Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Letters from the Bottom of the Well

Life can be abrupt. Sometimes, it seems as if most of human endeavor is a furious race to keep our lives exactly as they are - a furious race that both time and nature conspire against us to lose. Eventually change comes to us all, whether young or old, rich or poor, ecstatic or miserable. It may be the universal constant, but this doesn't make it easier to cope.

I deal poorly with change. Sudden shifts of course make me feel lost and out-of-control. My inability to deal with changes can on occasion cause lingering difficulty and damage to my psyche. Sometimes, I feel like some things are more damaging to me because I keep them locked away in the deep well of my mind rather than putting them on paper or thinking about them. If I drop them down the hole, and drown them in the waters at the bottom of the well, I like to think that they are gone.

Unfortunately, I'm discovering only too late that sometimes the memories don't stay where I put them. Small stimuli, like a song on the radio, the sound of a familiar voice, or the sight of an item can send my mind swimming into the deeps to encounter those thoughts and memories that I’d tried ineffectually to drown. This note is intended as a tribute to one of the memories to which I have tied a stone and let it slide into the watery deeps, but which has resurfaced, as a reminder has brought it floating into view again.

When I was nine, I moved from a small town in Kansas, to Topeka. Whether by nature or by nurture, I'm a coward at heart. My first instinct when I face danger is to run, and when I can't run physically, I run mentally. Retreating into myself makes it hard to interact with people, and because of this, I've always been shy and afraid of trying new things. Uprooting a young child from his few hard-won friends and neighborhood and taking him to a totally unfamiliar place is pretty hard on a developing kid. I didn't know anyone in the neighborhood. I didn't know anything in town. I didn't know anybody at the church my parents took me to. And as usual, schoolchildren were merciless to the 'new kid.' I was teased, hit, kicked, and excluded from most school activities with other children.

Three years went by without any significant disruption in that uncomfortable pattern. I was an outsider and suffered the daily rituals of abuse. I had few, if any, friends. But one change was coming - and it was a change that I looked forward to with the hope that only a certain kind of desperation can breed: I was going to a new school.

The new school offered me many opportunities. There were better teachers, I could choose some of my academic work, and there were extra-curricular activities to get involved in. But the opportunity that I looked forward to most of all was the chance to return to something I desperately desired - anonymity. The ability to simply blend into the crowd and go through a day without being tripped in the hallway or having my school supplies stolen was the highest pinnacle of social achievement that I could picture - and I was determined to make it mine.

Unfortunately, this eluded me. My reputation as a nerd quickly got around. The kids again teased me for my good grades, for my participation in academically-oriented extracurricular activities instead of sports, and for simple things like not knowing the rules to basketball when we were forced to play in gym class. I settled back into the familiar and uncomfortable routine.

That is, I did until Nik showed up.

Partway through the year, a new student arrived at the junior high. His dad worked for a big company and had been transferred into the Topeka office from out-of-state. The new student's name was Nik, and he was immediately popular. He was good at sports. All of the girls had crushes on him. He came from a slightly richer family than the average students at the school. But in addition to all of these things, he was in the Gifted program with myself and the other nerds.

Nik was also in the same gym class with me. I hated gym class. It was one non-stop humiliation session as I tried desperately to make it through a class period without messing up too terribly at some game I didn't understand with teammates who didn't like me and resented the fact that I was assigned to their team. During the Autumn one day, we were playing football (it was supposed to be touch-football, but that didn't stop most of the guys from trying to hurt each other while playing). My team was down by just a little bit, and I was trying to do what I usually did during the forced games of football. I would run in the direction my teammates ran, but try to keep myself as far away from the ball as I could so as not to interfere too much with their attempt to win. This day, however, I was keeping close to one guy on my team, and one of our teammates on the other side of the field decided to throw a pass to the guy I was shadowing. My reflexes aren't fast, and I'm not very coordinated. I tried to get out of the way, but I wasn't quite fast enough. The guy who was supposed to catch the football and then make an easy point for our side yelled at me to get out of the way, but I tripped. Then he tripped over me, and the ball went rolling across the field.

I felt badly about our loss. I thought it was bad enough that I had (at least) participated in losing the game for our side, but my teammates thought it was a bit more serious of an offense than I did. When we were back in the locker room, one of the guys held me against the gym lockers while some of his friends took turns spitting in my hair.

Nik (who was on the winning team) saw this and came over to the angry jocks who were spitting on me and ordered them to stop. Nik normally spoke in an even, almost joking fashion, but when he told them to go take their showers and leave me alone, his voice was firm and deadly quiet. It was the sort of quiet where you know that violence is only a moment away and where one false move might bring fury and vengeance down from the heavens. For Nik to take on four jocks at once would have been a bit of a hard fight, but beating up the most popular guy in school doesn't earn you many points in the popularity contest, so they took one last look at me and retreated to the showers. I thanked Nik and I can still remember his words to me that day. "Don't let them do that to you, Matt. You don’t deserve it.”

Nik and I became friends after that. We played games together, online and in person. We helped each other with homework, spent time designing role-playing games, and enjoyed each other’s company. We both joined the school’s debate and forensics teams, and because we both excelled, we spent plenty of time cracking jokes, playing cards, talking about where we were going in life, what we valued, and how for us, things would be different ‘out there’ in the world.

Nik's birthday was yesterday.

On February 1st, 1999, Nik killed himself and I couldn’t stop it.

It’s been almost a decade and I still miss him.

Life is abrupt. Sometimes, it seems as if most of human endeavor is a furious race to keep our lives exactly as they are - a furious race that both time and nature conspire against us to lose. Eventually change comes to us all, whether young or old, rich or poor, ecstatic or miserable. It may be the universal constant, but this doesn't make it easier to cope.

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