I walked into Walter C. Young Middle School for the first time in almost twenty years. I was in Pembroke Pines to visit my parents and wanted to make an AA meeting that night. Fate directed me to a meeting at my alma mater, the place where it all started. Where the cracks began to form in my little interior.
I parked in the cul-de-sac lot in front of the school, walking anxiously through the front gate. A seed of nervous energy planted itself firmly in my belly, quickly spreading its branches through my veins and into my bloodstream.
Immediately I became that kid, walking the halls with a tension and vulnerability that was almost debilitating. Past the cafeteria where kids threw things at me as I sat on the bleachers alone. Past the common area where I would watch the goth kids draped in black and eyeliner, so curiously wanting to fit in. I could still see the flannel shirts, Smashing Pumpkins concert T’s, graffiti marked Jansport backpacks, boys with long hair parted down the middle.
An eleven year old kid. Scared. Insecure. Wanting to be cool but not knowing exactly how to make that happen. By that point I had been in several theatre productions, so I knew how to act. I could be anybody. Mimic the goth kids, dress like the grunge kids, talk like the ones who listened to rap and had a free pass to popularity. Back then you were defined by the kind of music you listened to. Goth was Marilyn Manson, Alternative was Nirvana, the Bassers listened to Biggie and Tupac.
I didn’t really fit into anything, although I certainly tried. I never had that innate sense of cool or developed the social skills that could carry me through cliques. I got nervous before speaking, was generally at a loss for words, and had really no friends to latch onto. I mainly communicated with adults or, if applicable, their children. But even when I was with their kids, I tried bringing them into my world. Detached and lost in fantasy.
I made my awkward attempts. I would occasionally wear all black to gain attention from the goth kids, but it was usually a black pocket tee from the Gap and some fairly lame black jeans from Old Navy. Dry and parted brown hair. No metal chains or eyeliner to speak of. Most likely a pair of sneakers to really amp up the epic fail.
Then I would try following suit behind the grunge kids. I’d listen to one Nirvana song. Wear my father’s hand-me-down flannel, oddly paired with a University of Miami shirt and faded Gap jeans. I believe my only pair of Airwalks began to make an appearance around that time. A total mismatch of style, which only aided in isolating me that much more.
I watched the other kids, tried to be exactly like them. Listen to the same music, but I didn’t really like it then. I preferred my dad’s Motown or classic rock. I liked musicals, Barbara Streisand and Bette Midler. I didn’t care about music or artists. I wanted to read, to write, watch movies and be in plays. I liked hanging out with my mom, who was by far the coolest person I knew. My best friend.
By sixth grade I was writing poetry about my feelings and short stories about murder. I was obsessed with horror movies, although I was terrified to be alone afterward. Bram Stroker’s Dracula and The Shining were top of my list early on. I was reading R.L. Stine, Stephen King, Dean Koontz and James Patterson. The Beatles, Bette Midler, Annie Lennox, Green Day and Nirvana streamed through my bedroom. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed and Dawson’s Creek were my shows. The gay was just itching to surface. But I was petrified of it. Didn’t know what was making me feel so out of place, so different and alone.
In my mind, I was a living, breathing Quasimodo.
So here I am again. Walking the halls of Walter C. Young Middle School at 7:04pm. Thirty years old, two and a half years sober. Happy. An amazing partner, an art director for a creative studio. I just got back from a mission trip in Guatemala. Chris and I are looking to start a family of our own. My parents are awesome. So why the hell was I anxiously walking through this school?
I held onto memories from Walter C. Young like it was a sack of blow I wasn’t ready to part with. Painful and destructive, but had that ability to make me feel alive. Because I’ve always found comfort in the chaos. And middle school was just that. A confusing, emotional, frightening experience where I was beginning to grow up for the first time.
It was a part of me that still hurt so good.
There are a few middle school moments that have stuck in my brain, rooted in adolescent angst. Fragments from the same period of time that bunched together as one memory. Accessing them is like searching for a movie on OnDemand. I type in the actors name and a list appears of all movies currently available starring that person.
