Image Credit: Esi Grunhagen via Pixabay
Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.
He slumps in the maroon armchair, nearly supine, staring at the window. Outside, three boys whizz by on skateboards, hooting. The hard plastic wheels count sidewalk cracks.
“So, tell me about your day at school,” the counselor asks.
The skaters clack-clack-clack into the distance. He hears faraway laughing.
“What’s your favorite class? Tell me about it.”
Every once in a while he can spend one minute raising his eyes to the ceiling, see the faint cracks in the yellow paint, and pretend not to hear. That’s one minute. Or he imagines he is somewhere else. Maybe playing catch in the street with a friend, if he had a friend who did that. That’s two.
“I’d really like to know more what happened to you today.”
“What’s going on at home?”
“How are you feeling?”
“What are you thinking?”
“Are you sad?”
Seventh grade began a new era of physical education class. The boys and girls were separated. Mr. Gardner, mustachioed, broad-shouldered, gray hair shorn close at the temples, in gray sweat suit and navy baseball cap, terrifying, walked up and down the line of us, clipboard in hand, eyeing us in our oversized white t-shirts and black gym shorts, our pathetic middle-school inadequacy.
At thirteen, my body looked like a child’s. My voice was so high-pitched, I tried not to say anything. When he called my name, I raised my hand. “Scott?!?” he yelled. When I answered, “Here!” the other boys snickered at my attempt to lower my voice. It was better to remain silent.
It was wrestling season. As a final test, Mr. Gardner required every boy to face off against another boy on the mat, pairing wrestlers based on size and ability. When he called my name, there was a hoot from the crowd. Stomach reeling—dreading this moment for weeks, I had not slept the night before—I moved into the circle. Then he called “Eugene!” and the class erupted in laughter. One overweight boy stepped forward, his round face flushed, the epicenter of all dread in the universe. The rest of the boys formed a ring around us, jeering, thumping the mats with their hands.
Eugene was huge. I was short and skinny. How could Mr. Gardner think we were well-matched, except maybe in our dread of wrestling?
“You can do this, Wayne,” he urged. “Have some fun!”
My mind swirled with visions of arm bars and single-leg take downs and half-nelson pins, all the lessons I had listened to with such gut-heavy dread, knowing they would lead to this moment. Eugene was too big for me to put my arms around, so I got on all fours and Eugene awkwardly wrapped his arm around my chest and gripped my arm. His heart thumped against my back. His face was damp with sweat.
Mr. Gardner yelled, “Go!” and blew a whistle.
The other boys thumped the mat with their hands, an earthquake of humiliation.
I don’t know what happened, since Eugene was behind me, but it seemed that he collapsed on top of me, pinning me under a mountain of warm, wet flesh.
“Fight back, Wayne!” Mr. Gardner commanded. “Get out from under him!”
I could barely breathe, let alone move. I wanted this nightmare of being a boy to be over. Within a few seconds, Eugene won. I hoped I wouldn’t care as soon as I could escape from the ring.
The coach pulled Eugene’s hand into the air. The boy’s face turned pink, surprised and relieved.
There was nowhere to hide in the echo-filled, tiled room full of noisy, naked boys. Everyone seemed to have new hair in places I didn’t. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of Eugene, huge fleshy stomach, shy smile. Maybe, after his win, he would fit in? Even he had hair between his legs. Ew, that was right next to me. I fumbled to get dressed.
“If you don’t take a shower, I’ll have to mark you down,” Mr. Gardner said, pencil behind his ear.
I pretended I didn’t hear him as I buckled my belt and bolted from the locker room.
“I’m marking you down, Wayne,” he called.
Even though it wasn’t lunch yet, I turned at the exit and walked out of the school.
I ran home to the apartment I shared with my mother and two brothers. She had separated from my father (who had disappeared without explanation). No one else was home. In my bedroom, I huddled under the covers with a flashlight and a book. Over and over I read the same books: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series; Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Little Men and Jo’s Boys; E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Weband Stuart Little. My criteria for a good book were simple: there had to be a family with two parents; there had to be a father with soft-spoken opinions about how to meet adversity; there had to be girl characters. There could be nothing about the rules of being a boy.
