I was ten years old, and the house I lived in was next to a small playground/park. Of course back in those days I was usually unsupervised; I spent most of my time climbing trees, swinging on the swings in the little playground, or catching minnows and salamanders in the crick next to it, or climbing trees in our little patch of meadow, or looking for animal skulls or bones in the swamp behind it. I feel like I should draw a map, but these little places were maybe within a few acre’s range of my house.
Unsupervised outside was the usual routine then. Almost every kid in my little neighborhood was the same- this was the seventies, and parents threw their kids outside as much as possible, only calling them in for homework, dinner, and bedtime. This was before video games, before the internet. We had TV but there was nothing on for kids my age at that time of day, right after school.
One day, I was at the swings, and two slightly-older, really cool looking girls that I didn’t know were there. They were on the swings, hanging out together, talking. I wanted to be their friend! I really really wanted them to like me. They were just amazing! They had cool haircuts, and awesome clothes, and wore makeup, and they were talking about really cool stuff like riding bikes and smoking and where they were going over the summer. They were rich white girls from town, just hanging out in my little playground by the woods. I was in awe of them the way only a ten-year-old bookworm math geek can be in awe of worldly, confident and successful people. My heart was swollen in my chest, and I grew enthusiastic as I listened to them chat with each other.
I tried to talk to them, and they started teasing me. “You’re too young,” one of them said, “You’re too young to hang out with us. Go away.”
Of course I didn’t go away. I kept trying to get involved in their cool conversation. In retrospect I was being incredibly annoying, in retrospect all kids that age are annoying most of the time. One of them finally asked me a question. “How old are you, anyway?”
My heart leaped! They were going to be my friends! “I’m ten, ten years old!”
“Bullshit!,” she replied, “There’s no way you’re ten. You’re like…eight. Eight years old. Stop lying.”
“NO I AM TEN I AM NOT LYING” I felt my face get red hot. I was in fact pretty small for my age- I was the shortest person in my class, and always unhappy about it. I was also embarrassed, ashamed, I don’t know why now and I didn’t know then, either. I whined, “I’M REEEEEEALLY TEN YEARS OOOOLD”
She looked at me and said, “Prove it. Show me your report card or something.”
“I WILL” I said, and started running home. I got home, shuffled through papers (seriously, I was in awe of these two girls) found my latest report card, snuck it past my mom out the kitchen door where she stood smoking a cigarette (“what do you have there? why are you being sneaky? get back outside and play”) and ran at top speed back to the swingset, triumphant, ready to bask in my newfound coolness. Not only did my report card have my year in school on it (proving my age) but I ALSO had straight A’s that year! They were bound to love me after seeing that. I will astound them! So I ran with my paper in my fist, fast as I could, back to them. And when I got back to the swingset…
They were gone. They’d left. Those two girls didn’t care who I was, how old I was. To them, I was a pestering annoyance. Asking me to prove something was their way of getting me to go fuck off so they could escape my affections, their way of putting me down, of making me leave. I was so crushed, and suddenly, a lot of things made sense to me in a horrible new way.
Tests at school? Proving myself to people who didn’t care. Homework? The same. Chores?Proving myself to my parents, who should have already believed in me. Pretty much any kind of showing off, speaking up, explaining myself, anything, was people who disliked me, asking me to prove myself, in order to waste my time or get rid of me. Success was just a sham.
I swung on the swings for a while, alone, and then my mother called for me to come eat dinner. And that was that.
This memory is small, and isolated from other memories of my life at that time. The feelings that go with this memory are HUGE, and have made me feel that same burning shame, that same disappointment, even now, even into my adulthood. It’s incredible how massive the exact moment of disillusionment with the world can seem, when you’re young. I think it was two years later I started smoking, started slacking off in school, and sort of dropped out of the race to succeed in life. To this day, I am uncomfortable explaining myself, proving myself, showing my background or history or performance with people, or attempting any accomplishment that I can’t personally enjoy attempting. I stopped worrying about failure, that day. I still feel like doing some things is a waste of my time, is a fruitless effort for people who don’t give a damn. Still. I still feel that way.
We all have our moments of realization, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. I’d have to call this my first epiphany. I think in one way it has served me really well, though. Because of the life I have lived and my lack of concern for social markers of success, I’ve done things that I loved, lived a very interesting life so far, and seen a lot of amazing things I would never have encountered if I was running the rat race. SO I am ok with this memory, this moment in my life. It’s all right by me.