Going Feral at 14
Like most people, I have looked back at my life, sometimes in wonder, sometimes in awe, sometimes with regret, and tried to postulate a formula as to why I ended up who I am based on the meandering path my corporeal self has managed to traverse these past 60 years.
I was born in 1952.
Practically the dark ages when one looks at photographs of life back then.
I was the late in life child of two warring parents whose anger at each other and at themselves bled out like a wounded beast, their bellowing, broadcasting their discontent like foghorns warning of the dangers that lay ahead.
By the time the 1960’s were upon us, the Brave New World of Aldous Huxley was fully engaged……and engaging. As Aldous had expected, I had “sleep-learned” the passage through my childhood and arrived at my teens groggy, disoriented, and hungry as only the worst hangover from a drunken reverie can conjure.
Elementary childhood had been tortuous.
My ever-wanting-to-over-achieve mother had gone so far as to start an Episcopalian private elementary school, kindergarten through third grade…..when I was in third grade (getting a good picture here, are we?) and, much to my horror and ultimate chagrin, become its principal.
There were eight children in my class.
One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight
That didn’t even use up two hand’s worth of fingers.
Tragic…at least for me at the time.
And compounding the horrors, she added a grade every year for the next five years to keep me in a quality educational medium and, coincidentally, closely supervised……by her.
We rode to and from school together every day.
In the summers, while she worked on curriculum and lesson plans, I played, alone, in the cemetery out back of the parish church. There are graveyard obsessive-compulsive behaviors extent to this day. Another time, readers, another time.
And the threat of being sent to the principal’s office? Let’s just imagine for a moment having to sit on the bench in the hall outside the Principal’s Office in full view of all the other students in school, waiting for the mocking remarks and sidelong glances that only a third grader can pull off…or imagine. And imagine that the Principal is none other than your mother, whose own withering look of ultimate disapproval and disgrace you would carry with you into every conversation and interaction for the rest of her days….which would be long……and contentious.
My absentee father was uninvolved and un-heard from on any matters that counted, save for the continual night and day drama of “Who’s Ruining the Kid?” and the resulting tearful tirades of power manipulation that my mother would wield like an axe on kindling, me being the kindling, my father being the large but weak-limbed tree, bending to her bloviating like a willow to the wind.
After one such tyrannical tete-a-tete, I had retreated to the darkest recesses of the basement, hiding behind the hulking iron furnace, my fingers plunged firmly in my ears to try and blot out the screams, tears, and fears emanating from the floor up above. After my mother’s retreat to her room at the far end of the house and the slamming of the door indicating her final volley had been flung…for the moment…I listened for my father’s footfalls on the basement stairs and his shaky voice, entreating me to come out from my hidey-hole. He then, with deliberate craft and cunning, cajoled me up the flights of stairs and across the house to “apologize to mom” with him, as if I had had something to do with the soul-searing predicament he had once again found himself in.
Shall we talk brain damage and emotional scarring here? Geeesh. Even then, I knew THIS was wrong.
I should mention here that I have an older sister, ten years my predecessor. She abandoned the Titanic that was our vessel when I was 7 and she was 17 to go to college anywhere other than near home. I then came into my own as the sole focus of my parent’s mal-aligned attentions and the real fun began. I once asked her, since she had had a decade of them without my shining presence, if they had always fought like this.
“No, it started when you were born”
Right. Nicely done, Sis. Damage complete. Ego deflated. She did try to salve the wound by saying that she would take me for long walks down the lane when they REALLY went at it so I didn’t have to hear it too much. Well done, again. As Johnny Mathis sand at exactly this point in history: “Tool little, too late, to start again with you…….”
My salvation came when I was about eight in the form of a new family on the road, their heritage; French and Greek….Freek. Now here was a lifestyle I could get behind. Lots of Mediterranean Melodrama but lots and lots of love….and kids…and more kids to come over the next ten years.
I virtually moved in.
If the God I was studying under at the time in my soon-to-be-aborted Christian Life hadn’t seen fit to make this my family, then I would correct the mistake myself, post haste. Thank the Universe that my “other mother” had enough love and room in her heart to take on the lost, lonely charge from up the lane.
So, here we were now, a band of youngsters, (50 other children around our ages populated a 3 mile long country lane), they with little supervision and loads of places to hide and seek out our own amusement, and me with a set of working parents consumed with their own brand of suburban poison and willing to make me the original latch-key kid. I was on my way, at last.
