Of Race and Ignorance

When I was about five years old before my brothers were born, my mom routinely babysat other kids to earn extra money while she stayed at home. Most of these kids were around my age, and we’d have a good time playing together. In many ways it was like a practice run for being a big brother, a welcome respite from the general isolation I often felt tucked away at home with my mom.

One day, my dad took me and one of the boys with him while he ran errands. Back then, even running errands with my dad was great fun since he was rarely awake when I was, so I was pumped to ride in that old, blue Ford Maverick with one of my friends. I thought that car was so cool with its slick, black vinyl seats and rumbling engine. Dad always drove with the window down, even when it was cold, so that he could flip the ashes from his ever-present cigarette out of the window, so I got the visceral effect of the wind blowing through my hair in the back seat way before I’d get the experience driving myself.

Over the course of running errands, we ended up at Canton Drug in downtown Canton. My friend and I stood at the pharmacy counter while my dad picked up a prescription. As is typical of young boys feeding off each other, we were acting up and dad had already hushed us once, so we stood as silently as we could, restless energy wracking our tiny limbs, while dad finished his transaction. About this time, an old, black lady walked in through the door and ambled past us on her cane. She had that grandmotherly aura about her, but age had taken its toll as she was hunched over the cane and moved very slowly. Each step seemed painful, and she had the misery on her face to prove it.

My friend and I watched her for a moment, and then, he turned to me, as if I hadn’t been paying attention, and said very loudly, “Look at that n—-r.” If I had heard that word before I didn’t remember, but even at that young age, I could feel the air getting sucked out of the drug store. Conversations behind us fell silent. The old woman stopped and stared at us with an intensity that frightened me. She ambled over to us and got close to my friend as she stuck her gnarled finger in his face. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she told him that she was a black person, not the epithet he had used. Once she thought he understood, she simply walked away. I heaved a sigh of relief.

Whether my dad had watched what had unfolded, I do not know, but I do know that he heard the exchange, and he was livid at my friend for his sordid behavior. He stood at the counter, stilted and red-faced, and once he retrieved his prescription, he pulled us out of the store quickly. Back at home he blew up, he proclaimed to my mom that he would never take my friend with him anywhere again as he relayed the embarrassing episode. My friend and I cowered in the living room while dad’s temper exhausted itself as it always did with him stomping down the hall and slamming his bedroom door to take a nap.

That day introduced me to the ugliness of racism. I didn’t understand it then. I didn’t understand that kids aren’t born with those attitudes, that they learn them from their parents. Each generation carries on the attitudes of those before them whether they want to or not unless they make a conscious effort to break the cycle of ignorance.

The South (in the United States) doesn’t have a monopoly on racism. It exists everywhere, in places you’d least expect it. Human nature lends itself to racism. We all tend to like those similar to us. This is true of everyone – black or white. The only difference between a racist and someone who is not is the taming of innate impulses, a greater understanding of humanity that can only be obtained by questioning motives and understanding the fear of the unfamiliar that we all harbor in the primitive part of our brains. That primitive brain gets us in trouble, and nowhere is that id on display like it is in high school.

In that primordial soup of evolving adults where fraught emotions mix with posturing machismo, high school lends itself to the social drama where different ideas clash. Cliques form naturally, and opposing ideas teem at the slightest possible indignity. It’s not unlike the real world, but adults are often weighed down with responsibilities and have less time on their hands. My first eight years of school were spent in the whitest of the white parts of the county. There was no mix of races to speak of at Macedonia. At Cherokee, for the first time for many of us from the farthest reaches of the county, other races were introduced to the student body, and that put racial tension and ignorance on full display.

Unfortunately, some of my most prominent memories from high school aren’t of academic achievements, sporting events, or silly dances, but of racial fights. The obvious minority of black students at the school had to constantly deal with an overwhelming majority of emotionally- and intellectually-stunted individuals incapable of comprehending or accepting the diversity of the world around them. It felt like two tectonic plates bumping against each other constantly causing a destructive wave of motion every time one of them moved.

One such battle played out over the course of a couple of years. I had taken a woodworking class because I enjoyed building things, and while I was trying to design something to build for my mom, one of the dimwitted students in my class used the lathe to build a weapon that he intended to use against a black student. He boasted about it among his equally-witless cronies in class, out of the teacher’s earshot of course. Sometime later, during a lunch period, the student made good on his promise and was promptly suspended for a lengthy amount of time.

