A funny thing happened last night. A can of worms was opened, somewhere deep inside my head. And the worms proceeded to slurp my brain matter through their linear digestive tracts until my entire head became filled with worm poop.
In response to a Facebook post from Rachel, I mentioned my first favorite novel, A Wrinkle in Time. That took me back to sixth grade, with its simplicity and optimism, and my ongoing love for that story. It was a good memory, one of those warm places in your psyche, a little part of yourself that worked out all right.
Then, maybe a half hour later, someone else on Facebook posted that Ms. Priest, one of my seventh grade teachers, had passed away. Ms. Priest was the first and perhaps greatest embedded anti-establishmentarian I had known. She smoked and swore and forced students to use their brains, to look into their hearts. I added my very brief eulogy to a growing list of Facebook comments, noting that many of them had been permanently affected by this amazing person.
Then I thought about it a bit more. She had certainly made her mark. I used to have recurring dreams of visiting her class, being back in that class, back in seventh grade. Those dreams faded, and junior high became this nebulous transitional zone. I could cite many elements of grade school, and, of course, the high school triumphs and scars never dissolve. Junior high, though, was fuzzy. Chess club was in there, somewhere. And band. But not much else. My personal history tends to jump from a generally healthy sixth grade to some point in high school. A wrinkle in time.
The odes to Ms. Priest continued. Dead Poets Society type of stories. Each one served as a building block and brush stroke, recreating Ms. Priest, her classroom, the halls beyond that circulated through the school. I couldn’t retreat from the unfolding detail, and soon I felt that Jim I was back in seventh grade, sitting in that class with those people, with that teacher.
You see, I didn’t just remember faces or specific episodes. I remembered the exact feeling of what it was like to be me back in seventh grade.
And I realized that this was the first time I had felt truly inadequate, when I found that I couldn’t commit to any particular type. I couldn’t be a smart kid or a nerd, and lacked any equipment to be clever or beautiful or strong. Ms. Priest encouraged everyone to dig into themselves, but I resisted. I was shallow, dopey and shy, and I didn’t respond to her efforts. So she moved on to the others, the ones she could lift up. I puttered along, a failure and a disappointment. And that phase of inadequacy has stayed with me since then, even through today.
This isn’t some sort of indictment. I still have positive memories of this full-throttle teacher. But I also remember other students bonding into cliques that would evolve straight on into high school. And I remember loners, intellectuals and athletes— all of them not-me. I’m not sure how much identity one is supposed to grasp in seventh grade, but I didn’t have much.
This was also a period in which my mom was severing religious ties. I had grown up as a Jehovah’s Witness, and some time around seventh grade we had stopped going, and she was ultimately disfellowshipped (for some really petty reasons). I don’t recall it bothering me much at the time (other than being concerned about her emotional ordeal), but it was a period of personal upheaval, a sharp shift away from lifelong de facto relationships.
I suppose that people who have spent time in therapeutic counseling have already navigated these epiphanies. I’m not used to unearthing the secrets of my past. It isn’t that I “don’t go there,” it just never comes up, and, apparently, this was was buried deep. Most people can reflect on their own souls and come up with a pretty good collection of traits and trends, historical arcs. It’s rare that you are able to pinpoint a defining moment that carries through your personality with such persistence. I’ve fought with the same problems we all have: depression, self-doubt, social awkwardness. However, I think I just uncovered the exact time period when it became real and anodized. The birth of a part of myself that I hate.
And I have to say: this isn’t particularly liberating. It feels like a sac of poison has been accidentally lanced. This social clumsiness and cluelessness is now measurable. I have been knee-deep in it for 32 years. The pain of this realization is extremely personal and isolating. Yet I think everyone has experienced that lonely pain, something you just can’t communicate to other people because it’s embedded into your core. Something you force yourself to carry.
I apologize for such a self-indulgent post. I’m not sure if I have a point, here, other than the fact that I never stood on a desk and pulled that “Oh captain my captain” shit. But I suppose there could be an upside. Time has become unwrinkled, flattened and exposed. I can take that forgotten memory as a cornerstone. I can build out into those two years of junior high and piece that history back together. And, if anything, pain and history feed art, so I suppose Ms. Priest will be making an appearance in some future story, manifest as either glorious or terrible. She probably would have liked that.