Last week, I wrote about my musings on the nature of life, with the conclusion that we all carry stories about who we are, and those stories contain our identity, our sense of self. The stories are composed of both twists of fate and defining moments. As I was writing, I found my list of both kinds to be overflowing with examples, made up of consequential happenstance and heroic decisions. In my editing of last week’s post, I simply had to “cut” the overwhelming number of accounts in order not to run long. As my old editor used to tell me, and remains a permanent introject in my mind, “keep it tight”. Tough words for a writer or speaker, but straight to the point.
I received notes from a number of readers who remarked that the post evoked memories and reflection, which I hope is true for all of you. Each one of us are edited collections of stories, some we excise and some we include, some we forget and some with remember with remarkable accuracy and detail. Here’s one of mine that has remained in my mind for years, from a particular. but regular day in high school.
Sophomore year was an odd time of moving beyond the exile of elementary school’s protective cocoon to emerging into one’s identity as a person, a self that exists among other selves. It’s that peculiar time of not only recognizing the particulars of one’s existence but also the scary notion that others are looking at you as well. The awareness of self, that “me”ness, marks me as an individual, distinct from my family, but still tied to it. The pressing question is: can one break free of those familial ties, claiming a self identity without destroying the connection itself? It’s a perilous dance of identity that classically has been painted in tones of rebelliousness, angst, and passion, a tale often told, not always ending well.
It is that mystical, magical time known as adolescence. As my old developmental psych professor used to frame it: I see me, seeing you, seeing me. Scary indeed. One becomes literally “self conscious” in terms of awareness, aware both of an emergent sense of self as well as an awareness, sometimes painful, of the reality that other people are observing you.
This transition is often romanticised in books, songs, and movies. I recently watched one such “coming of age” film, Stand by Me, one of Rob Reiner’s first directorial efforts. The screenplay came from a novella by one Stephen King, entitled The Body. How’s that for a pedigree? The main character, Gordie Lachance, played by Big Bang cameo dude, Will Wheaton, was my identification point as he struggled with a secret family past and his unusual gift of being a writer, a storyteller at this young age. Gordie is joined by three pals on a journey to find a dead body in the woods (this is Stephen King) by the railroad track. These friends interact in the ways typical of young persons who are struggling to discover the identity within and the relationship with others. It’s a fine story, treading water in the pools of existential angst that goes with awakening. This story, told from a reflective writer’s perspective, noted the caughtness of his friends in their social setting as well as the heroic determination of one friend, Chris (played by Rivers Phoenix) to escape that embeddedness. Typically dark, the drama is captivating for those who love “our gang” kinds of adventure, along with traceable character development
It was not quite so dramatic in my Southside neighborhood of Atlanta. My friends and I, growing up in East Point, never took a pilgrimage to find a dead body, but we did have our own drama. Like another “coming of age” film that I love, Sandlot, we gathered everyday during the summer to play baseball, discovering our sense of self in the company others. With remarkable similarity to the movie, each member of my “gang” had a backstory, some quirkiness that was memorable, maddening, and endearing. We even had a swimming pool, with some neighborhood beauties to raise the sap, but no one quite like Wendy Peffercorn, the unattainable lifeguard/water nymph. The children’s pool game of hide-and-go-seek Marco Polo, becomes a sexual exploration aquatic drama of a different kind of chase. And there were no wise old black man with a Mastiff beast to intrigue and mythologize, just a very white Mr. Holland at Ye Olde Shop with a magical Slushie machine. But we did the dance of adolescence, and I guess my gang, we made out okay.
In my look in the rearview mirror of this time, I remember many things, mostly stories, but one stands out. A game changing moment that could have gone another way, or never even happened. It occurred in the curious location of a science lab room. It was my sophomore year in home room, Coach Jordan was the teacher. When we started the year, we were given the rare gift of freedom to chose where we sat, no stock determinism by alphabet, putting Heath and me, back to back for eternity.
For me, it was the second row sitting next to my best friend, Mike Hornsby, from my neighborhood gang and part of my church youth group. We were like brothers back in those days. He and I had easy conversations, about football, what was going on in the neighborhood, even broaching the subject of girls, particularly those at church. And we were both quiet by nature, shy, particularly at that age. It was perfect. It was familiar. It was comfortable sitting with my friend, Mike.
That’s when it happened.
Coach Jordan had gotten tired of the loud conversations going on in the back of the room. Karen Littlefield and David Wheeler were sitting next to each other, the unofficial Queen and King of my class. Karen was the definition of the cute, bubbly teen, the typical cheerleader, my Cybill Shepherd in my picture show. Wheeler was a running back on the football team with remarkable skills He had been a phenom early on, due to his premature growth and accompanying speed, but time was catching up to him, even as a sophomore, unlike the defensive players on our opponent’s team.
Coach had enough of the noise, and so one fateful morning, looking up from his front desk, as he graded papers, he announced his edict. He ordered Mike to go back to the back row next to Wheeler, and sentenced Karen up to the second row to sit next to me. I wish I had video tape to capture the mix of feelings on my baby face, a commingling of fear and excitement, an alchemical mixture that would fuel my life.
Again we can glimpse the “coming of age” plot in the background as the shy, bookish boy suddenly gets to talk with the beauty of the high school. It wasn’t an overnight transformation but slowly Karen’s gregarious personality engaged me, breaking me out of the confines of self-consciousness around girls. Something about her kindness freed me to risk being known, even my geeky passion for golf. Slowly, I became more confident in my self, no longer afraid to talk to imposing “others”. For Karen, it was a minor inconvenience; for me, it was an opportunity of a lifetime, made possible by the quick decision of a science teacher-coach.
I won’t bore you with the details of my high school journey, but only say that this event retrospectively was a powerful catalyst in my transformation of self. I find myself grateful for that fateful swing of the hand of the emperor, Coach Jordan, whose quick decision changed the course of my life, And grateful to Karen who patiently listened to my wonderings and ranblings, who unconsciously gave me her blessing by being with me through that transition year, and conferred value on me by her friendship. It was gift, even if the result of a twist of fate. It has struck me for some time that this moment, this random action, changed the course of my life. How odd. How wonderful.
By the way, it occurred to me as I was writing that my friend, Mike, who was unceremoniously banished to the back row with Wheeler, started playing football that Fall and by our senior year, had replaced Wheeler as our featured running back. And I continued my relationship with Karen, a friend through time, as we have both made our long strange trip of life.
What twists of fate have formed your life, your journey? Take a break for your Twitters, your political bickering and rants, your anxiety about the Braves’ lineup. Pause….and remember. Write down those odd moments that have influenced who you find yourself to be this day.