I’m in first grade working on a class assignment. We’re supposed to create an autobiography of our lives ending with a note about future aspirations. Excitedly, I dig through photo albums of birthday parties and grandparents, pasting candid still-shots next to snippets of life events. There are photos and blurbs about our new house, some of the old apartment and lots of a mean alley cat my parents had taken in before I was born.
I don’t write about the time my bicycle’s rear tire was maliciously kicked out and sent me skidding violently across the road, rough asphalt shredding bare body raw. Not referenced are the savage beatings doled out for the slightest offense. I don’t mention how as an infant I was left alone with a violent guard dog that mauled me beyond recognition. Nor do I note how my mother cried when the policeman told her he didn’t know if I would ever be able to see again.
So I write about happy times – family vacations, new pets and what I got for Christmas.
No one wants to hear about that other shit, kid.
But I was also an entertainer, so the respect begrudged my parents via the constant threat of pain was not necessarily extended to my peers or school administration.
With the appropriate prompts, the respectful child transformed into the class clown.
And then, as now, I played my role well.
Now I’m in eighth grade, sitting in music hall. I’m watching a saxophonist give us a show.
I feel sorry for the performer; his goal is to kindle some interest in woodwind instruments, but achieved the exact opposite of intent. I liken the sound to a dying whale.
I mean, he fucking sucked. I’ve heard better music from Lil Wayne.
The only sympathetic ears in the audience belong to the teachers who managed to convince him that performing for us was a good idea. And even they were barely maintaining looks of professionalism.
So when the train-wreck skids to a halt, we do a classroom circle jerk about how we feel and what we think about the shit-called-music just shoveled into our ears.
It’s my turn. A friend elbows me.
“TCD, what did you think of the performance?”
“I found it mediocre,” I replied.
A pause, some rapid scale-balancing and I continued.
“And that’s being generous.”
Should I have been more sensitive? Probably. I mean, the poor guy came to our school to perform with an instrument he clearly felt strongly about. And if there was any type of honorarium for him, I’m sure it was a paltry sum.
Either way, what followed my remark was not atypical of my school’s heavy-handed administration.
Silence, and then… Holy. Shit.
The immediacy with which faces went from aghast and pallid to red with fury was startling. Teachers were rising abruptly and stalking toward me with purpose. The icy look in the eyes of the performer threatened to consume my soul. Rough adult voices from every corner commanded me to get up and go to the superintendent’s office.
You would have thought I had just goose-stepped through the National Holocaust Memorial.
Apparently, disrupting a school assembly wins the offender a five day suspension. And in fairness, I had a bit of a reputation for being a smart-aleck, so perhaps the harsh reaction was somewhat justified. But did I learn my lesson?
I spent the next few days free from school smoking weed and boozing with my friends. I was their hero, the person with the moxie to say what everyone else was thinking.
And to suffer for it at home.
We all have roles to play in this life. There are expectations concerning behavior and personality. And it’s a two-way street. From hospitalists to patients. Teachers and students. Judges and complainants. Musicians and audiences. Class clowns and their peanut galleries.
We can blindly fulfill expectations and fall into the role of the predictably contrived. Or we can stop, reassess, and wonder where our personalities end and their desires begin.
One of my greatest fears is that I will spend life hopping in and out of artificial roles, losing a little bit of myself with each leap. Each prefabricated narrative. Each carefully manicured scene.
Each set-cue and voice prompt, scripted for you by someone else.
It’s been many years since that day in eighth grade.
And I fear I’m still reading the script.