Sunday, July 1, 2012

Math Jocks

For a brief period of time, I was a math jock.

It never pays to be smart in school.   You will never be popular for getting good grades, and in fact, it is one sure way to be marked as an outcast.   This is a shame, as many a bright young lad gives up on his education in the 9th grade when he realizes he will be more "popular" if he plays dumb and gets bad grades.

But while you may not be king of the hallways, there are some places were nerds rule.  And math class was one of them.  I remember a 9th - or was it 10th - grade algebra class, I guess it was, where we were solving equations and such.   It was hardly calculus, but a lot of kids struggled with it.

Well, not the math jocks.   There were about five of us, and we all sat in the back corner, swapping stories about where we were planning on going to college - or what programs we were working on, on the school's time-shared PDP-8.   Or maybe someone had a new slide-rule - or one of those fancy new electronic calculators, like the 8-pound Sanyo that my Dad brought back from Japan.

One of the boys, who was particularly sharp at math, was very silent as we talked about our future plans.  He was a thin lad, bony in fact, and I remember he had very blond, almost white hair, and a very pale complexion.  As we talked about our future plans, he looked pained.  And one of the boys asked him if he thought about college.

"I'll probably be dead by then," he replied, and we were deathly silent.  I could tell he was almost crying.  He explained that he had muscular dystrophy (I believe it was) which explained his very thin and bony appearance.

What do you say to that?  We didn't have time to say much, as our Math teacher wandered in.  She was a fireplug of a woman, short and stout and muscular and athletic.  She was the coach of the girl's field hockey team as well.   And years later, I discovered that (duh!) she was a Lesbian.   But at that age, teachers were all cut from the same anonymous cloth of "adult" and we didn't presume they had private lives at all.   In fact, it was sort of awkward and odd when you saw hints of their private lives - seeing them in a non-school context, for example.

But she was a great Math teacher, and we loved her.  I was already skipping school a lot by then, and at one point, when I returned after several days' absence, she announced a major test for the next day.  I approached he after class and asked for extra time, as I had missed the entire chapter.   But she was not impressed.  My unexcused absences were no reason to get a make-up test.  I would have to take the test tomorrow, and it was too bad if I failed it.

So that night I cracked the book big time.   And yes, she was more than a little pissed-off when I got an A- on the test the next day.    I guess I could apply myself when I felt the need.   But I rarely did.

But getting back to my skinny friend.   We started chatting more and more and he was a nice guy.   He kind of kept to himself most of the time, as he didn't fit in with a lot of what goes on in high school.  And he was not part of the townies or the rednecks, and that was pretty much the two groups we had in our school.

He lived with his parents in a craftsman-style cottage not far from school.   It was sided with split cedar shakes, painted brown many years ago, with the trim done in a light aqua color, if I recall right.   His Dad had some sort of professional job that paid all right, but obviously not that well.   He was the sort of guy who smoked a pipe, listened to jazz records, and drive a SAAB.  That was pretty "out there" for 1974.

His parents were pretty progressive and hip, I guess, for the era.   But I guess having a son with a serious illness was probably taking a toll on them.   The fact that he was a solitary boy (whether the illness caused this or not, I do not know) made things harder.

One day at school, he asked me if I would like to come over to his house.   And I said yes, because, frankly, I liked him.   I didn't feel sorry for him, but of course, it was hard not to realize what a crappy hand God had dealt him in life.

We went to his house, and up to his room, which was in the garret of the bungalow.  The walls were inclined with the roof and there were a couple of dormers.   One would find it charming today.   I don't remember what we did - listen to records or shoot the crap or what.   I was pretty naive back then.  Still am, I guess.

We were sitting on his bed, when he put his arms around me and started sobbing.   I was a little taken aback.   What was he crying about?  I patted him on the back, feeling a little awkward.   It was not that I didn't want to hug him back, but that, well, back then, such things just weren't done.  Never.  Ever ever.

Hell, today, you can go on YouTube and see videos (PG rated, I guess) that teenage "emo" boys make of themselves, making out with each other after school.   It is pretty bizarre how our world has changed.  When I was that age, if that sort of thing was done, you parents would have to sell their house and you would have to move out of town.   And I know this because it happened to a friend of my brothers.   And when they found out my brother's friend was "that way", well, his Dad had to change jobs and they sold their house and left.  And my brother joined in the chorus of voices condemning the boy who was once his friend.   That's how it worked back then.   It was not that long ago.

Back then, mMen were men, and well, about the worst thing you could be, other than Communist, was Gay.   And well, they'd give you a pass on being Communist.   Being Gay in 1974 was akin to announcing you've decided to join Al Qaeda today.  I am not exaggerating.   You would be instantly hated.   And it is possible you might even be killed.  It happened.   And when it did, the Police didn't bother investigating much.   Hey, its just a few boys getting rowdy, and what's another dead fag, anyway?

So, I was a little uncomfortable, and in retrospect, cowardly.   As here was this young man who didn't have long to live in the world, and the one thing he wanted was someone to love, and I could not provide that for him.   Or I was too scared to.  Or too stupid.

He sensed that, I think, and he pulled away after a moment.   He apologized quickly and was clearly embarrassed.  He said he would have to get some rest, and he made it clear he wanted me to go.   I was confused, and not sure what to do.

"You won't tell anyone about this, will you?"

I said yes.  And I never have, until now.

The next day at School, it was everything back to normal.  He avoided my gaze when I sat down in math class.  It was near the end of the school year, and I did not see him again, as I recall.   Why, I cannot remember.  We did not dislike each other.   But by then, I was starting to hang out with the stoners, and perhaps we went our separate ways.   The next year, I transferred to prep school, and I lost track of him.  I have no idea what happened to him after that.

The memory came back to me the other day - hazy and unclear.   Did it happen the way I remember it did?  Or not?  The mind is a tricky thing.   And maybe we try to forget things that are embarrassing or shameful.

Shameful in the sense that someone wanted to be my friend, and needed a friend, and I was not there for him.  And it hurts today to think about that, and to think about the casual way I walked away from that, without really trying.

Sometimes it is best to leave the past alone, and move on.

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