Growing up… different
I would say that I was a normal enough looking boy growing up, perhaps a bit on the small and puny side, partially caused by genetics (my parents weren’t large people) and some of which I attribute to being sick a lot. Really, I was just the kid who lived in the house on the corner.
One of the things that made me different from others was my insatiable thirst for knowledge. Just knowing something wasn’t good enough, I had to know the why behind it all.
That desire got an unexpected boost from the somewhat self-serving desire (she got a commission) of my first grade teacher to sell my parents a set of World Book encyclopedias. Her efforts worked well to fuel my need for an input fix. How could anyone not want books!
It was the way that she convinced my parents and what happened afterwards, that dropped me squarely into the category of “different.”
Being too smart
I was at school long enough in the beginning of first grade to take several batteries of tests, (many more than my classmates who only took two) and the results of each test seemed to be that I had to take another. I thought that there was something wrong with me and that I was in trouble somehow… what did I know, I was six years old!
Before any of the test results could be explained to me, or I could do anything other than have to read out loud to the class every day, I got sick with bronchial pneumonia and nearly died. My temperature stayed around 105 for so long that they thought that I would burn my brain to a cinder.
Surprise! I didn’t die! But I did miss six weeks of school (that time) and my older brother was terrifying me with suggestions that I was going to be held back for missing class. So when my teacher, Mrs. Reynolds, showed up at the house, I just knew that I was doomed. Because in little kid minds, anything unexplainable is ALWAYS doom.
When I was called into the living room to sit quietly and witness what was to take place I could see my brother’s face (who was at school) saying, “You are going to get it now!” It was a rare thing to have my father at home during the day, so I was sure something bad was waiting to fall on my head.
My teacher brought in two items: a manila envelope with my name on it, which she placed beside her on the couch, and a folder full of shiny papers about World Book encyclopedias that she laid out on the coffee table so that my parents could see it all. I really had no idea what selling encyclopedias was about so it was all just “stuff” to me.
In 1959 you did not question anything that an adult did, so I sat quietly and watched, waiting for one of them to say something to me and hoping that it penetrated my drifting thoughts so that I didn’t get into trouble for not paying attention when they spoke. My mind never slowed down and I could be anywhere, which proved to be a problem when what was going on around me was boring; and it usually was.
My mother’s voice brought me back to the present as she was looking at me, but speaking to the teacher. I finally processed her question and nearly swallowed my tongue as she asked, “does that mean that Kenneth (she always used my full name) will have to be held back a year?”
Mrs. Reynolds looked at me and laughed, possibly because I had the look of a boy about to wet himself, or maybe because she was dealing with parents who didn’t know what a strange child they had.
“No ma’am,” she said, “If anything, he should probably be advanced a year.”
As that news sank in to my parents brains, (and I sat there still unsure of my fate), she reached for the package of kryptonite on the couch beside her. It was to launch me on my career of always being different.
She could see that my parents were clearly not going to spend the small fortune on the set of books that they had no use for. If it wasn’t a decorating or gardening magazine, my mother wasn’t interested. For my father it had to be a technical manual for work, or the newspaper; nothing else mattered. To spend so much money on a set of reference books which could be found in any school or public library was a ridiculous expense to them. This was a time when one dollar could buy a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk and a gallon of gasoline… with change left over.
I could see that my teacher was truly in her element, (although to me it just looked like her happy face) as she opened the envelope while saying to my parents, “Before you decide, I think that you need to know about these test results…”
It has been impossible to forget my father’s words as Mrs. Reynolds explained each set of papers to them which showed me to be far ahead of my classmates in every area tested. He said, “So now what are we supposed to do with him?” Yes, it was true, I had mental leprosy…
My cunning teacher knew that she had them at that point and eased the shiny papers back in front of my parents saying, “He must have the proper resources to realize his potential…” and other such mind twisting platitudes and clichés which she skillfully employed in her part time occupation of book peddler. The woman had talents obviously underutilized as a first grade teacher; she could have sold sand to a Bedouin.
When she used the “G” word (genius) my father told me to go to my room and shut the door. It was apparently harmful for a child to know that they were smart, or something. I just went to my room… I liked it better in there anyway.
She had them caught in that mixed moment of uncertainty where pride; and fear of not doing enough for their child, met. They wanted a certain degree of parental bragging rights, but without any large commitments of cash if they could help it. It was a dilemma to be sure.
“Yeah, our son is a genius… we keep him in a cardboard box and shoot grapes to him with a slingshot so he doesn’t contaminate our other children. He will outgrow it before he reaches college age… I hope.”
They signed the papers and the set of 1960 World Book encyclopedias plus the 1961 yearbook were on their way. My father was grumpy for a week as he grumbled about the money being spent on books.
