The first time I remember saying anything having to do with national party politics was in 3rd grade. I’m not sure how childhood development works but perhaps being eight-years-old made me more aware of the significance of current events. That year it was the 1984 campaign between Reagan and Mondale. My parents were for Mondale and it seemed like something exciting and new that he shared the ticket with the first woman ever to run as vice-president, Geraldine Ferraro. Having a strong mother figure, I respected the movement to empower women. Besides my mom often called Reagan “Howdy Doody”, the famous puppet with his own show from the 50’s. Between being slightly afraid of howdy doody’s puppet look, and relating to being an underdog, in so far as not part being part of the establishment of popular kids, I was sold on the idea of Mondale as president.
I felt pretty confident and worldly about my political awareness as an eight year old. Besides, my 3rd grade teacher Terry I guess would be described as a hippy. He was roundish with a dark brown beard on his round face. The class spent time on units about world peace and conflict, and he even took us to the United Nations for a class trip. Many Fridays included circle time where Terry would strum his acoustic guitar and we would sing songs like “Inch by Inch, Row by Row” and “Would You Like to Swing on a Star”.
When the subject of the presidential campaign came up in 3rd class, I remember telling Jason Chen at lunch that I supported Mondale. I was surprised to hear him quickly reply that he and his parents were for Reagan, and that Mondale was going to raise taxes, which was bad. I did not know a whole lot about taxes, but was convinced that because Reagan looked like Howdy Doody and, from what I heard from my parents, helped Wall Street more than Main Street, Mondale was the better choice. But hearing about higher taxes quickly put me on the defensive. I did not know how to answer back. I know I would not want to pay more money to anybody. Still I also felt my parents could not be wrong.
By 6th Grade, I was excited about the Democratic primaries for the ’88 election. My parents were active Jesse Jackson supporters. By that time I was in Saddle River Day School, where most of my peers were from very wealthy families. (Upper Saddle River, NJ is one of the richest townships in the country.) Everyone in the school seemed to be for Vice President Bush. Sure most of us just seemed to echo what we heard our parents say, but I felt Jackson’s campaign meant something deeper.
I had already been aware of Jackson being an underdog both because he was black and Democrat. From watching television, I loved the cadence of Black activist preacher speeches like Martin Luther King. I remember one commercial that appeared on television actually advertised sermons from famous black preachers. The commercial would show five second snippets of each speech from King’s “I Have a Dream”, to Jackson’s speech where he exclaims “It’s morning time!”. I loved the passion in his voice, and its very urgent what I related what I related to with my own personal rage. As a middle class kid who did not wear as nice suits and did not live in a mansion or huge houses like most of my peers I related to Jackson’s underdog status. I did not appreciate that I could be the smartest kid in class, and yet these spoiled kids had more money and seemed to socially click better. It just did not seem fair. Not only that. These kids also were pretty mean to me, even though I do take credit for being an easy target for being hyper competitive and overly sensitive. Perhaps if I lightened up a little more without trying to be too needy, I would have made friends. Nevertheless, there were some things that pushed me farther towards the left.
Towards the end of 6th grade I was transferred to another bus route, being picked up by a different driver with a different bunch of kids. The first ride to school, I smelled cigarette smoke. A 10th grader named Tony and an 11th grader named Adam were smoking in the back of the bus. Even though I sat in the front, the smoke and the bumpy ride made me sick and nauseous. When I felt compelled to go to the nurse’s office that morning, she asked me how I got that ill. When she promised not to tell anyone, I told her that some kids were smoking on the bus I was transferred to. When I got on the bus that day, the black bus driver said somebody ratted on them and that he got yelled at. Everybody knew it was me that told. I was shocked that the nurse lied to me but also that I had pissed off my bus mates I was going to share the ride with for the rest of the year. The two upperclassmen brought me in the back of the bus and gave me a stern warning not to say anything the rest of the year to anybody about their smoking. To ensure this at times when they smoked they would send a pretty rocker looking brunette 9th grade girl to flirt and distract me from the smoke that would waft to the front of the bus. I felt disgusted when I realized she was not really flirting with me out of her own desire for me. Overall Adam and Tony seemed to rule the bus. The only plus side was when they would convince the bus driver to stop at Dairy Queen along the highway on the route home: “Where do we want to go? Who’s Burger King’s Wife?”