“Do you want some new books?” my grandmother would wonder, befuddled by my habit. “Maybe The Hardy Boys?”
I did not need any other books.
Maybe the real torpedo came, weeks before the wrestling match, on that first day when we were assigned our lockers. It was my first year at Cockeysville Middle School, in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland. I had never unlocked a locker before. I fumbled with the dial, tried to line up the arrow with the right number, then turned it backwards again, then jerked at the handle furiously. “Darn it.” I only had a few minutes before the first class started. Newly arrived at middle school, I already hated it.
Mitchell McGuire had the locker two doors down. “I can help you.” He smiled. “They’re tricky.”
I couldn’t look at Mitchell without being distracted that he looked like a man and yet we were the same age. He was a foot taller. He lumbered when he walked like an uncomfortable giraffe out of place in a middle school for humans. His face was covered with blond scruff.
“Tell me your number,” he said. He patiently turned the dial as I told him, as if he was never nervous.
I sighed when it opened and dumped half my textbooks in it.
Mitchell stood by, looking at me. A question flashed through my mind: did Mitchell, who was so tall and formed, hate middle school too? It was an attractive thought but quickly discarded. He was too big. He knew how to open a locker. Middle school hatred was bound up in having a skinny short body perfect for shoving.
“We need to get to class,” I said in a rush. “The bell’s gonna ring.”
“Hey, do you want to go get high?” he asked. “We can go behind the bleachers.”
“I have grass,” he whispered.
It had never occurred to me that I was old enough or bold enough to skip class or smoke grass. I started to tremble. I shook my head furiously. “You shouldn’t smoke grass,” I blurted. “It’s illegal. You shouldn’t skip class either. You’ll get in trouble.”
All friendliness melted away. His eyes narrowed. “Forget I asked,” he said, turning away. “I’ll go by myself.”
A middle-school reputation is a fragile thing, easy to tank.
A few days later, when I opened my locker, it was filled with foamy white shaving cream. My books were covered. I didn’t know what to do. I rushed to the boy’s bathroom and stole a roll of toilet paper. I pulled out each book and tried to wipe off the foam. I was sweating, panicking. The pages were wet, sticky. It was impossible to get them clean. I was fifteen minutes late to class. I needed a bigger word for hate to describe how I felt about this place.
I was twenty minutes late to art class, but Mrs. Dennis smiled and told me to get my project from the shelf. After the first two weeks, I dreaded sitting in her class almost as much as physical education. She had a habit of giving us an assignment and then going into hallway to talk with the art teacher in the classroom next door.
Alone in a crowd of middle schoolers, I tried to focus. We had covered an old shoe with papier mache. After it dried into a crusty sculpture, we painted human faces in bright red, yellow, and blue acrylics. I was painting a frowning clown face. His eyes were far apart and dilated, crazy-looking, as if he had just murdered somebody.
No one cared about the paper mache shoes faces.
I knew some of the boys in the class from the gym. They were throwing spit balls and giggling. They could do whatever they wanted because, unlike me, they had been early-gifted men’s bodies. The word they used to taunt me, bigger and louder and more powerful when said in front of the class, was always the same:
I dipped my brush in red paint. I tried to concentrate on the frown of my clown face. No one explained this word to me. I suspected it meant homosexual, a vague idea shivering in a haze of otherness. I never confirmed it. Who would I ask?
Though I tried not to look at the boys, I caught a glimpse of Mitchell McGuire leaning into the crowd of them, snickering. “So, why are your hands so sticky, faggot?”
A girl at the same table yelled, “Ew gross, Mitchell!”
“You’re pathetic,” he said to me.
I wanted to run home.
Faggot, faggot, faggot. Violent bee stings. There-is-something-despicable-about-you. You-do-not-belong-here. Disappear.
I wanted the day to end.
I did not feel the blow, did not even notice where it landed on my body, only that it stopped me in my breathless hurry to get from school to home, alerted me that the path, which I hoped would be remote, wasn’t. Only later that night did an ache begin to throb in my jaw, a coming to consciousness, the jagged shards of that day reassembling, and I realized the force Mitchell had used when he sprang from the hedges and punched me.