I didn’t see the student again until the following year. I had largely abandoned the woodworking classes despite enjoying them and moved on to other pursuits involving fewer dullards. In the fall of that school year, a friend and I were walking to the library among a crowd of students to take some standardized tests. I had walked ahead of him and through the large glass doors of the building without paying much attention to where he was. As I stepped through one of the doors and let it swing back, I heard the crash of glass breaking, and my first thought was that I had let the door slam on my friend.

When I turned around, I saw the suspended student from the woodworking class lying on the floor with a large, fleshy gash running the length of his arm. He had been thrown through the glass doors and the shards had slashed his forearm. Blood poured from his wound and puddled on the worn carpet quickly. He looked dazed and confused, even more than usual, but he jumped up and ran past me as if he were being chased by the killer in some horror movie. I stood there, stunned, but when I looked beyond the shattered glass doors searching for my friend, I saw the black student the delinquent had beaten the previous year, seething in anger and too overwhelmed to pursue the fight any further.

That became one of my most prominent memories of the racial tension that plagued my high school and captured yet another thing that troubled me about the world in which I lived. For me, high school simply became an endurance race. I silently counted down the years and then days until I could walk out of there for good. When I graduated and walked off that football field for the final time in the summer of freedom, as I sardonically referred to it, I never looked back.

The Memoir Experiment

Being a writer requires constant experimentation and learning. Not only do I read a lot of fiction, but I also read about writing. I follow blogs about writing and keep up-to-date on the industry through Writer’s Digest and The Writer’s Market, both of which provide good advice on improving your writing in spite of the constant marketing emails that clog my email inbox.

One of the more interesting suggestions I read a while back stated that writing a memoir is a good way to improve your writing. Writing requires lots of practice. Not everything you write ends up as a short story or novel, nor should it, but to get better, you have to do it every day. You may not have a story idea to work on every day, but the events in your life are like a ready-made story waiting to be put into words, which gives you ample practice material, assuming you can weed out the boring parts.

My kids will occasionally complain to me that they’re bored despite having a plethora of entertainment options at their disposal, and I often retort, “That’s life.” My exasperated response is more than just a deflection of their harping complaints, it’s the truth. Life is the boring stuff that happens between those sporadic moments of excitement. The daily grind is not interesting, and it’s certainly not the stuff of riveting novels. How to turn that into something remotely worth reading?

Doing this is more than a rehash of an all-too-familiar chronology from birth to death. Tension and desire are ever-present by virtue of being alive, but to capture that in a way that resonates for a reader to find it interesting or inspiring remains the most difficult challenge of all, especially if there’s not a natural element of suspense such as achieving something remarkable or overcoming insurmountable odds. I’ve read many life stories and some have been fascinating, while others have been dull. It takes a writer with the gifts of a Jon Krakauer to make a life jump off the page (read his Pat Tillman biography, Where Men Win Glory, and you won’t be disappointed).

In spite of all of this, I just started writing in between moments of editing my latest fiction novel. Editing is one of my least favorite things to do, so I needed something to take my mind off of it or else I’d go crazy. I spend a day editing and then the next day writing the memoir. This pattern has kept me sane or, at least, motivated to continue editing.

Although I keep a mini journal on my iPhone (yes, there’s an app for that), I’ve never been someone who likes to write about the happenings in my life in a journal. I find it tedious and boring (there’s that word again). I use my mini journal to record little moments, primarily with my wife and kids, using the photos that I take along the way. It’s mostly like a series of photos with captions. The only reason I do it is to keep a running dialogue as the kids get older to remember those key moments in our lives.

As I get older, that dialogue grows in importance. I often wish that I had some written record of my parents’ or my grandparents’ lives. It’d be interesting, to me at least, to be able to read their thoughts and reflections on their lives. It’d sort of be like a peek behind the curtain, an opportunity to get to know them beyond their roles in my life. In many ways, this memoir can serve that function for my kids and any grandchildren that may come into existence. When this exercise is done and I put the memoir in the proverbial desk drawer, I hope that it serves their curiosity.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to share some parts of it here as I post excerpts. Unlike my fiction work, I don’t plan to edit it because it’s not something I ever plan on publishing. It’s more a stream-of-consciousness exercise where the raw material is just what it is, no makeup applied. Knowing that I don’t have to edit it when I’m done makes it even more fun to write. Did I mention that I dislike editing?