Things escalated when Tony and Adam saw me perform during a Lower School musical rehearsal later that spring. Recognizing my shameless flamboyant and crazy dance moves, the theater teacher had made me an additional character in the musical to get some extra laughs. It was some musical about a late night show with odd guests interestingly enough, complete with soap opera commercials. My dance moves must of consisted of some simple two step “Breakin’” (1984) movie moves I learned from the budget Teaneck local summer program Sports & Arts and some karate moves. After seeing me dance in a rehearsal when they happened to be walking through the auditorium (cutting class probably), Tony and Adam complimented me when they saw men on the bus next day, laughing about how good I was. Then they asked if I could show the other people on the bus my talent. Looking for a way to make up for my goody goody status, I jumped at the chance. Adam and Tony told Don Byrd the bus driver to turn up the music from the radio. I then proceeded to dance in the bus aisle almost all the whole half hour way to school while the bus was moving.
This went on every day on the bus for weeks until. After I got on the bus, Adam and Tony would say “Hey Jon! Dance!” and like a monkey to preserve my status I did just that, and everybody would hoot and holler. One morning I just was sick of it. I had drawn a face in chalk in the street of my block in front of my house. Tony and Adam commented on it and said it looked like shit. After realizing by my reaction that I had drawn it, they capped off my humiliation by asking me to dance once again. I looked back at them and simply said “No!”. They could not believe their ears. They ask me again and I refused. They told a 10th grader named Billy to grab me and throw me back there to them. Billy grabs me. I tried to use my karate knowledge but not wanting to hurt Billy, I throw some half hearted karate punches. He throws me in the back easily. After a brief wrestling struggle, Adam and Tony quickly tie me up. As a 6th grader, this 10th and 11th graders seemed like giants. Adam has me on his lap in a bear hug and Tony has hold of my crossed legs in his lap. Tony took off my penny loafers and faked like he threw them out of the window. I stopped fighting. They weren’t hurting me, but I felt humiliated. Tony said, “If you say you give up, we’ll let you go”. I did not say a word. I knew I was outnumbered. All I did was angrily stare outside the back of the bus watching the perforated lines on the highway whisk away. Sensing I was done, they let me go. I go to the front of the bus where I see my shoes in the garbage. Realizing a little pain on my shin I notice a long scratch along it that broke the skin making it clot spottily along its length.
The rest of the day was a blur. I keep to myself the ride home. When I got in the front door, my mom saw something was wrong. I told her everything. The next day, my dad said he would drive me to school. At the end of the day, on the ride back to school, the kids were making fun of me because my mom had gone on the bus. They said she was really scary. Apparently she had gotten on the bus when it came by the house, and in her parent advocate non-lawyer practicing voice asked if Tony and Adam were on the bus. When they raised their hands, my mom said that if they ever touched her son again, they would live to regret it. As scary as she was during those moments, it did not take away from the fact that it was still my mother that went on the bus to stick up for me. I was embarrassed. The kids made fun of me for another day. I ended up getting a ride into school for the week. My mom followed up her bus meeting with telling the headmaster what happened. (Headmaster in my experience is rich school talk for principal.) After finals (yes this school gave midterms and finals from 5th to 12th grade), Tony, Adam, me, and our respective parents met in the Headmaster Kuhlman’s office where we talked out what happened. Tony’s parents said something to the effect of “boys will be boys”. After hearing my side of the story, which was hard to give in their presence, Kuhlman ultimately reprimanded them saying that they would be expelled if they did anything to me again. The explanation for why these bullies were so mean within this school was that their parents were either not loving or attention giving, because they were all about making money. I associated this richness, and mean morality with the staunch Republican climate of the school.
