In sixth grade, I switched schools. Rite of passage, sure, but the hard part (insofar as I had minimal-to-no social skills) was to make friends. Somehow, I ended up part of a band of misfits. There was Blaise, the brilliant Spaniard; Larry, the incredibly creative son of a chicken parts magnate; John, the business-focused Korean; and me.
Actually, that sounds like the premise for a bad movie.
Through sixth and seventh grades, we were happy campers; but “happy campers”:http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Dan_Quayle we would not always be. Blaise was the first to go, as he transitioned from bowl-cut-coiffed young nerd to chubby preteen nerd, we took to calling him “Shamu”. I think John coined the name. We’d chase poor Blaise around the school, cruelly yelling his whale-name, laughing the whole way. Blaise soon transferred to another school.
By this time, John was actually beginning to show social skills, allowing him to interact successfully with more popular students. Sadly, this didn’t rub off on me. Larry was developing his own set of social skills but had no interest in the set of people John was beginning to know; I was simply desperate for any friends, so I began to shadow John around. Of course, once he was hanging out with more popular kids I had no ability to join in the conversation, but I hoped that a vacuous smile would somehow make up for that.
John, Larry and I had spent most of our sixth- and seventh grade weekends meeting at his house — which was in a housing development on the edge of an undeveloped area in suburban Owings Mills — or at my house, which was in the city near a feeder river for the Baltimore reservoir system. We’d play with cap guns, running around in the empty lots near John’s house or clambering around the rocks and concrete walls of the Stony Run river, imagining ourselves secret agents like James Bond, “Remo Williams”:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0089901/ or Michael Dudikoff in “American Ninja”:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088708/. But Larry gained weight and couldn’t keep up, and John, suddenly, began to have other things to do on the weekend. I think he was playing Hearts or Sabermatic baseball with the popular kids, like Andy and Alan, in Columbia. Where the popular kids lived.
I slowly found myself eating with others in the cafeteria, as John moved to full tables (or the table filled up around him while I was buying my usual turkey sandwich, yogurt, and sugar cookies). When I did manage to secure a spot near John, I had nothing to say to his friends and they had nothing to say to me. I knew to laugh at the right points in their conversation but I had no inkling of a way to get myself into it. As the table would get full, my space would shrink, I’d turn my tray sideways and slide my chair out so that more people could fit their seat in. And, then, even at the table, I was leaning back, squeezing in, not participating.
The end didn’t come until the beginning of ninth grade. With Larry hanging with another crowd and Blaise gone, I was an uncomfortable appendix for John. Naturally, he often ignored me as I followed him around, by striking up conversations with people I didn’t know, not introducing us, and ditching me to hang out with the cool kids in the brand-new, glassed-in Commons, not the geeks in the studying annex to the library.
One day, outside of algebra class, John and one of his new friends, Scott, played a joke that made us all laugh — they took the chalk dust from a blackboard and spread it over some poor sucker’s backpack (it might have been Sunil’s). I laughed along because I wanted all of the popular kids to know that I wasn’t just a humorous tool — but it backfired. A few days later, Scott decided to play the joke on me, except this time he unzipped my bag and poured the chalk inside. All of my notes and my doodles and my pens and my calculator were covered with the yellow dust and it took me hours to get it out — I think I was leaving little square, yellow outlines of my notebooks for a day or two. I was furious, and, for whatever reason, I blamed John.
And then I lost it. After months of teasing and being ignored, I was angry and I said the worst things I could think of about John and his ancestry. And I said them loudly. Then I went to the library and hid in one of the carrels.
John and his posse found me. He was angry at what I’d said, and rightly — although I remember to this day that Scott never took responsibility for the prank or tried to defuse things. Scott just stood behind a furious John as my old friend first threatened, then hit me. And, being a black belt, he hit hard. I was too smart to hit back so, dazed by his thunderous punch right to my cheek, I got up and left the library. I don’t remember where I hid but it was probably in the woods behind the school. I knew that was it; I was never getting my group of friends back.
After the next year, one of my remaining friends was expelled for being too poor and Gentile for a school like Park. I came back to those carrels in the libary and spent most of the next two years alone, reading science fiction, spending my time not with friends but with my imagination.
In twelfth grade, as graduation sped towards us, John and I finally talked again. We were both sad for what we’d done, sad for the loss of a good friend, and we both had happy memories of our times in Owings Mills and Stony Run. But, after a short time of talking, we both went back to our friends. We’d moved on.