I was in seventh grade when Chris Ballinger entered my sphere.
Seventh grade was by far the most uncomfortable of the middle school years. I was reading books on witchcraft, the internet had just begun to really surface so I was connecting to sites about casting spells and magic. My writing got darker, generally revolving around revenge, the supernatural and murder. I became mildly obsessed with the movie The Craft, namely the character of Nancy who I swore was my inner self. Or at least I was determined for that to be my truth. I couldn’t count how many times I called out to the four corners in an attempt to be filled by a great power. I was going to move things with my mind. Make all those assholes in school suffer their darkest nightmares. Or at least break a few bones. I wasn’t too picky.
I had been made fun of relentlessly for months. Names like Faggot were often thrown in my direction. Questions like, “Do you like to suck dick?” also made their rounds. The originality left little to be desired, but the relentlessness of my peers was admirable.
Ballinger was in a few of my classes. A technology course with Mr. Tunon – who was coined Mr. NoNut, courtesy of the backward spelling of his name. And an English class with Mr. Bevis, also known as Mr. Butthead. Ballinger was one of those popular kids that just seemed to get it. Whatever it was, he just innately possessed it. A birthright that entitled him to be cute, popular and magnetic to teachers and students alike. This birthright also enabled him to be a complete dick. But I’m not bitter. The awkward preteen struggle to fit in did not apply to Ballinger because he set the standard. And he knew it. And his smile was hot. So was his hair. Asshole.
Mr. Butthead broke the class into groups of three and assigned us to write a two page story. The topic was open-ended, but all my stories seemed to have a similar theme. The task of writing two pages was met with groans by my peers, but I reinterpreted this assignment to mean: write the most amazing, epic story that your little twelve year old brain can imagine. Knowing my group mates would only stand in the way, I offered to write the entire thing myself. They were more than happy to oblige.
In a matter of a day, I completed a twelve page story titled, “An’ It Harm None, Do As Thou Wilt”. It was a saying found in a Wiccan book that I had read. Taking this project very seriously, I then designed a cover using a gothic-style font and Microsoft Word clipart to foreshadow the content. A little designer in the making.
The story was about a girl who moves to a new town. In her room she discovers a floorboard that does not match the others. She pries out the wooden board to discover a Book of Shadows wrapped in a velour fabric pouch, along with candles and some other occult paraphernalia. My protagonist recites a spell from the book and is given powers that eventually begin to raise hell. Bodies start dropping, blood sheds. Shit gets real. The usual.
I imagined the reaction I would receive when presenting my story. A standing ovation is to be expected, but the awe and admiration from my peers was the sweet spot. I could see them hanging onto every line, every word with a deep appreciation for my talent. Wanting to know what would happen next, how this kid they made fun of was capable of writing such a gruesomely exciting literary triumph. They would realize then how special I was. That I’m a value and someone to be followed. It was on.
Days had passed before Butthead called on me to read my story in front of the class. Suddenly my heart was pounding in my throat. I broke out in a cold sweat and remained momentarily paralyzed. Eyes turned toward me as I gathered the pages and walked up to the podium in front of the class. I looked up, hands trembling. I saw some kids laughing to each other, their eyes looking at me then back at one another. I knew they were talking about me. The gay kid standing awkwardly in front of the firing squad. An open target.
I began to read aloud.
Twelve pages seems to go on for a really long time when you’re reading in front of a room full of middle school kids who would rather be doing anything else. The words flowed on autopilot while my head quickly polluted with internal dialogue. Were they listening? I’m a loser. I’m so embarrassed. Why did I do twelve pages? A grain of hope held onto the idea that they would knight me as popular after hearing my story, but the rest of me sank further into a shamed oblivion with the turn of each page. After page. After page.
Right about the time I began reading the Wiccan chant I researched, I looked at my audience. I saw Ballinger staring back at me, a smirk stretched across his pale, perfect skin. His green eyes revealed something other than the admiration I hoped for. But at twelve years old with rainbow stars in my eyes, that piercing gaze showed me nothing but acceptance and respect. Of appreciation. He saw me. He saw inside me.