Working

Raising three boys should be considered an Olympic event. My mom’s approach revolved around a military-like discipline and a penchant for repeating mantras like an over-wrought motivational speaker. She hated laziness and often lit a fire under the three of us when we slacked off. She also had (and still has) a 1950s view of the world that translated into clean living – no drinking, no drugs, and no sex.

Her intensity instilled a work ethic in all of us that, to this day, still persists. If you ask me what I bring to the table in any job, I’ll tell you that no one works harder, and I mean it. My mom would be disappointed otherwise, and you don’t disappoint your mother.

I had my first “job” when I was nine years old when I spent the summer working with my maternal grandfather. He owned a construction business and had landed a contract renovating schools around the district. I spent that summer cleaning up construction debris at the schools. The menial work wasn’t too hard, but it was enough for a small nine-year-old. He paid me generously for my work that summer, and I remember being so proud of earning my own money. That was my first taste of hard work paying off.

I spent the next several summers working for him or my uncles in various construction-related jobs. As I got older, the jobs got harder. It was during those summer and winter breaks when I was knee-deep digging some trench or hauling rebar across a construction site that I realized I’d never escape the working class misery that weighed on my dad if I didn’t stay in school. That was all the motivation I would ever need.

After I turned 14 years old, I landed a part-time job at a local grocery store stocking shelves and bagging groceries – I considered this my first real job since it was outside the family. I worked with several older boys and a throng of gossiping cashiers, which introduced me to the forlorn world of workplace melodrama. I hadn’t seen anything yet, but even at my most naive and oblivious, I found the manufactured drama equal parts amusing and annoying.

When I turned 16 and obtained my driver’s license, my exploration of the landscape of mind-numbing, menial work led me to the local McDonald’s. The restaurant sat on a crowded strip of fast food joints that fanned out from a Walmart just outside of downtown Canton. At the time, that stretch of road represented the best Canton had to offer, which was not much. Canton lacked any entertainment options back then for teenagers other than driving a circuitous route among the fast food restaurants and honking at your friends or attractive members of the opposite sex as you drove by.

Working at that McDonald’s opened my eyes to a different world, a rather seedy one that I had never seen before. The motley crew of teenagers and desperate working adults made for an interesting interaction behind the scenes. The only real adult at the place, the lead manager, was a grumpy, older guy named Randy, whom I quickly grew to dislike. He treated us all like we were trash because his experience with fast food workers had extinguished his brittle faith in humanity. He became the common enemy we all loathed.

Looking back, I can’t say I blame him. His managers struggled to be adults, and us teenagers were, well, just teenagers – sarcastic know-it-alls who had no vested interest in the job other than getting some spending money for our next day off. We all hated our jobs. I still worked hard, but I hated it. I spent most of my time working that smelly, greasy grill slaving over hyper-frozen meat patties as they quickly melted into globs of semi-edible meat for the next customer in line. In my year or so of working there I could never rid myself of that terrible grill odor. My uniform reeked. Sometimes, I’d catch a whiff of the grill on my hands on days when I wasn’t working and I’d want to retch. Good times.

Nevertheless, there were some interesting characters at the restaurant. One buxom manager, Mindy (not her real name), often came to work jacked up on something. She’d wear her long-sleeved uniform in the sweltering summer to hide the needle pricks on her arms, and she’d deliver her instructions in that slow, careful demeanor of the town drunk. She looked to be in her late forties, but I don’t think she was really that old.

She dated a scrawny, pot-smoking maintenance guy who struggled to hold down a job, but in spite of their relationship, she’d get awfully close to the rest of us young guys who worked her shift. One minute she’d be making out with the maintenance guy in the break room and in another she’d be sitting too close to you with her best assets propped forward behind a shirt that was just a tad too tight and hadn’t been buttoned up completely.

After close when it was just us workers in the wretched throes of another late night, she and the maintenance guy would break out the joints and who knows what else. I’d never actually seen illegal drugs until I worked at McDonald’s. Despite the ready availability of illicit drugs, I didn’t accept any offers for a puff or anything else, not because I was some self-righteous moral crusader, but because even then, I understood my genetic propensity to develop addictive habits, and I feared losing control. That road led to nowhere, and I had to get on the next road out of town.