I was as happy as a pig in mud, I finally had something new to read and read them I did. For six weeks plus (while I was at home sick) I read until I fell asleep and then began again when I awoke. I read every book of the twenty-one piece set in order and then my favorite sections again and again. I soaked up so much information that my brothers and older sister would pick on me for “thinking that I knew everything.” I was fairly exploding with information and even though I was a sick little kid who had a tough time breathing between coughing spells, my fun meter was pegged!
Having an eidetic memory with a more than 90% retention rate made life interesting as I quoted them page and paragraph when they challenged what I said about things. I had the information, but lacked the wisdom needed to not be seen as arrogant or offensive, at least in my sibling’s eyes. I wasn’t trying to be a know-it-all, I just wouldn’t back down if I was right about something; a problem that I still have today.
The next year I was healthier and doing better in a room with two female classmates who were well above average academically helping take the heat off of me; until the IQ tests were administered.
The book check out rule at our school library was two books at a time, per library visit… for everyone except me. The librarian was the coolest lady at the school, without exception. She was super smart and appreciated my love of reading and books in general. I had no limit on how many books I could check out or how many times I could visit the library. I was there at least twice a day, every day; usually three times unless the teacher wouldn’t let me go at lunch time. I carried a stack of books home every afternoon and never, ever damaged or lost one.
Yes, I was a full blown book-a-holic by then, reading everything that I could get hold of and challenging everyone and everything that was wrong. I was definitely a problem child, being described frequently as “different” in public, and “not-right-in-the-head” behind closed doors that didn’t block sound quite as well as the adults thought.
Uh-oh, IQ Testing
When we were given IQ tests administered by a company which did so as their business (and usually at colleges) the trouble started in earnest. The school had conducted its own testing prior to this year and the older teachers resented anyone else holding court in their classrooms where their rule had always been absolute. It didn’t seem to matter (to my teacher) that the young man in our classroom had PhD after his name. In fact after I asked him what it meant and said “wow!” at his answer, my teacher was fairly scowling at both of us.
My second grade teacher, Miss Wright (not related), was a crotchety older woman well past retirement age, but she had nothing else to do, so she refused to leave. I think the administrators were too afraid of her to force the issue. Our principal had been one of her students when he was in second grade.
This was my educational guide, my teacher, who, upon looking at my score blurted out, “This can’t be right, he must have cheated somehow, it can’t be this high.”
My face turned red as a tomato because I had never been accused of something so heinous in my short life. I wouldn’t have known how to cheat IF it would have ever occurred to me to do so, which it never did. I didn’t need to cheat on anything.
The test proctor saw my face and went off on Miss Wright, in a quiet and dignified way which I admired him for (I hated yelling). Without ever raising his voice, he had the much older woman backed down and quiet in short order. Relatively quiet anyway, she was muttering things under her breath.
He took me to the back of the classroom and administered a second battery of tests, sporting a red glow on his face as he tried to work through his apparent anger, which now as an adult I can truly appreciate.
Upon completion of my test scoring, which had taken us well into recess (I wasn’t allowed to leave lest I be accused of doing something wrong), he got nose to nose with my teacher and said, “Well, well Miss Wright, you were correct about his score…” which upon hearing she got a smug look on her face and glared at me, “his score is actually five points higher!” and he called out the two scores (which I won’t state here). He also called my house and told my mother, just in case my teacher didn’t.
That night at dinner I heard the “G” word whispered from my mother to my father and both looked at me like I had done something wrong. My older brother picked up on it and called me a weirdo. I guess that I really felt like one too. But I had no idea why being smart was a bad thing; I still don’t.
After that testing incident my teacher switched gears, parading me around like a side show freak along with my two female classmates who were the other members of my reading group in her class. She delighted in making us read for every class in the school. Collectively we were reading three grades ahead of everyone else, I tested out at tenth grade (10.7) level, but wasn’t allowed to have a curriculum past grade five for a reason that was unknown to me then. I have since had it explained to me that most likely my teacher was not certified to teach beyond the K-6 level, thus my restriction.
That moment of glory for her as the teacher “responsible”, translated into a non-stop series of battles for me. Because of my reading ability the older kids, boys especially, felt like I was making fun of them or putting them down in some way. They had been made to feel inferior or inadequate and it made them angry. That anger was directed at me and they missed no opportunity to convey that message with their fists and feet. I had more fights than Joe Louis, just while I was in elementary school.
Was I different? Apparently I was the freak that my brother teased me about being. But while I acknowledged being different, I never saw myself as being wrong in the way I thought or acted. I fought back punch for punch and sometimes I got beat up, but not often, because I could out think my opponents. I often got reported to my principal and/or my mother for being a trouble maker. I just didn’t have a reverse gear and wouldn’t back up when I knew that I was right.
While the world around me was living in the very white 1950’s and ‘60’s, red was not only associated with Russians and communism, but the necks of those that I was “supposed” to associate with.
