January 16, 2008

In high school, I wrote my first complete novel. I'd been attempting novels since the sixth grade, but I had this amazing dream early in my senior year of high school and spun it into a novel. It turned out to be a horror novel, which surprised me. I'd never read any horror books and thought they were probably all lame - scandalous elitism (hush, cabal) from someone who loved science fiction and fantasy books. So, I decided to read Stephen King to see how I stacked up. I found Carrie interesting and appalling both. It was interesting enough ... too short ... definitely a writer's "early" work ... and great googly moogly, but I could write that well. Sheesh, if that was the bar for getting published ....

And then I read Stephen King's It. I was hooked on Stevie-Boy for life at that point. My friend Andy dragged me to go see Stand By Me. Again, I was mesmerized. Stevie-Boy and I thought a heck of a lot alike.

What hooked me the most was his ability to write characters and to understand them so very well that not only do you get deep insight into many of them, but the interplay between characters, particularly in "The Body" and It, is almost to be one of the gang. What was particularly poignant for me was a line near the end of chapter 32 of "The Body" novella in the Different Seasons collection:

Friends come in and out of your life like busboys in a restaurant, did you ever notice that?

We moved so often when I was little, friends were hard to come by for me and they were precious. So while I understood that you lost friends and made new ones when you moved, I was searching for stability in my friends ... and I didn't understand how they could move in and out of each others' lives and mine so "easily."

A fast breakdown for those who haven't read the blog long:
born in Amarillo, Texas; moved to Houston, another place in Houston; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Oklahoma City; Carmel, Indiana; Austin, Texas. Then I started kindergarten in Pillow Elementary. Second grade at St. Louis Catholic School. Began third grade back at Pillow, but after the first six weeks of the year, we moved to Arlington, Texas. Out of six possible semesters of junior high, I had 3 at Nichols and 3 at Shackelford. High school was blissfully the same all three years.

Despite having both a mother and a father, a "stable" family unit ... my life was anything but stable. I was always waiting for the next time I would have to move on. I was terrified to make friends and too lonely to not make them.

I can remember the first weeks of third grade at my third new school in as many years vividly. Being introduced to Carrie Thompson, who was to be my "official" friend and show me around the school ... show me the ropes, as it were. We became good acquaintances ... she came over to my house and I went to hers, but we didn't seem to have a great deal in common. And then I stumbled into Tracy and Jill. We seemed to hit it off well at first. Recess games were fun. We hung together in Language Arts class. But, unbeknownst to me, Tracy and I had some similar family issues which made us both bull-headed in different ways. For Tracy, it was a need - and this is totally my interpretation and may not be at all how she sees things - but it seems to me she had a need to be in charge and to not let anyone truly outshine her. I don't think she wanted to be noticed any more than I did, really. But she was determined not to be at the bottom, either.

So for the first week or two that the three of us were friends, Tracy ran our schoolwork with a fist more iron than that of the teacher. Third grade in the 70s consisted of mimeographed purple worksheets. Half the time, the sheets were still damp from the machine and sadly lacking a grape smell that might have made the purple colouring tolerable. Tracy would tell us what number to work to. Maybe to number ten. Then you would stop and wait for the others to catch up. That way, we could all be twinkies and turn our papers in at the same time. I soon learned it was so Tracy wouldn't be the last one to turn in her worksheet, but that we could all three turn them in together.

Our school was "Open Concept" which was, in general, an utterly hellish educational experiment of the 70s and 80s:

Years before the recognition of Attention Deficit Disorder issues, Butler Elementary began as an "open concept" school, with grades one through six in one large "room" of the building. Each grade level was "divided" by rolling bookcases about five feet high and more of these bookcases were used to lightly subdivide each "classroom" within a grade level. Teachers' desks were in a cluster in the center of the grade level area.

I struggled at the beginning of that year. I was put in the second high language arts and math classes at first, despite the fact that at my old school, I was much further ahead in both subjects. When I was finally bumped up, to the "high" classes, they were still behind where I had been at Pillow. So it didn't take long at all before I tired of waiting for Tracy to catch up on the worksheets. And the day I did, despite how much I wanted to make BFF with Tracy and Jill, was the day that I inadvertently started a war.

I remember clearly working on the purple inked paper. Looking over to see where Jill was. And then looking over to see how far behind Tracy was. There was just no way. I couldn't pull out a book and read until I was finished with my worksheets. And I just couldn't sit there and wait for Tracy to catch up any longer. I continued working on the worksheet. When Jill reached the requisite number, she turned to look at my worksheet. The look on her face ... panic. Alarm. And that probably should have been a warning to me as to how Tracy would react. Jill looked over at Tracy's worksheet. Back at mine. I remember her hesitating. Shrugging her shoulders. And continuing her own work.