Mindy always got extra flirty when she was hopped up, but even for a teenager with raging hormones, she was a complete turnoff, a hot mess of something that was a beacon for imminent personal disaster. She made me uncomfortable when she got so close I could smell the smoke on her breath and the taint of grease that emanated from her uniform after a long night serving putrid fast food.

While Mindy was giving us a lesson in what not to do when you become an adult, the usual teenage curiosities pulsed beneath the surface. Anytime you mix teenage boys and girls together in an environment like that something is bound to happen. Not long after I started, a girl named Rachel (not her real name) began working with me on Friday and Saturday nights. She worked the front counter and I worked the grill. By this time Keith had joined me at the restaurant and often manned the grill with me. We fed off each other and became something of a wannabe comedy team back there making light of our atrocious working conditions and the ridiculous customer demands that often came our way.

Since Keith and I both hated our jobs, we didn’t care what we did or said back there. The kids working the front counter laughed but mostly rolled their eyes at our boisterous act, while the supposed adults-in-charge ignored it. Rachel found it humorous, and she often egged us on, which admittedly, didn’t take much to do. She’d make some snarky comment, and we’d go into a frenzy of comebacks that hopefully weren’t heard by the customers up front.

Rachel was cute, but she wasn’t particularly attractive to me. She smoked, which I hated, and she spoke in that backwoods way that I had grown tired of by the time I reached high school, but it eventually dawned on me that she liked me, and as teenage boys are prone to do, I took advantage of it. For a brief time, we became a couple. She doted over me at work, and we’d meet in the break room at work or the halls at school and hold hands or sneak a kiss like typical, googly-eyed teenagers. Rachel took our relationship more seriously than I did as I stayed true to handbook for immature teenage boys.

Needless to say, that relationship didn’t end well. It culminated with both of us losing our innocence, but quickly fell apart when Rachel caught me fawning over another girl. Shortly afterwards, she quit working at McDonald’s and I avoided her at all costs in the hallways at school, and we never spoke to each other again. It was definitely not one of my proudest moments. Boys have a tendency to learn life’s lessons in the hardest way possible. It’s a cycle that has persisted for eons, and the cycle certainly didn’t end with me. There’d be more stumbles ahead, the momentary lapses in budding judgment that form the foundation of experience. Such is life. No one had said it would ever be an easy or admirable path.

1985

If my preteen years left me feeling marginalized and uncomfortable in my own skin, adding the typical teenage angst didn’t help. The summer of 1985 became the fork in the road that set the tone for the next decade of my life – letting go of the past and wandering aimlessly into an uncertain future searching for something that I didn’t quite understand. It all began with a celebration and the false promise of a new beginning.

The long road to graduating from eighth grade ended with the usual hoopla assigned to such significant milestones. After eight years of being with essentially the same people every day, we were going to a larger school where we’d inevitably go our separate ways. It was both exhilarating and sad, but mostly sad because we’d no longer be together as we spun off into our different cliques and joined new ones, our identity pulled apart at the seams and reformulated into something we didn’t recognize. The change scared me.

At the end of the last day of elementary school, I took that tentative first step onto the bus for the final ride home. One of my favorite coaches, Coach Hetherington, joined us on the bus, and we all gathered at the back to reminisce and talk about the future. Coach had the physique of a football lineman that would intimidate most people, but to us, he exuded a cool demeanor that had captivated us for much of the time he was at our school. He had a big, hearty laugh, and talking to him felt more like talking to an older friend than some of our more authoritarian teachers, so having him on the bus gave us a sense of celebration rather than oversight.

The animated conversations bounced around the back of the bus as, one by one, classmates and friends said goodbye and stepped off the bus into the future. It felt like we were all being called to the slaughterhouse, otherwise known as high school. When my stop arrived, I said goodbye to Coach and the few remaining friends on the bus and rumbled down the steps with a lump in my throat.

I didn’t spend my summer in despair; although, I did over-play Simple Mind’s Don’t You Forget About Me that year. We had one last hurrah, my friends and I, when we went on a camping trip to celebrate the beginning of summer break. It was the last time we were all together in the group that defined us then. That camping trip, along the banks of the meager creek two miles from my house, remains one of my fondest memories of the guys I went to school with at Macedonia Elementary School. In my memory, it is probably greater than it actually was, but it put an exclamation point on on the waning days of boyhood.