After the characters had died and I read the final words of my blood laced ending, I waited for a deserved applause. Despite my overwhelming embarrassment and shame, I still expected greatness.
I shifted my stance, looked down at the podium and gathered my horrific masterpiece. They clearly just didn’t understand. I knew then it was above them all.
Ballinger looked at me and gave one of those half smiles that split the lower portion of his face into a crescent moon. Did he like it? He didn’t want to be the only one clapping. It was more of a silent appreciation. Something deeper than a clap. Or so I told myself.
But nobody said anything. Their stares said enough. I put my hoodie over my head and sat back down, wishing I could fade away into nothingness.
I beat myself up hard that night.
I came back to school that morning wearing a black, long sleeved shirt underneath a large Kurt Cobain t-shirt. It donned a portrait of the musician with his birth and death date below. I felt good in this outfit. I knew it gave me an identity. Showed who I wanted to be and where I belonged.
The long sleeves covered up faint red lines that scored my wrist. A weak attempt to end my life after a night of self-hatred, crying and fear. I didn’t want to face the army of kids at school, loaded with their words, their insults, their judgments. I didn’t want to pretend. I didn’t want to have the tension of gay lingering around me like a dark cloud.
Mr. NoNut’s class was always a joke. A pudgy man with oily, tan skin and long gray with no identifiable skill to teach. His class never had any focus or structure, so it was a hang out session with random assignments. Our drafting tables sat in front of his overly elaborate wooden desk which was perched on a raised platform above the peons.
It was one of those free-for-all days. I was sitting next to a girl, having some semblance of a conversation, when Ballinger came over to me.
“What’s your name again?”
“Ryan,” I muttered, looking down at my desk. Eye contact was not usually an option. I couldn’t believe he was talking to me. The most popular guy in seventh grade, a guy who I may have had the makings of a crush on, a guy who’s green eyes made me feel funny inside, who had a magnetism that seemed to attract anyone in a room. Almost immediately a few other kids began to gather around my desk.
I got nervous. I didn’t know how to handle multiple kids my own age.
“You like Nirvana?” He kept looking straight at me, which made my eyes lock with his. I looked down, then back at him, then back down.
“Yeah. They’re cool. I like Kurt Cobain.” I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. But I knew I needed to like him.
“Why are you wearing a dead guy on your shirt? That’s weird.” Some kids laughed. But he was serious. Becoming almost menacing now.
“He killed himself. You know that? Shot himself in the head.” I had no idea. But I was morbidly fascinated by this statement and suddenly liked Kurt Cobain that much more.
“Yeah,” I lied.
“What, you’re into that? That shit is fucked up.”
I wanted him to like me and knew this was my chance. But I was uncomfortable. And when I get cornered, when fear sets in and nerves take over, my mouth opens and words just come out. And you can generally bet that a train wreck will shortly ensue.
And it did.
“I tried to kill myself.” There it was. The beginning of a tornado. I wanted his sympathy, I wanted his care, his attention. I wanted him to think I was cool. Like I was this dark, tortured artist with a closet of mystery that he had to open.
“Are you fucking kidding me? How?”
“I cut my wrists. I still have scars.” I exaggerated this statement in an attempt to create a dramatic moment that would lead to a deep connection between myself and Ballinger. A friendship that would bud from pain and a mutual intrigue in one another. I partially rolled up the black sleeve, revealing my left wrist. The faint red scratches looked pathetic. Truthfully, I didn’t like hurting myself. I certainly didn’t like the idea of cutting open veins. I was not a great candidate for slicing open arteries and bleeding to death. But it was a tangible mark that called forth the attention I craved.
“What the fuck?” Ballinger said with disgust. “Why the fuck would you do that?”
I felt my face getting hot. I knew I was turning red.