Still I loved the teachers. By the 7th grade, my favorite teacher, aside from Mr. Stengel who first taught me trombone, was Mr. Wilson, the History teacher and football coach of the school. He looked a lot like G.W. Bailey, the actor who played chief of police in the Police Academy movies. Mr. Wilson and I would debate on all of the big topics that presidential election year in 1988 – welfare, abortion, death penalty. I loved his American History class. I also loved Ms. Burden, a 4 foot 11 woman who was really strict but who took a shining to me and my scientific mind. I made a clay statue of a just married couple for my science teacher and math teacher Mr. and Mrs. McCort. It was the most of the students I hated and their most likely conservative rich Republican parents. These were the parents that spawned the kids that always made me feel like an outsider, that laughed at me and my dancing at the parties, the ones who invited me. When we as a class went on a bonding retreat to the Poconos and we had to give compliments to each classmate when they went in the circle, the best and most specific compliment I got was that I was a guy who was “always willing to share a pencil or pen”. Seriously?
This is the same class of kids who accused me of intensely crying to get attention when we all witnessed a guy have a heart attack in the audience at a dinner theater production during a class trip to Boston. Actually I was crying more because I hooked up my least hated classmate and potential ally Jim with my love interest Sandy when I wanted her for myself. I just thought he would have had a better chance. I gave him the courage to ask her out while I watched with jealous envy. The man dead of a heart attack was an excuse to break down and cry about not being able to experience young love on our newly adolescent trip to Boston. This is the same group of kids that were fine with me picking up the hotel room for them and sleeping on the floor while they had the beds. Fucking rich kids.
These were the same kids who carried no social allegiance or appreciation towards me after coming to my 13th birthday party, where the main activities instead of a roller rink or swimming in a spa, were a bakeoff of who could make the best cookies in my mom’s kitchen. These are the same kids who had other adults their parents hired to do their science fair projects, while I made a messy cell in the process of mitosis with a Styrofoam packaging casing, a water flour mixture for cytoplasm, straws for Endoplasmic Reticulum, and raisins for ribosomes, and a small sparkly plastic ball from a supermarket 25cent vending machine I cut in half for the nucleus. Despite my attempt to saran wrap my cell halves, it still leaked on the bus ride to Saddle River. Rich kids never had to struggle with leaky flour and water cytoplasm for any of their 7th grade science fairs. By the middle of 7th grade, Bush handily beat Dukakis, who was hardly a Jackson, but went along with them because it seemed that in my parents’ eyes any Democrat was better than the worst Republican.
My parents described my political stance, our political stance, as being a Socialist Democrat. Knowing that I was part Russian, I felt some pride that this heritage combined with the Democratic history of being and American. But in hindsight I would not paint myself as typical liberal. I was both pro-choice and pro-death penalty. My logic for the death penalty, especially in cases of murder, was an “eye for an eye”. My logic for being pro-choice was pretty hardcore for a 13 year old. Even though I did well in biology class knowing the traits that defined life, I believed what constituted the traits of the sanctity of human life was the ability to express your opinion independent of another body. Basically I thought if you did not have an opinion you were not alive. To me, a fetus does not have any way to express its own opinion because it is part of the mother, and therefore technically in my eyes is not alive.
I found it thrilling to wear my politics on my sleeve, to talk about these issues at the drop of a hat. The bus in 7th grade did not have the bullies from 6th but had a friend of the bullies, a tall black 11th grader jock named Rob. Rob was a friend of Adam and Tony and knew my deal and what I had done to them. He took up where they left off. He would lead a couple of kids to throw paper bags at my head on the ride over. He would take a broom from the back of the bus and brush my hair with it, always trying to get under my skin. At times, especially on rides home, it got to the point where it would come down to aggressive play fighting with Rob. A couple of times he would have me pinned pretty good against the bus window, that I was afraid my ribs might break. I could not figure out how to apply junior blackbelt my karate training in the tight spaces of a school bus seat. Don Byrd, the bus driver (not trumpet player), with his gerry curls, sun glasses, and hat, never raised his voice to discipline any rich white kid on the bus. Still I was determined to not to let my mom do my battles for me anymore. Instead I called Rob’s house from the school phone directory book, and left a message that we should talk and work things out. He never returned my call or acted like he got a message when he saw me on the bus. I ended the year with a few minor scuffles and no official bully resolution but was proud at least I handled it on my own this time.