Even that throbbing pain did not seem terrible because the blow was past and I was on this future side of the encounter, remembering something that was over, or over for now. The blow was not the worst part.
What I did remember: his thirteen-year-old face, which looked so much older; his one word. The lowering of his furry brow, crunching down on squinted eyes, as if he were straining to see me or not wanting to see me; the set of his hard, rectangular jaw; wisps of whiskers on the chin; the cigarette he clenched in his lips. Mitchell was the first person my age I had ever seen smoking. I could not understand how you would want to have fire and smoke and ash so close to your face.
When he pulled my collar, so that my face came close to his, I worried the hot ash would fall on my blue polo shirt.
He said the same word: Faggot.
In the distance a woman teacher called, “What’s going on there?”
Then he ran away and I ran away. I did not want anyone’s help. I did not want to think about what happened, only that I was free to run home and hide in my bedroom until another school day.
For the next few weeks my mother, Grace, accommodated my complaints of stomach pain and headaches and other veiled grumbles of not-rightness and let me stay home. I researched it and discovered that I could miss forty-five school days a year and still pass to the next grade level.
I assumed I would stay home the whole forty-five days.
The vice principal’s office called and asked us to come in and meet with him. The principal’s office was a foreign territory, reserved for kids in trouble. In my whole life as a student I had never gotten into any trouble. The vice principal was a grandfatherly figure, with thinning gray hair, in a crisp white shirt and a dull navy-blue tie. He had deep wrinkles obscuring his eyes and tufts of gray hair coming out of his ears.
Thinking to justify my behavior, I said in a quiet voice, “I can stay home for forty-five school days a year and still pass to the next grade.”
He smiled and shook his head vigorously. I couldn’t hear everything he said because it was now clear that I was a kid in trouble, which was unthinkable. I thought I heard him command my mother: You need to get him to go to school. No matter what.
School-avoidant was the term he used.
My mother pursed her lips and listened. She wore a mint green pant suit with a shiny scarf with a pattern of purple flowers. She was a realtor in 1978, a brutal economy that no amount of hustle could match.
I already got good grades without much effort. “I can keep up with my homework,” I whispered to her as we left. “I don’t want to come back here. Why does it matter if I’m in the building, if I get good grades?”
After our talk with the Vice Principal, we stopped by the office of the school counselor, as directed, to see if he had any other ideas for us. I knew he and Mr. Gardner were friends because I saw them on smoke breaks together in the parking lot. He had a bushy gray moustache. His navy-blue tie pinched his neck, as if it was holding him back.
He had more to say than the Vice Principal, but he talked to me. “If you get picked on, you need to fight back. If you fight back, they will leave you alone.”
I stared at him. This seemed impossible.
“They smell fear,” he lectured, “so you must get rid of fear.”
He had a gentle fatherly tone when he said these awful directives. “If you think you’re going to cry,” he offered, “come to my office right away. You must not let them see you cry.”
I didn’t respond. At first my mother didn’t say anything. She was worried about having taken time away from showing houses. I knew she was worried about rent. Neither of us knew what to say to these men in their crisp, ironed shirts with their perfectly knotted ties. When finally we got to the car, she said, “Assholes.”
The problem of bullies worsened, growing in proportion to the overwhelming pressure of guidance about how to combat them.
As a single working parent with three boys—thirteen, twelve, and ten—my mother didn’t know what else to do with my complaints of physical ailments, except to continue to keep me home. She couldn’t argue with the authorities at the school, she said, but she didn’t have to listen to them either.
She brought me to the pediatrician. He wore a stiff white coat over a pressed pale blue shirt with a bright white t-shirt peeking out. He listened with what looked like either patience or suspicion, then cut a deal: he would write a medical excuse for me to get out of physical education class, the nexus of adolescent anguish, on the condition that I attend school every day, no excuses, and attend counseling. He was clear with my mother that he wanted me to see a male counselor, that I needed the influence of a man. He expected that, with the male counselor’s help, I would stop running away from the things that frightened me. Eventually I would return to physical education where the company of other boys and the role model of Mr. Gardner would be good for me.
