Sunday, July 23, 2017

I only have one distinct memory from ninth grade.

It's surprising how often I think about it, if I try to objectively consider the value of this memory. I'm 48 years old now. I've been through two divorces, several job loses, and the murder of my best friend. All of those are experiences that ought to be more formative, more empirically valuable, than my one clear memory from ninth grade. And yet, this one memory from my 14th year pops into my head frequently. Most recently, it overtook my thoughts during a six mile run that was part of the training for my third marathon.

This memory is 25 years old.

The memory is tactile, initially. The first clear part of the memory is the feeling of a sweatshirt against my chest. It may have been the first time I ever wore that sweatshirt. I remember that it was baggy, and it was warm, and I'd hoped that it might hide some of that fat rolls that I'd become very self conscious about during my 14th year. This was during my morning gym glass. My teacher was Mr. Allen, and I don't remember thinking that he was particularly cruel, nor particularly nice. I can remember thinking that he was there to fill a role, to do a job, and to kill the time on the clock between 9 AM and 10 AM.

I guess I apparently also remember that this memory occurred sometime between 9 AM and 10 AM.

I can remember that we 9th graders were ostensibly learning how to play volleyball. We were inside the gym at Alleghany County High School, and there were two volleyball nets set up, one on each half of the basketball court. I can remember that I was one of the students who was assigned to the first of the two half-court nets. The one closest to the locker rooms and the hallway. The hallway that lead to the classrooms, where it was easier and more likely for a pudgy 14 year old boy to slip anonymously into 25 to 30 other anonymous adolescent faces. I wanted to be in that hallway. I wanted to be in one of those classrooms. I wanted to be anywhere other than standing in line, waiting to take my turn to serve the volleyball over the net, waiting to be judged by Mr. Allen and by the other 14 year olds, and by 15 year old April Ellis.

April had been held back a year. She was practically an adult at the age of 15. She smoked, she had boobs, and she was easily the most mature and intimidating human being my 14 year old eyes had ever taken in from the side. April was seated on the bleachers, just behind the spot from which each ninth grader would eventually have to serve the volleyball. For some reason, April and her court of two or three adoring female minions were always excused from volleyball, and other activities. For some reason, April and her minions were always allowed to simply sit on the bleachers and observe the other students. And, when those students somehow fell within April's range of audible commentary, April and her court were allowed to assess each of us. It never occurred to 14 year old me that April was enjoying this privilege through the passive forbearance of teachers. April's position, as judge and qualifier, seemed to me to have been ordained by the universe itself.

I can remember standing in line, waiting my turn to serve the volleyball. I can remember trying to disappear into my baggy sweatshirt. The collar of it was rough against my bottom lip. I can remember the kid in front of me taking his turn, and I can remember walking the four or five steps to the spot where April would have the opportunity to judge my worth as a human being, and (please, God) hopefully dismiss me with ambivalence.

The best I could hope for was to be ignored. I prayed for that.

I walked the four or five steps to the spot where I was expected to serve the volleyball. And as it was tossed to me, I heard the giggling from April and her friends. And I heard April's cool, distinct, vaguely smokey voice.

"Oh, boy," she laughed, "where have you been all of my life?"

The ridiculous hubris of a 15 year old's sarcasm struck me, appropriately, as very silly. I turned around, looked her square in the eye, and silenced her with a brief but obvious rejoinder: "April, you're 15. Most people in this world own socks that are older than you."

Well, I'd like to say that is what happened. That's one of the possible come-backs that popped into my mind when my memory of April blind-sided me during my run the other day. But that isn't what actually happened.

Actually, before I could say a word to April, my real-life, super-athletic girlfriend (who was a couple of years older than me and who'd had boobs for longer than April) appeared out of no where and popped April in the jaw, shutting her up for the rest of the day.

No, that's not really what happened. And, believe you me, I've fantasied about exactly that. And the irony is, I actually do have that girlfriend now. She's really a couple of years older than me, so she's super-mature. And she's been an athlete all of her life. She finished her first marathon before I could even spell the word. But she wasn't there that day. She and I wouldn't meet for more than another twenty years.

What happened that day was, I quietly served the volleyball. And I can't remember if I served it with any competence or if I served it to the entirely wrong side of the gym. I served the ball, and I quietly, obediently absorbed April's dismissal of my entire existence. And I retreated to the other side ot he gym, and I waited to hopefully escape further criticism. Which I must have done, because I don't remember anything else from that day.

In fact, I don't remember anything else from ninth grade.

And I would like to say that this trivial, inconsequential memory faded into the ether, as all childish things do. But it didn't. I have thought about it constantly for the past 25 years. It pops into my head at the damnedest times... during job interviews, during birthday parties for my children ... even while training for my third marathon.

"Where have you been all of my life," she asked, her voice oozing with mockery.

I've been right here, April. Right where you left me. I'm absolutely certain that you have no memory of that day. I'm also absolutely certain that I'll never forget it. It may be the last thing I think about on my last day. Your impetuous, igornant 15 year old voice, defying me to prove my worth. Your 15 years, your nothingness. Your voice, your void, drawing me into your nothingness. Your pain, calling to my pain. Our shared emptiness.

This is the power of an unkind remark. This is the weight of cruelty. Even when it comes from the (presumably) shared suffering of another child, this is the power that simple spite has to negate another's entire life. After 35 years, it hasn't left my mind. It is my only distinct memory from ninth grade.

April, I realize, objectively, that you would not have been cruel to me if you hadn't learned cruelty from some barbaric circumstance. I don't think a 15 year old kid would set out to harm another person unless they had been taught to do so. So, although I am absolutely certain that you don't remember that remark, I forgive it. I forgive it almost every time it pops into my head. At least, I do so lately. Just as I hope you forgive the cruelty that I presume shaped your first 15 years.

"Where have you been all of my life?"

I'm right here, April. Here, and now. And I'll start over again tomorrow.