I am about to describe hell. Don’t be alarmed. It was your hell, too. It has been everyone’s personal hell stretching back to the beginnings of time. What could I be talking about other than adolescence?
Going into 7th grade was like walking into a Twilight Zone. Suddenly, my hair turned curly and I couldn’t figure out how to comb it. My sweat started to stink. I even remember the first hair that sprouted in the middle of my chest, which seemed strange and, believe me, entirely unwelcome. Girls whom I’d known in first grade were starting to dress sexy, which was like seeing fishnet stockings on a cat. What was even stranger was that the cats looked sexy. When boys got into fights, suddenly they were big and strong enough to do real damage. Certain vulgar phrases were creeping into boys’ vocabularies, and the pictures those phrases painted weren’t pretty.
As recounted in a previous post, I lost my two best friends on the first day of 7th grade. That meant that loneliness was an additional challenge. In addition, my mind had grown so fast and so much that it was able to understand the advanced concept of hypocrisy, which didn’t please adults none. One of the most glaring hypocrisies was a little innovation our school started in 8th grade called nutrition break. It was a 15-minute break at 10:30 am during which tables were brought out to the quad area and staff members sold, let us say, nutritional items.
But they weren’t carrot sticks, wheat germ, and plain yogurt, as the term nutrition might imply, but instead, donuts, box after box of donuts of countless flavors and varieties. To wash it down, they sold us supersugary soft drinks and chocolate milk! Of course, my classmates scarfed down the sugary products, and the more perceptive among us ridiculed the hypocrisy of it. We also mused who was making money off this particular fiasco.
Hypocrisy became our new term to describe adults. Irony would soon become a favorite, too, as well as cynicism.
That’s not to say that I had the worst adolescent hell of all. One friend of mine named Lance longed for his absent father, who was now married to another woman. He saw his father one weekend out of three, and on that one weekend, it wasn’t nearly the type of bonding that he would have liked. Invariably, Lance was given the job of babysitting his stepsister while his parents went out partying. His weekend with his father was never meaningful or warm. His father never passed along bits of wisdom or told him how to navigate the dark thoughts of puberty.
When Lance got old enough, the dark thoughts overtook him and he refused to see his father altogether. In the decades since, he’s spent vast amounts of energy being angry at authority figures. He has undoubtedly had a worse hell than mine.
So did all the kids who were gay, disabled, and fat.
Whenever I hear the term fat, I think of my friend Yitzak. He and I were both in advanced-placement algebra, and one Saturday, he invited me over to his house. It was the first Jewish household I had ever been in, and I looked forward to seeing how exotic it might be. There was something fastened to the doorframe, but other than that, it was the same. That was something astonishing I was discovering, too: All people are more or less the same.
At school, Joel, Tom, I, and a few others would hang out together during nutrition break and chat.
“Mr. Hardcastle was out at lunch the other day with a ruler measuring all the girls’ skirts,” Joel said. “It’s school policy that they can’t be higher than two inches above the knee.”
“The pervert,” said Cal.
“I’ll bet he’s getting a kick out of it,” Ronnie said.
We weren’t a gang or a clique, we were misfits. We were thrown together because we weren’t popular. We hung out together because we had to. Yitzak later lost weight and became a nuclear physicist. Cal had six kids and became a successful Hollywood editor. Ronnie married one of the prettiest women I knew, divorced her when he realized she wasn’t worth the headaches, then married another pretty headachey one. Rick became an all-American swimmer and never talked to any of us again.
Then there were the bad thoughts. In bed late at night, my eyes staring at the cottage-cheese ceiling. Wondering whether God really exists. That led me down a certain logical path. Okay, let’s say God doesn’t exist. If that’s true, what happens when you die? Is it nothing? And then a truly depressing thought fell into my mind: What is nothing? Is it total, enveloping blackness? No, I reasoned, because blackness is something. Is it clear? No, because clear is something. What could nothingness be?
It was thinking like this that gave me my first experiences with insomnia. The next morning, I would walk around at school like a zombie. Then that night, more disturbing thoughts, and the next morning, more zombie thoughts. This vicious circle lasted for weeks, building up like waters rising behind a dam.
One morning during hypocrisy break, I couldn’t hold the waters back any longer. I turned to my friends and, talking to no one in particular, spilled my guts.
“Do you ever wonder whether God really exists?” I said. “And if God doesn’t exist, what happens when you die? Is it nothing? And what is nothing? Is it blackness? No, because blackness is something, right? Is it clear? No, because clear is something. I mean, do you guys ever think about that?”
Cal didn’t say anything. Neither did Ronnie. But Yitzak looked up at me with a sad, knowing grin.
“Allllll the time,” he said.
For that, Yitzak, I will never forget you. You were the best. You made 8th grade less lonely.