“You can’t coddle him,” he said.
Neither the vice principal, nor the school counselor, nor the physical education teacher agreed with this medical excuse—this lame endorsement of sissyness—but he was a doctor.
Other than my mother, who secretly thought my staying home was the only safe solution in a dangerous school, who was wrong, the men watching us—the coach, the vice-principal, the school counselor, the doctor—seemed to believe that the problem was me: my habit of crying when teased; my fear of being chased and shoved and punched in the locker room; my anxiety about the jeering in home room and the open tiled group shower.
It was impossible not to notice that everyone seemed to be throwing adult men at me as an antidote. Everyone seemed to want to cure me of my fatherless state. But all the substitute fathers who came onto my path made me feel like I had a gruesome disease.
Once a week my mother dropped me off at Howard’s office. Rigidly erect, I sat across from him, my body resisting the give of the armchair, and stared. Hard. Howard had a brown beard, glasses that did not obscure the warmth in his eyes, a round face, and a paunch that seemed to suggest he was comfortable with himself. Often he wore a plaid flannel shirt, soft reds and blues with threads of gold. He asked questions in a gentle voice but still it had that gravelly deepness. He wanted to understand what was going on inside me, but still he had that voice and that big man’s beard.
Though he had done nothing, I could not forgive him.
Howard asked question after question, then with curiosity he asked deeper questions in response to my one words and grunts, nudging to see if I would say more. I wouldn’t. Later he cajoled me to play games of checkers and Uno and Monopoly, games that sat in tattered boxes on a shelf in his office. He tried to engage me in banter over a game of pool, in the group room of the Community Mental Health Center. I refused to talk. He praised me when I broke apart the triangle of shiny, colored balls. “Excellent shot!” If he felt it, he never showed irritation. Usually, when nothing worked, we sat across from each other in silence.
It is not easy to be silent for an hour, sitting across the room from someone who is waiting for you to speak, but with determination it can be done.
Week after week, as I endured middle school, Howard looked at me and I looked away. Except when I glanced at him to confirm he was still looking at me.
One night, months later, at my grandmother’s cajoling, my father called home. He did not want to speak to my mother—at this moment they were in the process of divorcing, their affairs managed by lawyers—but he asked, business-like, that she hand the telephone to his sons. The three of us huddled in the kitchen, each listening in on the other’s conversation. His disembodied voice trailed off into the vast universe, a wisp of reassurance. He still loved us, he said. There would be visits soon. We needed to be patient.
When it was my turn to speak with him, I demanded, “Where are you, Dad?”
“I can’t tell you,” he said. “I don’t want your mother to know.”
He didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to.
While Howard did have the beard, and the paunch, and the flannel shirt, he didn’t direct me to do anything. He offered no advice or guidance or reminders of the rules of being a boy. He asked questions or he waited. He smiled when I glared. He looked at me with his brown eyes.
Sitting across from him, week after week, I was steadfast in my resolve. My throat tightened. My brain shut down. There were no words. There was just a rolling in my stomach, a constant pressure behind my eyes.
The words to say it, if they existed, were far beyond my ken: contempt; aggression; hatred; homophobia. I just knew—whatever they were—I needed to hide from the forces they represented. Words I did know: punch; bruise; chase; faggot; cocksucker. They were wrapped up in humiliations which only became bigger in re-telling.
Silence can be powerful that way, a kind of refusal and strength.
“I have a question for you.”
I stared at Howard, unwilling to give him any encouragement.
“Do you know what a ‘faggot’ is?” he asked as if it were any ordinary word.
My face burned. I looked away but couldn’t escape from his gaze. How did he know? Was I somehow marked?
“You’ve heard that word at school, I assume,” Howard offered, his hands folded in his lap. “Many boys in middle school use it as a kind of curse word.”
Before I could stop it, a word escaped from my body. “Yes.” He was seeing parts of me, my humiliations, that I didn’t want to reveal.
“Do you know what it means?”