At this point in my life, I was painfully shy, awkward to the extreme, in possession of few inter-mural social skills save for “How To Survive a Family Vacation with Your Feuding Folks”; in short, beaten down verbally and thus having had major portions of my personality emotionally excised.
But I was a quick study on the road to recovery, even without rehab.
We were all children of a certain privilege, most attending Catholic schools of various forms and me with my Catholic-light, Episcopalian tutelage. My parents were so socially conscious at this point that I was confirmed in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the same place where they were married 45 years previously. The irony of their train wreck of a marriage having begun here, and my adult Christian life starting here was not lost in my fledgling brainpan. Apparently nothing begun there begat fruitful endings.
By osmosis, hanging out with a peer group of pseudo-siblings who were part of the greater kid kommunity at large, I began to find my voice.
The first real coming out of sorts occurred one day when the birth parentals were engaged in yet another of the ongoing “Who’s going to raise the boy?” battles. I was perhaps ten or eleven. Their voices were on high and even in my hiding place of choice that day, I could make out every spittle-soaked shriek and shiver and hear the quiver in my mother’s voice that portended the coming climax of the battle. Instead of waiting for the natural denouement to unfold I, channeling the powers of the pack, stepped directly between them and help up both hands, one palm facing each of them, and screamed “SHUT UP”; the ultimate in parochial curse wording for my age and socio-economic bracket of the time.
Whew! That felt GREAT!
But I continued……
“If you can’t say anything nice then just SHUT UP”…to paraphrase, just a little, some pabulum parable of my recently discarded childhood.
And they never did again. Speak, that is.
For the rest of their almost 55 years together, they rarely spoke anything other than the barest of necessities; car talk, dinner with relatives talk, bidding in bridge games, the barest of necessities required to appear to remain “happily married” in the eyes of the greater. Who were they fooling?
But I learned at this moment that when I spoke, people listened. What a concept.
And then what would pass for Middle School today ended. Eighth grade graduation. All of us in the pack were in this together now as our collective parentage sent us off to “good private schools”. The majority went off to sex-segregated Catholic high schools, I went off to downtown D.C. to Sidwell Friends, the Quaker equivalent.
But only after I purposely flunked the entrance exam to the St Alban’s Episcopal all boys school at the National Cathedral down the street. You see, I was a legacy there, an almost shoe-in as my older cousin had excelled at St. Alban’s and I was expected to follow. But here’s the irony and the rub, it was an all boy’s school and I think the fact that my first, minimalistic, socialization skills were honed by a passle of sisters made me feel that the shy awkward kid with the manure on his shoes would not relate well to the starched, Love Storyesque Preppydom that was St. Alban’s.
And there was the nagging threat that being around nothing but hormonal teenaged boys, they might somehow sniff out my own budding attraction to them and totally undue the progress I was making on my quest to become human.
And so, I sat for four hours and daydreamed about my new life in High School to come, somewhere, and in the end, turned in all my stacks of Composition Books…….blank.
“Obviously Mrs. Sherwin, there’s a problem with Robby, you two should talk”
Right, and here it begins, the breakout and breakdown and breakthrough of my fledgling New Self.
But I still rode to school every day with my mother.
That’s correct. She had an educationally inspired “falling out” with the priest at our church and was summarily dismissed just as I graduated. In retrospect, it was a really rough patch all around but several things happened as a result.
- My mother and father, for about the first and only time, were briefly united in a self-righteous holy war against the church and the vestry and the board of directors.
- They, and subsequently I along with them by parental proxy, summarily quit the Episcopal Church, in point of fact ALL church, and so my ecclesiastical upbringing effectively ceased except for my sporadic attendance with my other tribe at Catholic mass and CYO group functions.
- My mother became the Headmistress of Holton Arms Academy, a toney, pale, proper school for well healed young ladies from the right families.
And so, I still rode to school every day with my mother.
You see, Holton Arms was in Bethesda and it was a one bus, straight shot, ride downtown to Sidwell Friends so we’d drive across the county and I would ferry in and out of D.C. alone.
I believe it was here, aboard the D.C. Metrobus that I began to go feral.