High school began in the fall, and by the time I learned where my locker was, things had changed dramatically. Familiar faces segued into the mass of unfamiliarity. While my old school had a single hallway right down the gut of the building, my new school had many buildings with similarly dim hallways. Like Macedonia, Cherokee High School was a depressing relic from the 1950s. If the logistics were disorienting, the flood of new people was disconcerting. My homeroom felt nothing like the name implied. My first big dose of change felt overwhelming, but what was left of my small group of friends from Macedonia kept me grounded, at least for the time being.

In all of that chaos, an element of hope emerged. I could feel the charge of a new beginning, a chance to redefine who I was and expand my experience beyond the tiny world I had been trapped in for so long. There was some truth to that, but not nearly as much as I had hoped. In the end, high school was largely disappointing, a forced experience that left me bursting at the seams to escape four years later.

The sad part is that high school didn’t leave me feeling optimistic. If anything, it only magnified the dissonance that had grown ever-present in my mind. It laid bare the ugliness that hid in plain sight around me. By the time I stood on the football field four years later and tossed my mortarboard high into the air, it felt more like the end of a prison sentence than the end of a rewarding, academic slog. My dad had told me that my high school years would be the best of my life because that’s all he had known. He hadn’t seen much beyond ninth grade. If that had been true, I would have been sorely disappointed. Thankfully, my life was just beginning, and the best, although more than a decade into the future, was yet to come.

The Shoulders of Giants

Outside of my parents, the most significant influences in my life have been teachers. Three teachers, in particular, had the greatest impact on me and propelled me forward into adulthood – Mrs. Imogene Bursmith, Mrs. Dorothy Whitfield, and Mrs. Dorothy Street.

All three played a different role in shaping who I am today. The common thread that runs among them is that they encouraged me, believed in me, and helped me see things in myself that I hadn’t seen or couldn’t see. There was nothing magical about it, nor were there seminal moments that transcended the everyday grind. For some reason, I connected with these three women in a way that improved who I was to become. Of course, many of my teachers had an impact on me growing up, but these three stand out.

By the time I reached fourth grade, Mrs. Bursmith had many years of teaching experience under her belt. She had been hardened by it and often wore a gruff expression that suggested that if we got out of line there’d be hell to pay. That’s what happens when someone spends her life dealing with fourth graders. I didn’t understand it then, but now, I know. I only need to spend an hour or two with eight- and nine-year-olds to know that it’s tough to keep a gaggle of them focused and in line. If I were to survey my former classmates, I believe many of them would have an unfavorable view of Mrs. Bursmith simply because she was one tough lady, and getting on her bad side was not a pleasant experience.

Beneath that stern appearance lurked a woman who cared about her students. She was tough, but I needed that then. By the time I reached fourth grade, I stood on the cusp of being a decent student. The material started clicking with me garnering a thirst for more knowledge, a greater understanding of the world that spun around me. Mrs. Bursmith challenged me to do better whether it was giving me feedback on a test, forcing me to work within time limits, or being critical of my performance or behavior. All of those interactions made me a better student and person. Every so often, I’d get a glimpse of the mother and grandmother that stood behind her teacher persona when she’d show a softer, kinder side of herself and give me a rare moment of praise. I left fourth grade with a greater sense of myself and what it’d take to be successful.

My seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Whitfield, reminded me a lot of my paternal grandmother, tall and slender with a definite 1950s look about her. That’s probably what resonated with me when I first entered her class, but her impact on me was the greatest of these three ladies. By the time I entered seventh grade, I was a budding writer who scribbled stories in notebooks that would often end up in the trash or lost in the sea of stuff that my mom stored in the attic. Any talent I had was rough and uneven at best. Mrs. Whitfield changed that. She put me on the path to being a better writer. She encouraged me and gave me feedback. She instilled a confidence in me that I’d need to survive the onslaught of the years ahead. I can’t overstate how important that was.

In my final year of elementary school, she worked with my friend James and me as we edited the tiny, inconsequential school newspaper. We had survived her English class, which was tough and heavily focused on grammar rules, but we came out of that class with an institutionalized memory of the laws of the English language. That newfound appreciation translated well to the newspaper as we put our knowledge to practice. She treated the paper like we were writing for the Atlanta Journal & Constitution, and her encouragement, guidance, and feedback solidified my love of writing, a feeling that still burns bright today.