I shook my head and looked away. I wanted our time to be over. I wanted to be in the car with my mother driving home. She would be singing along to Carly Simon and Aretha Franklin. I wanted to be under the blanket on my bed with Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.
“It is a cruel word for a male homosexual,” Howard said, in a weary, matter-of-fact voice, “a man who is attracted to other men. It is used to make them feel badly about themselves. But there’s nothing wrong with being gay, Wayne. It’s just another form of love.”
At school I was able to go to the library instead of physical education class, but I still had to show up everywhere else.
One day, as I hurried home from school, three teenage boys emerged from behind some hedges carved into sharp angles. I do not recall their names, other than Mitchell, but I remembered them from the physical education class. They were all taller than me. They were smoking cigarettes. They blocked me with their shoulders. I tried to walk through the barrier they created, as if they were not there.
“Where are you going?” Mitchell asked, cigarette dangling from his mouth, in a tone that sounded insulted. The smoke made my eyes sting.
My voice was fainter than a whisper. There were three of them. It seemed so unfair. “Leave me alone.”
He shoved me. Another boy punched me in the stomach, the air left my body, and my butt hit the ground. For a moment I sat stunned, trapped. After a day of loneliness and invisibility at school, it was too much. I couldn’t move. They towered over me.
“You’re a faggot, you know that?”
“We’re going to beat the shit out of you.”
“Just like Eugene did.” They laughed, hard.
“Boys, what are you doing?” came the shout from a teacher on the edge of the playground. She had seen everything. She started walking over to us.
They turned and I took my cue and ran home before she could talk to me.
“Wait a minute!” she called. “Tell me what happened.”
But I had gotten away again.
Later that afternoon, I had my counseling appointment. As usual, I sat across from Howard, trying to hold back. But, once the tears started running down my cheeks, I couldn’t control them. My resolve broke. I cried and cried and cried like there was no end to the sadness, like I was all of sadness, like there was no boundary between my body and the expansive misery of the universe. He nodded. His eyes grew moist. He passed me tissues.
I didn’t say any words. Without explaining myself I cried for the whole hour. He looked at me with a sad helplessness, as if we were stuck together in the same awful situation.
The only thing he said near the end of the session was: “It must be very hard, Wayne.”
My mother was waiting in the car in front of his office. Without a word I left.
Remembering that silent time in his office, it strikes me that he taught me something about fathering, but it didn’t look anything like the makeshift fathering being pushed on me from all sides, so it was unrecognizable, strange.
Fathering can come from a quiet, humble place.
For the three years I was a mandated therapy client, I never had a real conversation with Howard. I was stubborn and unforgiving, of him and all the father substitutes—of everyone—who couldn’t see that I was mad that there even had to be a substitute. To the father substitutes scrutinizing my situation, even to Howard, there was never any sign that I improved. I never returned to physical education class. Every year my mother insisted that the pediatrician write another medical excuse. “And he’s still seeing a counselor, a malecounselor?” he asked without looking up. I remained a sensitive boy, quick to cry, fearful of brutality, maybe a touch more compassionate than average.
Not such an awful fate in the long run.
Eventually, I became a father of two sons, late bloomers, who also had smaller-than-average bodies, then a psychotherapist, like Howard, who would have his own experiences of sitting across an office from teenagers with hard expressions, begrudgingly accepting the one hour they get when no one tries to change them.
I would become a man who longs to send out a message into the universe, that mostly brutal place with its occasional soft pockets of human kindness. I want to say to Howard: “A long time ago it was you, your quiet humility, who saved a misfit boy. But I didn’t know it at the time, and you would never see it.” I wish I could tell him: “You waited, never knowing if there would be a return on that investment of patience.”
But I do not know where he is, or if he is still alive.
Instead I sit in my office, the bookshelves stacked high with tattered board games and worn decks of cards, with a teenage boy who does not want to play and does not want to speak. I take another breath. I ask another question. I watch him and I wait.
Wayne Scott’s work has appeared in The New York Times (Modern Love), The Sun: A Magazine of Ideas, Poets and Writers, The Millions, Salon, and The Oregonian, among others. He is a psychotherapist and writer in Portland, Oregon. Find him @wain_scotting.