having two parents who worked was not a given. I remember my second grade teacher asking at some point, “Who here has a mother who works?” I think there was only one other child who raised a hand, but I was too embarrassed to look around and see who it was. In “suburban speak” at that time, it meant your father did not make enough money for the family to live on. “You should be very proud of her,” my teacher said.
The reality was that I was embarrassed at having been publicly identified as being at the bottom rung of the economic ladder among my peers. I am not saying we suffered in any way or went hungry. After all, it was suburbia, everyone was pretty much middle class, but there were rules and casting that hung over every part of my childhood. “You could lose fifty pounds off each earlobe,” I was taunted. Nothing had prepared my pudgy little self for the humiliations that were to come. I was taught a million social intricacies, most of which had nothing to do with real worth. Learning those lessons did not make my journey any easier.
What did make it easier was something to love.
I don’t think it’s an over-statement to say that a true passion for something trumps almost any obstacle. I am now approaching 60. As my friend Tony would say, “That’s dead in gay years,” but I still remember my Dad coming in to talk to me the night before I started first grade. “This is a big year for you,” he said. “You are going to learn to read. You will love it.” When I asked him why, he told me with great and genuine enthusiasm that it would, “…open up whole new worlds for me.”
He was right.
Reading was my ticket up, and out. It was where I both lost and found myself. But in retrospect, it didn’t have to be books. It might have been dance or soccer, math or music – because inspired pursuit carries with it the seeds of transcendence.
There was another girl in my class who suffered alongside me. I can’t recall ever hearing her speak a word, but I remember her long pigtails braided tight, and her sweet open face. The blue rimmed glasses that could not hide the tears as she stood at the bus stop clutching her violin case. Why carrying an instrument should draw such a barrage of cruelty I still don’t understand. But I know that she endured, partly because she had two proper parents who bolstered her practice. I can still see her tiny spectacled mother and dark suited father, their matching Mona Lisa smiles disguising a southern determination that was as staid as the hairpins that held her wavy plaits firmly in place.
I expect that she is somewhere playing symphony now, long locks cascading over her shoulders as she pours out the notes that were so dearly bought.
And like me, I am sure she is grateful that she had something to love.