A few years later, in the waning years of influence before I stepped firmly into the cynical, know-it-all world of a teenager, Mrs. Street became my ninth-grade English Composition teacher. She was also the sponsor of the school newspaper, which, compared to the one from elementary school, was a big-time daily rag. Like Mrs. Bursmith, Mrs. Street was a stern, no-nonsense type who commanded respect from her lectern at the front of her class. A rather small woman who was often dwarfed by her fast-developing students, she could settle down her class simply by arching her eyebrows above her large-framed glasses. Most students just knew her as the prickly English teacher. I got to know her much better because I worked on the school newspaper throughout my entire high school career.

The teacher I knew was whip-smart, kind, and generous with her feedback. She truly cared about her students, even the ones that were being smart-asses and goofing off in class. She dedicated much of her time to the newspaper staff and taught us more than we could ever imagine about writing and communicating. Those four years on the staff were the most formative for me in terms of developing my writing skills, and Mrs. Street was the reason for that. Her dedication and encouragement while teaching us the art of journalism remains one of the few positive beacons from my high school years, and many years later, I still remember the pyramid she drew on the board one day explaining how to write a news article. That simple tool has served more use for me than she could probably ever imagine.

I owe these ladies the greatest gratitude for taking the time to make me better through their feedback and encouragement, for believing in me when few others did. Whether they realized it or not, they cut through all the clutter of childhood and connected with me in ways that helped me see the potential of what I could become and for that I am eternally grateful.

Brotherhood

The best friendships I’ve ever had were formed fairly early in life when I was around nine and ten years old. Those friendships, which still persist to this day despite the disparity in geography and the whirlwind of family and career commitments, have endured, while others have come and gone like changes in fashion.

It helped that the people I saw everyday remained constant for a long time, especially during those formative preteen years when the best and strongest friendships usually develop. The first three years of school were very much about getting comfortable and finding my groove. By fourth grade, I had become a better student, but I had also developed a keener sense of self-awareness, which is necessary for strong friendships.

Around this time, a new student, Keith, moved to our neighborhood. He had moved from a neighboring county with his mother and sister to live closer to her family. We had very similar backgrounds deeply rooted in the working class aura of our community. Keith settled into our class quickly because he had a great sense of humor, and, even at a young age, had an amazing artistic ability. He remains one of the most talented and creative people I’ve ever known, but that ability to find humor in everything set the stage for one of the most enduring and treasured relationships I’ve had in my entire life.

Keith became another brother to me, and over the ensuing years we had more fun than probably should be allowed and got into a little trouble along the way as boys are wont to do. In eighth grade we thought it would be funny to annotate pictures in a Sports Illustrated magazine with the words we thought or wanted the subjects in the photos to say. Those words weren’t G-rated to say the least, and when our over-serious, bug-eyed eighth grade teacher busted us, we held back our snickers as he almost blew his top (and those bug eyes) in the hallway outside our classroom.

We were both huge fans of Miami Vice back in that show’s heyday, and we talked about it all of the time. (For the record, I was the only one of us crazy enough to emulate Don Johnson’s iconic sartorial style – in high school of all places.) We loved fast cars as a result of that show; although, Keith was the only one who ever had a real fast car, a Ford Galaxy. He’d get that thing going down a straight-away, engine rumbling under the force of its pistons, and we’d cruise through those rural roads in North Georgia back before development and traffic clogged them shut.

I had a rickety Ford Escort that rattled like the space shuttle reentering the atmosphere at any speed above 40 MPH, but that didn’t stop me from racing with Keith. In high school, when we both worked the close shift at McDonald’s, we’d see how fast we could make the seven-mile trek home in the early morning hours when no other cars were on the road. I don’t remember any of actual times, but we closed the gap perilously close to stupid fast. Luckily, we didn’t get hurt or arrested.

Now, we are grown men, or pretend to be for our wives’ sake, but we have so many good, funny stories from growing up that it’s not hard to revert to back to being 17 again when we’re together. Brothers are like that.

James is another guy I grew up with who’s like a brother to me. Our relationship is very different in that it was sometimes contentious. I’ve known James since we started in first grade, and we haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but James is probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. I could always count on him to provide a counterpoint in an argument and say something to make me think. He’s not arrogant or bombastic, nor does he revel in the “I told you so” victory dance when he’s right, but he’s sharp, subtle, and almost always spot-on.