We had our “kind” I was told by the preacher and Sunday school teacher; our white, protestant, straight, carefully non-ethnic kind. Like the Baptist preacher before him, this Methodist minister made it clear that it also had to be people who prayed and believed in exactly the same way as the interpretation of the bible that his church promoted. It seemed that their chosen version of God hated all of the same people that they did… how convenient I thought. I smelled a rat in organized religion even then, and life kept handing me more proof as I got older.
Kids who looked like me but weren’t as smart made up the group surrounding me in elementary school (K-6 for my international readers) this lead me to joining a gang (at ten years old) comprised of older boys who could handle my intelligence easier, but still were rednecks. Being involved with them lead me to such sterling achievements as stealing the light bar off of the top of a cop car while they were taking an unauthorized meal break, breaking into a school and moving a teacher’s desk to the roof, and numerous gang fights at the high school football stadium at night. They were also no stranger to drugs and alcohol use. I did the drinking but wouldn’t touch the drugs as I had already witnessed an overdose death and bizarre behavior. The kids pushing me to try drugs actually saved me… the more someone pushed, the less likely I would ever do what they wanted. Being different saved my butt; again!
After I met some Cuban kids my life took a turn for the better, as their family didn’t care that I was smart, or white. Then I some Italians from New York moved in next door and a Jewish family, also from New York started sending their son to my school instead of private school.
Junior High School
By the time we entered the seventh grade our group looked like the United Nations. My Seminole Indian brothers and sisters, joined the black kids and our old gang (not really a gang, I got out of that) and we got along incredibly well. We represented all religions and no religion, it didn’t matter to us what anyone believed. We looked more like a group found on Ellis Island than kids from Hollywood, Florida.
We had our own language made up of words from multiple languages like Spanish, Italian, Yiddish, Miccosukee, Swahili, and some that we just plain made up, all to confuse those who made fun of us or would do us harm in one fashion or another. The local police officers really didn’t like us speaking our cobbled together language and harassed us at every opportunity, calling us “commies” and would not allow us to gather together at any fast food place or convenience store, etc. saying that we were unruly troublemakers that would drive business away. For the record, we never once caused trouble, stole anything, or even littered! We were extremely careful about what we did, as some of us did have “experience” with the law and didn’t want any trouble.
My friends didn’t care that I was probably smarter than they were, nor did they care that I was white; in the same way that their color, ethnicity, or religious beliefs were unimportant to me. We had something very powerful in common… we were all different. We were the outcasts of the local societal norms; we did not fit the mold of what “should” be.
I started getting visits from the Methodist church youth group leaders who were all high school age. They had heard about my association with all of these people of different colors and religions and decided that they had to intervene and save my soul from eternal damnation (their exact words). I made it as clear as I could that I did not need, nor did I want their salvation. They came back again and were going to take me to church by force and pray over me.
As you know by now, I never have taken kindly to being pushed into something, so when the youth group leader grabbed my arm I hit him as hard as I could and broke his nose. Having the element of surprise in my favor, I ran before they could all jump on me. They tried again, this time with all girls, knowing that I wouldn’t hit them. But I saw them and slipped out the backdoor and up onto the roof of our house where no one knew where I was. My mother had to tell them that she didn’t know where I was, which was the truth. She didn’t see me go outside. They waited for over an hour before they left.
My mother never would admit to calling the pastor, (who in turn sent the teenagers to see me), but a girl I knew was good friends with his daughter and she told me that it was true. I told my mother that I was never going back to that church ever again, and I didn’t. The youth group kids never came back.
My adopted families all treated me like their son, even though I was obviously different; they truly didn’t care. They also didn’t hold the fact that I was white kid in a white dominated society which was very hard on all of them against me. They shared their cultures with me, fed me, hugged me and showed me what love and hospitality was all about. Different felt really good to me about then.
It was during this time period that I experienced one of the lowest forms of humanity that I have ever known. I went with my Seminole brothers to secretly observe a KKK rally, which you can read about in “The Truth about the KKK”. I was never so proud of being different in my life. If those fools were normal, I didn’t (and don’t) want any of it (being normal).
My first high school was a logistical nightmare as multiple schools were shut down in our area, and they all dumped students into our school. We had five staggered starting times, plus a whole village of portable modular classrooms set up in rows A through Z and numbered outward from the main school buildings, there were literally thousands of students on campus.
My World History class was held in the auditorium and had 750 students in it with five teachers. One lectured while the other four patrolled trying to keep order. The teacher in our section told us that he wouldn’t report us if we skipped class, as there was no way to keep the room cool enough. Every human body that wasn’t there putting off heat helped the cause.