“What the fuck is wrong with you? Fucking faggot.” Like a dagger to my chest. He then turned to his friend. “Dude, he fucking tried to kill himself.” They both laughed, along with some other kids.
I was mortified.
I stared at the floor, my body beginning to shut down inside. I didn’t want to feel. It’s like a callous interior that grows from emotional scars over time. Mine grew stronger during those middle school years.
Then suddenly I felt something I had never experienced. A hard sting on my face, followed by a loud smack that seemed to silence the room. Ballinger slapped me across the face and said, “Why are you trying to kill yourself?”
I had never been hit before. Never been in a fight. I didn’t know what to do. I froze. I was humiliated. Other kids watched as I stood there and Ballinger slapped me again. “Why the fuck did you try to kill yourself?”
Ignore it, I thought. Ignore it. It will stop.
But it didn’t stop. And by that time my face throbbed. I could feel my cheeks pulsing, my entire body burning from humiliation, rage, hatred, shame.
He smacked me again and repeated the same question. I felt a tear swelling in my eye, but held it back.
“I don’t know why,” I stammered, my words barely audible. I had trouble even forming those four together in a sentence.
“What?” Another smack in the face.
Laughter from the other kids around me may as well have been additional hits to my gut. I looked over at NoNut for help. For an authority figure to step in and stop him. But NoNut did nothing. He sat at his elevated desk like a fat, ignorant turd. His eyes met mine and I silently pleaded with him to intervene. To save me. But he did no such thing. He looked back down at his paperwork and chose to ignore what was happening.
“You’re fucking gay. Fucking faggot. Go kill yourself.”
He gave me one final slap in the face. The last nail in the coffin. Then he and his friends went back to their desks.
Next period was Butthead’s class. I sat in the back of the room with a girl I was deeply infatuated with. She wore a black and hot pink Batman shirt, dyed red hair, ripped jeans. She was one of the grunge and goth kids. Beautiful porcelain skin, mischievous eyes, and a girlish innocence in her voice that could only mean trouble. She was showing me her eyebrow piercing, which consisted of a safety pin that she stabbed through her skin last period. I wanted to be her.
I was still in shock from NoNut’s class, but didn’t want it to show. I couldn’t let anyone see that I was upset or hurt. I had to be tough. Had to show that nothing bothered me. That I was above it and could just laugh it off. But I was dying inside. And there he was, Ballinger sitting at a desk a few rows in front of me.
As the hour-long period neared its end, I thought of multiple ways I could murder Ballinger. What spells I could conduct. How I would hide his body and not get caught. What it would feel like to drag a blade across his neck. Would I even feel anything?
I was lost in thought when I saw Ballinger’s hand raise.
“What is it, Chris?” Butthead asked.
“Mr. Bevis,” he said to the entire class, “I just want to let you know that Ryan tried to kill himself.”
Ballinger turned his head and looked over at me. Those green eyes pierced mine. This time I knew it wasn’t admiration.
This time I knew it was contempt.
I made a point to walk to Butthead’s old classroom before the AA meeting. I had an urge to visit my ghosts at Walter C. Young, to face them today instead of keeping them preserved in my mind. I stopped and examined the hallway. The room. It felt like that moment was playing over again in a parallel universe right in front of me. I couldn’t see it, but it was still happening. I was still twelve years old, sitting at a table in the back of the room, cowering.
But then I realized I was holding on to something that could just as easily be released right there. That out of the ashes I rose to be the man I am today. That I could stand in that classroom, successful and happy, and let go of the monsters. I took a deep breath then exhaled. And just like that, it was over. I won.
I found the AA meeting in room 436. There were thirteen of us seated in a circle of chairs. I was still filled with emotion from being in Walter C. Young, it’s where the path to my addiction was paved. Where I broke away from the happy, excited little boy who twirled around in his father’s tank-tops and fell asleep in his mother’s lap. It’s where I began to swim in another direction. In deeper, darker waters. It was the beginning of another chapter.
I raised my hand.
“Hi, I’m an alcoholic. My name is Ryan.”