In the spring of 1994 I had to determine the schedule for my freshman year in high school, without actually understanding any of the consequences of my choices. Some were obvious; naturally, I’d be taking English, some sort of math. Gym was a requirement. Some things were more ambiguous though. I was told to put off Latin until my sophomore year, which robbed me of one year of what would become the defining activity of all of high school for me and put me a year behind all my friends who got started as freshmen. Strategically it worked out well, since I wouldn’t be competing with Melissa Mahoney in JCL and eventually I got second place in Roman life at the national convention in 1998.
Years later, I would trick a beautiful woman into marrying me.
Anyway, another choice left up to me was how to fulfill my art requirement. I had to do one year of something like drama, chorus, or actual art. Drama terrified me. I didn’t think I was a good singer, though it wouldn’t be until grad school that I would learn just how tone deaf I actually am. I’d enjoyed art in junior high and all it required of me was sitting quietly at a desk, so I signed up.
Art was in the lower hall of our school that surrounded the auditorium. I can’t remember my first day in class, but I have to assume I sat in the back, terrified at the prospect of spending the next nine months with the motley group of students who’d gathered here. I was a “gifted” student, though my chief gift was simply being a student. As such I was segregated for most of my schooling from, what, the “ungifted” students? I have so many issues with how we teach our children. Nonetheless, it was a soft existence that shielded me from the general student body like a white collar criminal from genpop. Art class shattered that shield.
Our teacher, Mr. Rice, was a small, quiet, sensitive man. He was in fact an actual artist. He was close to the family of one of my best friends and they had a few of his abstract bird sculptures. He had almost no control over the class. In retrospect the mismatch is comical. I appreciate my school making a real effort to teach us art, but they needed a drill sergeant who was handy with some watercolors or something in that position. Mr. Rice did his best. I remember him losing his patience a few times throughout the year, but I have to impress upon you how saintly that actually is.
I was at a table with Jerrod, Chris, and sometimes Moe. They couldn’t have been more different from one another. Jerrod was a good-natured country boy who found no end of pleasure in giving me a hard time. He saw how deeply embedded in my shell I was and he was determined to poke at it until I responded, but not in a bullying or aggressive way. Every day after lunch he’d come in and ask me if he had anything in his nose, giving me a good look at it. He talked freely of bodily functions. Things like that. Chris was, upon first glance, a typical burnout. Longish blonde hair and, am I remembering correctly that he had a goatee? Twenty years later I can’t grow a goatee but I’m fairly certain this 17-year-old had me beat. Chris was about to graduate and I think he was concerned for his future, but that didn’t stop him from walking on his hands through the middle of the class or giving Mr. Rice attitude when he tried to calm everyone down. At the talent show at the end of the year he played guitar with a band who covered Nirvana’s “Breed,” in a performance that I didn’t think anyone in my town was capable of. I complimented him the next day and he told me he was tripping balls on stage and didn’t remember much of it. Moe was black, a basketball player who lived in Clarksville’s projects. He had several friends in class who were the rowdiest of them all, but Moe never really contributed to that. He did, however, make the news for pulling a shotgun on his father. Needless to say he missed a few days of school. When he returned I asked him if what I’d heard was true, and if so what exactly led to something like that. He didn’t seem to mind my questioning but kept his answer pretty simple, something like “he was pissing me off and I didn’t want to put up with it any more.” Fair enough.
These guys all became friends, more or less, at least in that room. I wouldn’t see any of them outside of school, though I remember Moe talking to me once in gym class where he was the coach’s aid. I was secretly thrilled at being acknowledged by someone like that when they weren’t forced to by physical proximity.
As I remember myself at 14, I have no idea how I engaged these people on a daily basis without humiliating myself, but I did. I had conversations with them, I laughed at their jokes and maybe at some point they laughed at mine. In my mind I was sweaty, awkward, and I never knew what to say or how people wanted me to react. But they all talked to me like I was a person, so clearly I had done something right. I don’t remember what I liked back then. I don’t know what I did when I went home, what my preferences were, how I chose to spend my time when I had a choice. I branched out to a few other people in class, moving up with Jerrod while we worked on our Christmas ornaments to sit with a girl in the front. She tried to sell me a portable TV for $20 because she was going to run away. I didn’t buy it, and I don’t know if she ever carried out her plan. My mom still has the papier mache reindeer I made at that table.
The year went on and I started to figure out how things were going to work at this school. A circle of friends, most old and some new, began to coalesce out of my “advanced” classes. I got my learner’s permit, though both our cars were sticks and I was too scared to take them out of parking lots for the next few months. Dad spent countless hours with me in the driveway while I figured out how to make the damn thing move. Mr. Rice invited me and one other student from our class on a trip to the museum in Nashville with the art club, of which we were not members, basically because we listened to him and did our work. I let everyone tell me which hole I was supposed to go in for the rest of my time there, and I sat in it without complaint.
We tell stories to ourselves about ourselves and believe them as if they were gospel from on high. I had somehow constructed an image of myself in which I had little to offer anyone who differed from me in any way and accepted that image wholeheartedly, not knowing that I was the one who made it. These things we believe about ourselves set like concrete and we carry them around for years, maybe lifetimes. It took me 20 years to look back and realize that this strange, awkward, sweaty kid who didn’t know how to dress was fine, really. I managed, I adapted. I connected to some very different people. I made a reindeer. The kid who was too scared to take drama is ostensibly an actor in Manhattan.
I wonder what sort of concrete I’m carrying around today.
Colin Fisher is many things to many people, but mostly he’s an actor and writer.