The local drug dealers were having the most profitable days of their lives with so many customers in the now nearly uncontrollable student body. We had gangs in the halls of both white and black varieties. I knew representatives from all of the local gangs but the kids from the other schools were new to me. That got me into trouble as I was deemed a problem because I wouldn’t side with anyone against the others. This earned me an ice pick in the back while in the crowded halls at class changing time. Fortunately for me it didn’t hit anything vital as my shoulder blade stopped it. No one ever took credit for the attack.
In an unrelated action; I got suspended for punching my biology teacher for putting his hands on me. Yes, he was a very effeminate, short, hairy, gay man that we all knew was gay, but it had nothing to do with sexual behavior. I was late coming from my previous class (Physical Education) due to our coach keeping us out on the field longer than he should have. It was an excused “tardy” situation, even announced over the school P.A. system, which unfortunately the portable classroom I was entering still did not have installed.
I entered the classroom, apologizing for my tardiness (and interrupting) as I tried to go to my assigned seat. Mr. “P.” was a “shoulder grabber” and I had asked him not to put his hands on me previously.
As I walked past him he latched onto my shoulder in his version of the “Vulcan neck pinch”, which caused the very quiet girl in the first seat to utter an “Oh shit”. She was right to anticipate trouble; I spun on my heel, turned and punched the teacher square in the face, knocking him out the still open door and down the three steps to the asphalt sidewalk below. I followed him out and as I stepped over him, said. “I am going to the principal’s office now Mr. P. You really shouldn’t have touched me again.”
I went directly to the administrative building, walked up to the receptionist and told her that I had just punched a teacher and needed to see the principal. Said principal just happened to be my father’s football coach from his high school days at a different school. I fully expected to be shot at sunrise.
The sentence was just three days suspension, largely due to the stack of statements in my behalf from other students who had witnessed not only the altercation, but the previous occasions where I had repeatedly asked the teacher to keep his hands off of me. He never did anything overtly sexual; it was just the physical contact of being grabbed that I didn’t like. There was also a stack of complaints from other students who had problems with him for one reason or another. None of which was enough to get him removed as he had tenure and there was a shortage of qualified teachers willing to subject themselves to the horrendous conditions of overcrowding that we were experiencing.
We (my parents and I) elected to change schools instead to fighting with that mess any longer.
It was at this point that I decided to give up on traditional team sports. I still rodeoed and surfed, but didn’t care about football, baseball, track, or wrestling. The truth is, I never cared about them but had to compete to be accepted. I preferred to wander the swamp with my Seminole friends or just my dog. Animals were more interesting to me than cars, which drove my brothers crazy.
That “different” label emerged again and again; I didn’t care what others thought was important and no longer tried to fit their mold of whom or what I should be.
My second high school brought conflict between social groups like cowboys and hippies, and more racial tensions between whites and blacks, including a riot at school engineered by outsiders who were causing unrest for their own agendas. I was caught in the crossfire as I had friends on both sides and didn’t think that any of what they were yelling about was enough reason to hurt people. I rodeoed with the cowboys and listened to Santana, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead with the hippies; and I didn’t care who smoked weed… I didn’t smoke, but that just wasn’t important to me.
Once again I was different and on the outside, shaking my head at what the “normal” people were doing.
We moved as my senior year was about to begin and I went to a school (my third high school) where I was Albert Einstein reincarnated if you looked at GPAs or test scores. I also didn’t play golf and wasn’t a devotee of NASCAR. They could hardly believe that I was white when I played Motown and James Brown (along with my regular rock and roll music) instead of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, etc.
There were two classes that worked for me (and I could scarcely believe were even offered in such a backwards place), those being psychology and English Literature (as in Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, etc.). They were understandably small classes and only offered because of teacher availability. The basic level classes of English, Mathematics and Biology 1 were bursting at the seams and kids were graduating from high school with an embarrassing lack of ability in any of them.
My participation in the aforementioned classes, as well as teaching general math to half of my class (read about it in my story: “What don’t you understand?”) labeled me as different, to put it nicely.
These people were mostly bigoted, blissfully ignorant, and proud of it. They made up a strange collage of high society cultural behaviors like cotillion’s and horse show jumping, mixed with Masters Golf Tournament devotees, and some of the poorest, least educated throwbacks to plowing behind a mule that it boggled the mind to contemplate.
I had never been so happy to be different in my life.
And so it was that my entire young lifetime of being different had prepared me for the adventures I would undertake as adult, and I believe far better than I could ever have planned.
The simple acceptance of other cultures as equal and valid to that of stereotypical white America has undoubtedly saved my life at least once, and has made breaking bread with people of many ethnicities and lifestyles around the globe an easy and natural thing.
My life has been rich precisely because of being different and I heartily recommend it to everyone.
If anyone dares to call you “normal,” take off your clothes and dance in a fountain, or howl at the full moon on a starry night. Dance to your own drummer and color outside the lines if you want to. Greatness doesn’t come in a plain brown wrapper and the only limitations on your life are the ones placed there by you.
Dare to be different.