I never went to public school. This is probably for the best because frankly I don’t think I would have survived.
I did, however, go to summer camp with the inner city kids. So I got a brief taste of what public school would have been like. I got to experience the unapologetic cruelty of kids in their early teens, their insatiable sense of entitlement and their uncanny ability to rebuff their peers with reckless abandon.
The summer when I was ten I spent a few weeks at YMCA camp. Our day was regimented with various activities, none of which I was good at, like swimming, basketball, being outside, and doing crafts in large groups. I was good at crafts, just not group crafts, because anyone who has ever survived a group project knows that maybe two out of seven kids come away from it feeling good about the final result, and those are usually the ones who didn’t care to begin with.
So naturally, the boy who gave me a welcomeness complex did so during a group project. Let’s call him Paul. Honestly his name doesn’t matter because I haven’t seen him since 2001 and I wouldn’t recognize him if I tripped over him. We were sitting at a long table, and the craft du jour was to paint a long piece of brown paper (the kind grocery bags are made of) until it could reasonably be called a banner. I don’t remember the details. As with most group projects that involve more than ten rambunctious kids, I didn’t feel very attached to the project.
Paul was sitting next to me, listening to music on a bulky set of headphones. They must have been the 1999 equivalent of Beats. That’s how cool he thought he was. In the middle of the project Paul excused himself from the table but before doing so, he handed his headphones and CD player (back in the day…) to the kid sitting across from him and uttered something to the effect of “yo man check this out.”
Yo Man across the table did check it out. He put on the headphones and started grooving. Then he put the headphones and player back on the table and the kid next to him picked it up and started listening too. He also seemed to like what he heard. So when that kid put the set back down on the table it was clear to me what I needed to do. I picked up the headphones and put them on. I smiled at the other two kids, as though this was some sort of initiation. We all liked the music coming out of Paul’s headphones so naturally we must all be fast friends.
I might have gotten to enjoy about two drumbeats before Paul materialized before me. He had returned to his seat. I smiled at him proudly – I was a fan of his music so he must be a fan of me. We were friends now, right? Wrong.
Paul was mad. I cautiously removed the headphones and began handing the set back to Paul, but not before he could shout, “What do you think you’re DOING?” I told him what I thought I was doing: “I thought you wanted us all to hear that song.”
Paul didn’t want us all to hear that song.
As tears began to well up in my eyes one of the camp counselors appeared between Paul’s chair and mine. “What’s the problem, Paul?” she said in a tone indicating that this was not Paul’s first problem of this sort. “She had my headphones! She was all puttin’ em on her EARS!”
He said this as though my ears were the last surface any pair of headphones could be unfortunate enough to find themselves upon. My ears were very clean, thank you very much. I had just come back from swimming in the vat of chlorine that is the YMCA pool. But regardless of the quality of my ears, it took everything in me not to run away crying. Paul had humiliated me. He could have just dealt with it. He could have been nice. He could have reacted in any way more mild than publicizing my rejection so that the whole camp could tune in.
I guess you could say I’m not the kind of person who takes welcomeness for granted. I tend not to assume I’m part of a group unless I am told directly or it otherwise becomes obvious. Coworkers, school friends, I know when I am in and when I’m hanging around the outskirts. And when I’m hanging around the outskirts I have a tendency to just leave. Outskirts are no fun. You’re expendable. You’re the one that finds out on Monday morning what the group did over the weekend. I don’t do outskirts. I’m in or I’m gone. I’m not saying that’s how everyone should live, it’s just what I’ve found to be most assuring.
This is not to say I blame Paul or this one arbitrary episode for my insecurities as an adult, although they do say that the things you remember from your childhood are remembered for a reason. That those instances shaped a part of who you are, how you identify yourself, how you are hardwired. They are indicative beyond the surface.
What do I mean by “welcomeness complex,” exactly? Just that I never go ahead and make the assumption that I’m welcome with a new person. I feel situations out first. The person I am today wouldn’t pick up Paul’s headphones without being very sure it was okay with him, that we were on that level. Maybe that’s just because I’m older. Or maybe it’s because sometimes people make us feel a certain way that we are committed to never feeling again. Rejected. Unwanted. Repulsive. We avoid their recurrences like the plague and that is how we become guarded.
I think most of us have stories like this. Little ones, big ones. I’m sure many people have much worse ones that would break your heart to hear. This one is minor, relatively speaking. But I suppose the lesson here is that you never know what words you say that some people will never forget – for better or for worse – that they will allow to shape and mold their character and the walls they build. We can’t always predict when or why our words will become immortal.