When I won that Citizenship Award at the end of the year, I did not know I was going to be such a target in 8th grade. My 8th grade bus driver was an older Latina woman. Kids were meaner than ever. I found myself talking about politics more to keep up the general fight against Republican’s mean rich kids. Any time I brought up issues about the poor in a social studies class, another mean lazy kid would say that the poor is just lazy and deserve to be poor. Again these were kids that did not score as high grades as I did. How dare they say poor people were lazy when being poorer than them, I obviously worked harder and scored higher than them in school. The only class in which I started slipping in 8th grade was calculus. It was the first year I started to falter in my math scores. When it came time to run for class president, I signed up and it was between me and a kid that I invited to my 13th birthday party, a kid who was originally friendly, but then after getting more popular kind of ignored me. He was a fat loud mouth named Adam whose dad was a Hollywood producer and drove him to school in a Lamborghini. Word got around class that I was getting a greater percentage of the girl vote but Adam was destroying me in the boy votes.
A day before election day, Adam and I were supposed to give speeches in the small auditorium in front of class. I went first talking about all the programs I would try to have installed that would make our 8th grade more fun. After I finished I was greeted with tepid polite applause. With his South Park Cartman like figure and tweed jacket, as I sat down, he got up on the podium in front of the microphone. He didn’t have a scripted speech like I had. All he did was raise his arms and simply said “Vote for me!”. The whole class roared with applause at the simplicity of his message and his fun confidence. During this time I should add, a girl in our class hated me because she thought I stole the Citizenship award from her boyfriend who she believed should have gotten it. There was also a kid who would constantly poke point his finger at me in class and keep his mouth open like he was laughing but not make a sound. From all the mental abuse, I found myself in the nurse’s office with severe fatigue and some nausea. I was really stressed out. While lying in the cot of the nurse’s room, the afternoon announcements came on over the loudspeaker announcing Adam’s class presidential victory. It was closer than I thought even if it did come down to mostly a popularity contest.
Still I felt like I hadn’t a real friend that had my back in that school. All in all the first half of 8th grade I felt relentlessly picked on. Word of my passion for politics got around. A kid below me in the 7th grade on the bus, who looked like a bloated version of Mad Magazine’s Alfred Neuman, would scream “Commy!” at me as I walked to the door of my house from the bus. I even tried getting the Latina woman bus driver on my side, asking her about her opinions on welfare and other issues. Fed up with my questions and subject matter, even she yelled at me for bringing up these topics that she said I had not place in asking. I had nobody. My parents saw how it was affecting my health, my mental health. I would walk in pale and the visits to the nurse’s office feeling woozy increased. My mom had friends pick me up a couple of times when my dad could not get out of work early.
Feeling like an outsider and looking for any new way or ritual to help me through these lonely times, I discovered the fascinating staining power of cranberries while my mom was cooking for thanksgiving. I started to take frozen cranberries from the freezer in the house and would roll them on my skin and watch how it would stain my skin. In my mind, I imagined I was giving myself a magical ceremony to overcome these hardships, almost like battle paint. The cranberry stains on my skin reminded me of blood, and that I was not afraid of potentially shedding any for my beliefs, even just metaphorically. I could see my mom’s shock of concern in her face when she walked on me during one of my staining sessions. She told me I was scaring her so I did not do it again.
With increasing concern for my mental health, my parents convinced me to switch in the middle of eighth grade to go the local public school, Benjamin Franklin Middle School. I liked the diversity. Teaneck seemed to be more street than Saddle River. Even another frenemy Saddle River classmate on my bus route also from Teaneck talked about how tough and dangerous he heard public schools there were. I was intrigued. They seemed a lot nicer when I visited after my midterms in Saddle River. Plus, the classes seemed to be a lot easier. They were just starting algebra, which I had started a year and a half earlier in the Saddle River private school. But again what sealed it was running into Kristin Long, my crush from budget Teaneck summer program Sports and Arts the earlier summer. Plus the band teacher was also the band director of the Summer Community Band in which I played for the first time that prior summer as well. Teaneck had more diversity, probably more Democrats, easier classes, and my summer crush. I was sold.