Street gangs of ethnic kids, carrying boom boxes on their shoulders, were blaring and jiving their was over to Eastern High. Fascinating! These were angry young people.
The only black people we had know our entire lives were an intricate and peaceable thread throughout our Quaker founded community out in the country. They were woven into the history and fabric of community so seamlessly that we never really gave race a thought as children. We all got along together. We got along well. These loud, self-appointed trumpeters of youth and city culture were NOT what I was used to and so I observed.
Now Sidwell Friends was coed , what I had wanted, I had received, by being more crafty and cunning that the All-Knowing-Mother-Unit, and no therapy required! Imagine!
You see my mother had suspected my deficient gay gene early on….I mean EARLY on. She had actually gone to Miss Graham, my tiny, gimp-legged Kindergarten teacher and actually asked her if she thought I was “one of them”. I don’t know what her answer was but I suspect that the impetus to found her own school and keep the reins on me was born and nurtured from conversations like that one. To quote an end line from a Jackson Browne song; “I’ll never know….”
But Latin, French, Biology (Mr. Biggs; who actually spoke the words out loud in class: “redheads are a genetic mutation”), were suddenly my new domain. Ancient Ms. Corinne Roseburg had us conjugating Latin verbs until the cows came home……literally….I studied Latin while sitting on the fence watching the cows come in for their food at night. I had a sneaky suspicion that Carl Rowan’s son ( he was an op-ed writer for the Washington Post) was not studying in the same locale.
It was 9th grade. You can easily see where this went. Like the forest fire of orange that was me, my nickname was no longer Roberta Redtop, it became………wait for it……Mutant………again, thanks Mr. Biggs, well, WELL played.
But I did make a few friends, Jim who I’m still in contact with today, another nice guy from the suburbs although the more structured, house-by-side-of–house suburbs as opposed to my own house by barn, by paddock, by stream, by tractor existence.
I learned cognitive dissonance early.
Now don’t mistake my monologue for a whining diatribe of abuse and neglect. It was the mid 1960’s and they were the best! So much change, so many new ideas, so much trouble to get into.
On my thirteenth birthday, my father bought me a Panasonic portable stereo and an album. John Sebastian. Title track; “You’re a big Boy Now”. Until this very moment when I looked it up, I did not catch the irony…but I sure do now. Did he do that on purpose? Back to Jackson Browne; “We’ll never know….”
Sidwell was a great school. The Quakers are wonderful people, I had grown up in a large Quaker community. My first piano concerts were held in the Sandy Spring Quaker Meeting house. They were a peaceful, community conscious, anti-war postulating community. I could have learned a lot. It was the 60’s. Vietnam was starting to accelerate, change was in the air, we could feel it, taste it, sense that things were more different now than ever before in history.
But personally, I was almost there on my journey to Fully Feral.
Instead of sitting quietly in daily Quaker Meeting and contemplating the world, my sins, and my place in the world with others, I learned to cut Meeting and smoke cigarettes in the stairwells with other malcontents. What a rebel.
From there it was a short skip to cutting classes and hanging out on Tenley Circle and trying for all my 13 year old radical self to belong. Align with the counter culturist, beer stealing, rowdy rebels in some desperate attempt to fit in.
But at the end of the day, I still had to catch the T2, 3:50pm River Road Metrobus back to the suburbs and back to……..riding home with my mother. But I was changed, I was sly, I was becoming a rebel.
And then came 1968.
The Quakers were the first to advocate the legalization of marijuana. Huh? What was that? Really, I was still a country naïf. We stole cigs from our parent’s packs, cajoled the older farm hands to buy us packs in town and when all else failed, rolled up dried corn silks in brown paper bags and lit up. But I did manage to try a joint at a party in D.C. once; OK but nothing really special…at that point.
I was still trying to hang on to my straight guy image; I was dating upper class girls, Barbara and Karen. They had their driver’s licenses. Barbara had her father’s collection of late 50’s T Birds at her disposal so she would come fetch me for our dates and my cred as a street-wise cool dude was rising. Everyone else I knew still had their parents chauffeuring them on dates. Not I. I flew up and down country lanes and all around D.C with the top down and an “older woman” at my side, doing my damndest to instill envy in my peers…..and dissuade them from the fact that while I really liked hanging out with my girls, I really wanted to hang out with the football team instead.
But the “pot issue” at Sidwell and with the Quakers, in general, came to the attention of my parents.