When Tracy finally got to the stopping point, she looked at Jill's paper. Shocked and betrayed. Looked over at mine. The look of terror and anger both overwhelmed me. I hadn't expected this. I didn't mean for it to be a big deal. I just couldn't wait any more.

Tracy, however, saw it as my attempt to usurp her power. She burst into tears and told the teacher that I had called her a name or some such nonsense. I was shocked. The look of loathing on her face. And from that moment on, the war was on. For the rest of third grade and fourth grade, we did remain friends ... and even added new people to our little group. But from that point on, Tracy was diligent about remaining in charge and largely held that group of four together through high school.

And partly because I didn't see the point in "being in charge" of my friends ... and partly because I was terrified to even attempt to make other friends, I tried not to fight her. Even when she got ticked off and "hired" boys to come beat me up during recess. (Oddly enough, the closest one ever came to beating me up was a boy who fought like a girl, all cat scratches and no good solid roundhouses.) She would always tell me that she didn't do it, but invariably when I asked the boy why in the hell he was attacking me, he'd always say, "Tracy asked me to."

By fifth grade, I had no friends to speak of. Tracy had finally gotten furious with me for something I can't recall and commanded everyone in our group to stop having anything to do with me. For my part, I was tired of fighting with her and I simply stopped even trying to hang out with the others in our group. It was simply no longer worth it. I eventually did make other friends, but it wasn't until ninth grade that I had really close friends again.

And perhaps this is why Stephen King's "The Body" and It speak so poignantly to me. Both books revolve around the concept of friendship, of doing anything for your friends and of knowing them well enough to know their weaknesses not so much to exploit them (although teasing is, of course, perfectly acceptable), but to keep them out of trouble and to protect them from others.

Gordie and Chris from "The Body," knew that their families were ... let's say not supportive. Chris' family was outright abusive and the surrounding community simply abused Chris further. Gordie's family ignored him. The boys became family for each other. Teddy's family was also extremely abusive and Vern's was a little harder to read (or I don't remember it as well). Certainly Vern's older brother was not going to win any good brother awards .... But, despite the fact that the four boys were something of a family to each other, Vern and Teddy slipped away ... "like busboys in a restaurant." Chris and Gordie continued to be family to each other.

In It, there is a larger group of children and a definite set of enemies for them to fight. (One supernatural and one set was "mundane.") And again, the children bind together in an exceedingly strong family for the duration of the crisis. (The slipping apart has more to do with the supernatural plotline, so I'll skip that.)

I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12 - Jesus, did you?

Those friends for me didn't come until later, until I was 14 or 15 or so. And that was largely my own fault as I had simply never learned to be human enough to truly let potential friends in. Even still, I found it difficult to let my friends know just how important they were.

And, I suppose, that ruminating on all of this is why I have been trying so hard to hook back up with the people I knew in high school (and some of them even longer than that). It is partly a reality check on my memories (do you remember when we did ...) - but it's largely because to me, my close friends were like family to me then and I've always hated that we let that connection slip away. On my end it was simple fear that I had imagined that connection and that they meant far more to me than I to them. On their ends?

I've no idea.

I love that I've reconnected with some of them. One of them is even from Tracy's little group, although she wasn't part of the fighting from third grade, and, in fact, was friendly with me all throughout school and even college. I'm proud of her like I'm proud of my buddy, Andy. Like I would be proud of siblings. There is still that family connection to me.

I know now that a portion of this is that we do have families of choice as well as families of origin ... and that this is especially true when there was significant childhood trauma involving the family of origin. But I don't know how to express what I'm thinking and feeling at this moment ... just trying to explain what those old friends meant and still mean. I'd hoped by this point in the post, I'd be able to say something meaningful ... but because we do think so much alike, instead I'm left with one last quote from Stephen King's "The Body":

The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them - words shrink things that seemed limitless...

Posted by Red Monkey at January 16, 2008 6:46 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


newnorth said:

wow, that was a great post. The quotes fit with it so well.

January 17, 2008 8:55 PM


Sydney said:

I loved this post. I've never read any Stephen King books, though my mom bought On Writing for me. I really feel for you - mostly concerning the moving around and lack of close friends in elementary school (though it was the opposite for me - I had close friends in elementary and consistently lost them as I got older). I will definitely check those books out. Those are amazing quotes.

January 18, 2008 4:20 PM
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