I felt like a wimp that I could not win over the other kids at school, that I could not win the fight to show them that I was likeable and that their family politics were wrong. I will never forget what my mom told me when I was stuck on whether or not to transfer to public school. She simply said, “There are some fights that you just can’t win. There are some fights that you just have to leave alone and walk away from. And that it is okay to walk away.” This was a tough lesson, but considering how much I did like of the public school that I saw, I figured a clean slate would be good for me.
Within my first official month at the public middle school Benjamin Franklin, walking back home one afternoon a couple of kids ran up to me and asked if I was a nerd, laughed, and ran away. I was a little shocked because I purposefully tried to dumb myself down and not stick out quite as much as a smart kid. I did not work nearly as hard as I did at Saddle River. My default greeting phrase was “Ayyyy” like the way Malorie’s boyfriend, Nick, often said in the television sitcom Family Ties. The problem was that instead of looking like a biker guy with a leather jacket, I really did look more like Napoleon Dynamite. I was at the pique of my awkward looking adolescence, bulky glasses, braces, curly “jew-froish” blonde hair, skinny. No amount of “Ayyy’s” were going to hide my nerdy physicality.
While I enjoyed the racial diversity, and being around generally nicer, down to Earth, less spoiled kids, I still felt a little left down realizing that jerks and meanness cross all class, boundary, and racial boundaries. I had thought it would be easier to reinvent myself in a more middle class environment. After realizing that it was going to be difficult to reinvent myself as a cool kid, throughout the last half of eighth grade and then through high school I decided to go back to my competitive academic acumen, but only within reason.
Interestingly, while I felt very inclusive in the music program at Saddle River, I felt like an outsider at Teaneck. There were clicks of talented musician families that seemed to be the favorites of the bandleaders, many of them were the various local music teachers and band leader’s sons and son’s friends who had proven their insider worthiness since 5th grade. I felt like a maverick. I tried inviting some of them to play with me at my house and even approached them to form a band for the Subject fair, which was like the science fair but included all subjects. For the music section, the kids that didn’t join me formed a jazz combo reading music arrangements for middle school. I was on the other side playing trombone along with a boombox playing a tape of my mom and dad playing Jazz standards. It was what we called a “minus one” tape, or what Aebersold became famous for, tapes where you could play along with a rhythm section. This tape was just my mom playing piano the chords of a song while my dad played drums, and I would play the melody live on trombone. I ended up getting a bigger reception. But the kids from the other band never acknowledged me, or my motivation to do something different from them. It was like nothing happened. I only felt unspoken tension while they probably just didn’t care.
It was not until high school came and I proved a valuable trombonist for the jazz band, that I felt more included. We needed to overlook our differences as our jazz band went to state and regional competitions. Many of us advanced to be part of regional and All State bands. Playing in these regional bands were opportunities when I felt like I could bond with students outside of the Teaneck clicks. I found it more difficult to bond with non-Teaneck kids they quickly made friends with the other more popular Teaneck kids. It was almost as if they sensed their alpha male dominant demeanor, compared to my needy outsider desperation to make friends and form a rebellion. I always felt like I had to bite my tongue about my catty issues with my fellow Teaneck musical elites, so that I did not make the other out of towners feel bad for liking them. To add to my emotional distance from most of my musical peers at Teaneck, I distinctly remember the band teacher telling me that as talented as I was, I was a space cadet for trying to be good at too many things. He did not understand why I wanted to dance and get good grades, and try to be a good trombonist. He seemed to almost diminish recognizing my musical talent because I was so hard to commit to one thing. I suppose I felt it hard to commit to the Teaneck music scene because I felt like I could not trust them to nurture a healthy identity.
I felt more comfortable redefining my unique identity by taking Ms. Walker’s dance class. I knew it was fairly unexplored territory. I knew I would be breaking newer ground as a unique commodity often being the only boy in the class. I knew I would be able to see more pretty girls and their bodies. I knew that at some point I would get more of the hands on roles. Dancing kept me less reliant on the band identity I could not rely on. Running cross country and track did that too. Nobody was going to lock me down.
