What Was I Doing in This Zoo?

Left school with a stomach-ache

First day of kindergarten, newly arrived in Boston, newly separated from my best friend (and neighbor) Andy, doing the standard weeping thing, even though I had attended preschool back in upstate New York and loved it -- we hatched chicks! We made green eggs and ham! We sang silly songs with our teacher as he played the guitar! The tears not yet dry, I walked up to a boy and asked, "Do you want to be friends?" He said yes, and we remained close for years, even after I moved back to New York and he moved down to DC. I Googled him the other day, the way a person might Google an old college flame or a high school buddy. I dip back all the way to kindergarten for my dose of nostalgia. He's an illustrator. I like his work.

First day of second grade, and many grades thereafter: back in New York, posing with Andy for a photograph on the porch in my new school clothes -- it was the day clothes mattered most to a boy -- before heading down the hill to school. I did not mind that my mother cut my hair from a pattern in Redbook magazine that was intended for a woman. What was important to me was that I wear my gold velour shirt with the sparkly threads interspersed throughout.

First day of third grade, transferred to the new third grade class at Barry School after only one year at nearby Parker. Many schools selected "difficult" children for the new class, weeded them out, and passed them along to Barry. I was a good kid, a good student -- why did I get sent? What was I doing in this zoo? Our teacher struggled to contain us, read us Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I left school twice in those first days with a stomachache -- I was terrified that the other kids wouldn't know how smart I was. Later, I felt the shame of being publicly singled out as "very mature" by a substitute teacher. Be careful what you wish for.

By junior high, I was on the honors track, the one that would take me to advanced-placement English, history, physics, and calculus come senior year. I spent most of my time in class with the same group of honors students. But home room, where we gathered before the start of the day, was more democratic. Home rooms were grouped alphabetically, as were our lockers. For years, I was cheek-by-jowl with Vanessa L. (The orange junior high lockers were especially narrow, so that if two people were rooting around next to one another, cheek-by-jowl was a literal description.) Vanessa was tall and brash; she liked glam metal (Poison) and gelled the front of her hair into long black stalks that rose straight up from her forehead and then leaned over at the very top, as if the wind were forever sweeping across her grassy scalp. She wore acid-wash jeans and flannel shirts -- this was in the mid-'80s; grunge was still years away.

I was not attracted to Vanessa, nor did I want to be her friend. But I was always grateful that, from the very first, we got along. A first glance told me she was tough; that she had a screw-this attitude; and here was I, playing sports, acting in plays, chasing good grades -- the antithesis of screw-this. That first day, I was scared of her. I expected her to be full of contempt for me, the goofy, semi-brainy dweeb with the painfully short hair. But she was not full of contempt. Vanessa was always civil, and as the years passed, even friendly. By the end of eighth grade, we were close enough for her to proudly show me a blurry Polaroid photo of her boyfriend's penis.

("Do you want to see a picture of my boyfriend's penis?" she asked, a goofy grin on her face. She had told me about her boyfriend, that he was older -- the supreme virtue of a boyfriend in those early-teen years. I'd like to say it was good manners that led me to accept her offer, but of course, it was really timidity. I was too alarmed to reply, "Hell, no!" I was still scared of her.)

And, finally, first day of freshman year at college, raging against the initial readings for theology and philosophy. Ecclesiastes assuring me that all was vanity and a striving after wind. My confused notes in the margins: "Doesn't he believe in quality of soul? Happiness from wisdom?" Socrates in the Meno calmly twisting me in knots as he helped me to know that I did not know. Here my notes are angry; Socrates is a sonofabitch: "Wrong!" "No, no, no!" "BULL!" Rough beginnings.

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