And oh, yeah, also in 1968 there were the Washington Riots where large portions of DC were torched and looted. They overturned a Metrobus on Wisconsin Avenue in front of my school and set it ablaze. Federal helicopters landed in the parking lot out front and whisked away the “notable” scion of Washington society to their safe houses in the country. Washington was paralyzed. I, alone, was left. I had to walk the 5 ½ miles out to the burbs, dodging roaming gangs and screeching police cars. What an adventure.
Of course when we all got home, I took off with my brother and drove back down to the heart of the city to smell the smoke of rebellion, and watch the hookers ply their trade on U Street from our vantage point on the roof of the car, joint in hand. Heady stuff
And then………..Whooosh……..without warning;
I was suddenly yanked form my fledgling feeder trough of the Seminal 60’s and put in another “good public school”, just a mile from my mother’s job at Holton Arms. They had to save me from Democratic Radical Leftism.
But I was still riding to school with my mother, who now had no clue how to talk to her chomping-at-the-bit, full-on teenage son.
It was at Walt Whitman High (another irony lost on me at the time), 3200 kids in three grades, that I went fully feral.
Ii was here I learned to shoplift, here I learned to cap mescaline and bag it for sale, taking care not to get TOO much on your fingers or you were tripping for days. And it was here I learned about sex in Rock Creek Park on weekend date nights….with girls….and guys. I learned that I never had to attend class and could still pull down the grades. I learned that after dropping mom off at Holton, I could swing by school, pick up my new pals, and head for Ocean City in her Hot Gold Grand Prix, eating up the three hour drive over the Chesapeake Bay with the radio blaring the Doors “Riders On The Storm” and blazing joint after joint to mellow out the mescaline high. We’d shovel in Thrashers French Fries on the boardwalk and high-tail it back to Bethesda in time to drop everyone off and….
Ride home with my mother.
One of my spies in the main office found me in the Quad one afternoon and said that my mother was on the phone with my guidance counselor (a misnomer if there ever was one). They had my attendance record out. You see I’d been sending my grades to my cousin’s address so she could grab them for me and I’d told the parentals that we were on a brand new, self-imagined and actuated, course at Whitman called EFFE; Experiment in Free Form Education; no grades, just quality learning on the subjects of our choice.
EFFE was real.
EFFE lasted two weeks.
My experiment lasted two months.
And so, I blew out of school that afternoon, went straight to my father’s office and hoisted myself on my own petard, confessing all and trying to buy an ally by paying attention to the one man who had ignored me throughout my life. Success of a sort. I believe I muted the potential punishment…somewhat.
At dinner that night there was hell to pay. For once they were united in witnessing my disgrace and terrified that I would bring shame on the family name. How Asian. How to tell them that ship had sailed years ago.
The next day, I was back on the yellow school but that I had started out on in Kindergarten, number 212, headed back to little country ag public school where I had begun. Circuitous and simplistically complete, starting out there in Kindergarten and coming home for the last three months of my senior year with a “Whole Lotta Love” (Led Zeppelin) in between.
The rest of my family siblings had had similar experiences in their private institutions of choice so we were all reprobates together, holding a certain cache among our peers for we had defied authority, been punished, and were still going strong. Each of us had disgraced ourselves in some manner in private schools and our punishment was to be returned to the protective fold from when we were whelped.
This was February of my senior year.
When the bus would drop me at school, Mike and Nan and any combination of rebels we could gather would take off in Mike’s 55 Chevy for……Ocean City.
Only this time, I didn’t have to ride home with my mother.
I took the bus.
2 thoughts on “Going Feral at Fourteen”
Robby – this is the wonderful begining of a great novel – just keep it going. Your writing is simple direct and perceptive – so brilliant. I just want to keep reading. It reminds me a bit of Clive James – but much better.
Wow! Coming from you that’s a great compliment, thanks! I admire your wide variety of taste in literature and have always followed your reading recommendations. You’re the one who turned me onto “The Autobiography of Henry VIII” and Margaret George who has become a 20 years obsession of mine. Interestingly, I have always wanted to write that book and a childhood friend of mine has offered to help read and edit all the blogs I’ve written and choose a dozen or so to publish as a book of shorts. The thought of a book has been niggling around my brain for years and I think it’s about cooked so I may have to just sit down and do it.