If we had grown up in the philosophical height of Greek civilization, James would have been Socrates, challenging those around him to reconsider their points of view. It never failed when I made a point that James would have a different point of view. It was equal parts aggravating and thought-provoking. From him I learned to appreciate having different perspectives, something I frequently seek out today when evaluating a problem or issue.

There were others with whom I developed a close bond as we grew up together, not all were guys. Jodie and Michelle were very close friends with whom I have many fond memories, but these deep friendships almost seem suspended in the amber of time, a relic from a carefree era. The space of time may make the memories fade, but that connection, the brotherhood, never wanes.

 

Crush

Once I started school, I found another avenue for the restless energy that rattled beneath the monotony of life in rural Georgia. School felt like a respite from the usual even if it too had its own repetitive rhythms. There, in the tiny classrooms that looked like a relic from the 1950s, I met many of the other kids with whom I would grow into young adults and found new sources of inspiration from the many gracious teachers who passed through my life, two of whom would go onto become some of the biggest influences in my life outside of my parents.

Meanwhile, there remained much to learn, not just the usual subjects like math and science, but relationships. We were all mostly the same, white kids from working class families of various sizes. There were a few who probably identified with upper middle class ideals, but the rest of us were clearly rural working class. The echo chamber was alive and well back then. Most of us would not appreciate or understand the value of different perspectives or the wonderful variety of cultures in the world until we were well into adulthood.

I was not a particularly noteworthy student in those first few years. I struggled early on beyond writing my ABCs neatly and coloring between the lines. I distinctly remember having difficulty reading at a young age. Some words just flustered me, and it didn’t help that my mom struggled in a similar fashion as she worked with me before I attended school. It took a few years for me to become a curious and voracious reader.

It’s ironic today that I had such a hard time as much as I love to read now. I devour books like a kid raffling through his candy bag on Halloween night, but it wasn’t always something I loved to do. I avoided reading early on because it was difficult, but I gradually improved until it became less of a chore for me. I credit author Richard Adams for bringing the wonderful world of reading alive for me. His iconic Watership Down remains the only book I’ve ever read twice. I fell in love with that book. It turned me into a life-long reader, and I never looked back.

From that first grade class of 30 or so kids, I met people with whom I have been friends for a large portion of my life. We mostly stayed together over those eight years of elementary school (middle school wasn’t around then). A few came and went over the years, but that class remained largely familiar like a second family, and like most families, some of us weren’t too fond of each other, but we coexisted because there wasn’t anywhere else to go.

One of the girls who transitioned into and out of my class over a few years became the object of my first crush in the third grade. I remember it so well because it was far enough removed from the hormonal onslaught of the teenage years to be sappy sweet and innocent. I just liked her, nothing more, a pleasant desire to dote that I really couldn’t explain. Mary (not her real name) had light brown hair that she often wore in a ponytail and a beautiful smile that seemed to light up the room. She could play soccer better than anyone in our class, including the boys, which at the time, was an enthralling attribute. I mostly admired her from afar, not sure what to do with my newfound feelings for the pretty girl with the sweet smile and dimples.

That crush lingered for a bit, but it faded into the background as I entered that phase where boys and girls tend to not like each other, the precursor before things turned serious somewhere around the beginning of the teenage years, specifically seventh and eight grades. It was during those years that I had my second big crush on a girl named Leah (again, not her real name), and like third grade, I didn’t have a clue how to deal with it, so I spent the remainder of my time in elementary school and almost all of my high school years fumbling around her and staying close but pretty much leaving that stone untouched.

No one taught you about relationships back then. The only sex education you received likely revolved around the familiar hell and damnation theme, a common thing in the rural South. My mom seemed to read from a script ripped from the pages of a bad Lifetime movie back before that trite, fear-mongering TV channel even existed. My dad had exactly one conversation with me about sex and it happened only because he found me reading the human anatomy section in an encyclopedia. Everything else I learned from older kids or my own misconstrued and often hilariously off-base assumptions about the opposite sex, so it’s no surprise that my own bumbling reactions to having feelings for someone largely failed to engender anything resembling even a schoolhouse relationship.

Nevertheless, I look back on those first crushes with a sense of sentimentality, not because they led to anything noteworthy, but because they captured the essence of my youth, that fleeting innocence that I didn’t realize I had until it was gone.