This past week I started teaching an introductory college composition course for a group of incoming UW student athletes. It’s a small group, just 14 male students, and most of the group are football players. For their second writing assignment, I gave them an essay that I wrote was I was around 16 years old (without my name on it, so they were reading it as coming from an unknown and anonymous author) and asked them to write a peer response letter to the author, detailing the strengths and weaknesses of the piece and offering some suggestions for revision and improvement. The piece was called “Happy Geeks”, and I publish it here in its original, unvarnished, unedited, uncensored form, in order to give you a glimpse into my own adolescent mind:
Oranges in the greenest valley I’d ever seen. Damn, I loved Sacramento. First we lived on Londonderry Dr. in Rancho Cordova, but then we got a house on base and let my dad’s cousin, Max Liedtke, and his family move in with us. They had lived with us for a while before that. They had a pretty big family I think, but I only remember their mom, who was blind in one eye from a fireworks explosion when she was a kid, Greg, the oldest boy, and Natalie, who I called Gnat, which she hated. She took my room and I had to share with Greg and a younger blonde kid, Nick. Sometimes I would walk around the back between the side of the house and the wooden fence where there wasn’t much space and protected by the whirring of the fan, pick up the loose white rocks and throw them at Gnat’s window. That pissed her off too. But then we moved out, those bastards, and onto the base. 116 Semple Pl. We had those ugly-ass bushes out front that smelled like poison insecticide pine trees. And behind the itchy one in front of the house there was a nozzle and hose that I would use to spray my sisters cat, Ink. I was a mean little bastard to that cat.
I had the best friends there. Trevor Miller, Robert Rice, Robert Ringer, Stripper Stripper Stripper McCrory Crory Crory, who was from Mississippi and who I traded all my Daryl Strawberry’s to, Jared and Josh Crandall, one of whom busted their heads open on the big jump we’d always hit on the way home from school, and Josh Bass and Nick Corcoran at the end. At the end of my street there was a red headed kid named Michael, whose mom read a book on how to win sweepstakes and drawings and won a car, t.v. and some other stuff. When I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, he caught some strange virus that completely paralyzed him for almost a year. Finally it just went away, and he slowly regained motor skills, although when I moved years later, he was still slow and a little uncoordinated. There was also one geeky kid, who read fantasy novels and picked his nose, that when I burned down the field with Greg and was shaking with shock as I was walking home the long way came up to me with advice like he had experience in starting huge brush fires. “What I would suggest is to enlist the services of the fire department without alerting too many adults.” He told us once he wasn’t into sports, but like his dad was a real outdoorsman. Outdoorsman my ass, he read The Hobbit in 3rd grade.
California was perfect for kids. Long hot summers, a huge pool where I saw Crystal Clear Pepsi for the first time, and sports. I don’t know why, but the pool was surrounded by a big fence with barbed wire on top. It was even radder because it had a separate diving pool with a high dive and every hour they had a 10 minute adult swim. That was how we kept track of time. Baseball was hot too, a dry heat, but I loved it because sweating was fun then. Roger Jolley, the old guy who ran the youth baseball leagues always called me and Trevor ‘rookie’, so we called him ‘Sportswriter’ or something cheesy like that. After Stripper, Kevin, Trevor, and Robert Rice had all moved, I used to ride my bike, the only bike with real tires I have ever owned, a red Huffy street bike with white tires that used to make awesome skid marks on the black asphalt, down to Robert Ringer’s house or to the rec center. We played pool, foosball, shuffleboard and I often watched older kids, the homies with half-domes, play marijuana basketball. Then I would go to one kid, who hated me but was friends with Trevor’s house and we’d all relax or usually play some sport. Boner was always there. A real laid-back bone-skinny black guy named Jonas, he was the only guy, other than myself, that I had ever seen wear high socks, and he only did it a few times.
My hero was an older guy with a traditional boxcut afro, no fade, just square. He was the coolest guy I’d ever met, and the nicest. I was a goofy dresser and since I hated socks with stitches along the toes, I always wore long tube socks without the stitches and my thing since I was little was to pull them up, all the way up, which looked funny with the short shorts from the 80’s that little kids always wore. I also had tiger stripe socks that were knee-high but had 3 fat stripes at the top, usually in a color-new color-first color pattern. This guy would always take the time to help my fashion. Everyone made fun of my high socks and I remember one time, riding my bike back from Randy’s house (he wasn’t home), Randy being the crazy-wild white trash kind of kid with long blonde dirty hair that probably drank and had sex in 5th grade, had no dad and an easy mom. He was a really nice kid though. Anyway, I rode by this group of guys and my hero was there, and he called me over, took me aside and rolled down my socks so I was looking pretty cool. I rode my bike home, looking cool the whole way back, but then I pulled them back up again. I was a hopeless geek.
The Oakland A’s were my favorite. The Bash Brothers were heroic, but I worshipped the Man of Steal, Rickey Henley Henderson. I wore #24 for years because of him, I even read his book [to read a fantastic piece by David Grann from The New Yorker about Rickey still playing minor-league baseball well into his 40s, check this out]. The year of the A’s was ’89. That’s when they swept the Giants, my hated enemies because they were Trevor’s favorite team. ’89 was the year. The year I started hating Kevin Mitchell (Trevor’s favorite player) and the year of the earthquake. Game 3 was just getting startedwhen Candlestick fell down. I was asleep in Sacramento when my bed moved and I woke up. My mom was reading in the living room with her cheeks in her hands and elbows on the carpet when she felt herself shaking. The World Series was postponed for a week and a half while they picked up bodies, moved cement, and repaired San Fransisco. We learned Gay Pride meant as much as straight pride during a real crisis. The A’s swept.
I tasted the sunset alot. I supposed to be home when it got dark, and I always waited too late. So I’d race home on my kick-ass Huffy with the cool wind in my face and mouth and sometimes sprinklers blew at me which shivered, but I drank them because cold air makes you thirsty.
Outside that pool with their sprinklers on was the first time I ever swore, too. I was walking with Trevor, my best friend and the only person I have ever thrown a punch at and lost in speech and looking at the barbed wire, the sprinkler hit us freezing cold. Surprising even myself, I said, “Shit.” I had to make him promise not to tell my parents. I think he will keep that secret forever, but that’s just what friends do.
So, reading this years later, I’m embarrassed at times (especially by the needless profanity), but still a little impressed at how perceptive I was at 15 or 16. There are moments in this piece that I’m kind of proud of, and insights that surprise me–I’m glad that I had the attitude that I did about Gay Pride despite being a young Mormon teen heavily involved in very masculine, gender normative, and largely homophobic sports, and I’m impressed with the attention I give to sensory details and perceptions–I can sense an early desire to show instead of tell. There’s probably more to be embarrassed of than proud of, but it’s what I wrote, and it was my truth at a certain point in my life.
Now here’s the saddest part for me: I don’t know what happened to any of the children I mention in the story, my childhood friends and acquaintances. I lived in the same dorm with Jared Crandall during my freshman year at BYU, and when I moved to Oklahoma a few years later, I ran into Trevor Miller and we played baseball together for a few years, but since that time, all of these boyhood friends have vanished from my life. I miss them–Trevor especially–and would love to know where they are and how any of them are doing. And so, dear readers, I turn to you. If you’ve got any leads, please pass them on. Readers, what are your most vivid memories of childhood? What pieces of writing from your teen years can you dig up, and what feelings do they stir up in you?