I also found a unique identity by being the only white guy my sophomore year to take African/African American Studies instead of Modern European, or 20th Century American history, which were other choices for history that year. Once again, I looked at the class as an opportunity to study how black people historically have dealt with underdog status, something I related. At a parent-teacher conference, I was surprised to find that Mr. March, the teacher of that class, complimented my parents that I must be very well read because of my inspired passionate essays I would write on the black struggle and civil rights. My parents and I thought this was funny because I never read anything outside of what would be assigned in class. I was also a little offended that Mr. March would think that my passion could only be learned from a book, and not be inspired from my own life experience. That same year, we got into a debate about role models and race. Even though I was the only white kid in the class, I felt comfortable speaking up, maybe even entitled some might say.
Nevertheless, I did not understand why so much of the class believed they could only have black people as role models. I countered that I looked up to many black people as role models as a white person, especially in terms of being vocal over personal rights, and accomplishments in the arts and sciences in which I loved to engage. Therefore I did not understand why black people could not look up towards white people as role models as well. Then the subject of politics and presidency came up. I said that I would fight for black people if I were president. Mr. March said knowing what he knew of me he would probably vote for me. But this one black girl, who often skipped class, spoke up and said to me that if she had a kid, she would not want her kid to look up to me as a President or role model, because I was white. Nobody came to my defense. It was merely understood that there was an issue of a lack of positive black male role models at the time in the early 90’s. Who was I to argue that? I still felt hurt though that no matter what my actions, some people could never get over my color. I took that to heart fuel my future conspiracy theories.
So again while my academic teachers loved me, I often felt tension with my music teachers. In many ways I felt I lived a double life. I was a goody goody two shoes doing well with my academic classes, and then I was a lone rebel but still doing well when it came to music and dance. However, unlike Saddle River Day School, I could not justify my outsider status as being a middle class Socialist Democrat in a school of rich staunch Republican kids. This time I could only justify my outsider-ness as some kind of conspiracy against me for being too smart and talented.
Because of this stern warning, anything resembling pride, conceit, or bad mischievous behavior, I was scared of catching like a cold or a communicable disease. I suppose I thought these traits were contagious because of my sensitivity and my extreme empathy. Another words, up until before adolescence if I imagined to misbehave, be a poor student, like some of the peers with whom I went to kindergarten and grade school, I was afraid that I might be stuck with the mindset, and in fact get slapped or some other form of lost favor.
When I witnessed or was around “bad” kids, physically I felt a tickle in the back of my brain, the kind that when it became intense enough and my anxiety reached high enough, the tickle would turn into chills down my spine. Between that “tickle” in my head from my social anxiety (probably enhanced by my childhood epilepsy) and my affinity towards sci-fi themes of characters switching personalities in cartoons and tv shows, I thought that I would literally lose my mind being around someone with inferior, less parent and adult friendly behavior. I would afraid of losing my status as a smart talentied kid because this tickle must be my spirit or brain being sucked out of me as I stood, sat, touched, or breathed around the people infected with this inferiority. It didn’t help that I was extremely gullible and believed most things I was told. I was always more gullible the more uncomfortable I felt in a social situation. Instinctually I thought if I agreed to whatever my “inferior” peers said, I could be superficially accepted without making any enemies, and escape to my house I felt safe and could reflect on the adventures I had in avoiding getting my brain snatched away.
Table of Contents
Part I – My Material (Physically Having) History
- Chapter 1 – Race, Money, Fashion
- Chapter 2 – Plants, Pets, and Education
- Chapter 3 – Jobs
- Chapter 4 – Connections, Opportunities, Genetics
Part II – My Sensual (Feeling) History
- Chapter 5 – The Satin Edge
- Chapter 6 – Gifted, Hyper Competitive, and Overly Sensitive
- Chapter 7 – Puppy Love and Status
- Chapter 8 – Busy-ness as Salvation
- Chapter 9 – Karate and Self Image
- Chapter 10 – Homophobia and Musical Expression
- Chapter 11 – Digging a Pond, High School, and Music Camp
- Chapter 12 – Heterosexuality, Self Esteem, Avon Fashion
- Chapter 13 – The Opposite Game, College, and Sex
- Chapter 14 – Cruise Ships, Internet, and Control
- Chapter 15 – Saturn’s Return, Delayed Gratification, and Aging Dreams