Now I will grant you that many people believe their childhoods were miserable; however, few of us born in the industrialized (First) world truly know the definition of childhood misery. My life would hardly have been fodder for a 20th-century version of David Copperfield. I always had a home, never wanted for food, and was no more abused than any other kid born in the late 1950s. I got beatings, although probably far fewer than I earned.
Life took its first sideward turn in 1960, when my sister Lynn Marie died. I was two, and she was only months old, but she was the light of my mother’s life. When SIDS claimed Lynn Marie, it took my mother’s joy with it. She was only 24, had two children under four, and a dead baby. Because that is what SIDS leaves you with: a dead child, and a permanent scar. Mom also had a husband with the emotional capacity of a wayward moth. Needless to say, the corners in which she found herself sitting were not conducive to energizing a shy two-year-old who needed attention.
I had been odd, as babies go. I, according to mom, skipped that whole baby talking, learning to speak phase. By age two, I had not spoken a word. To others. Finally, with my mother convinced that her only son was mentally challenged (which in 1960 was called retarded), she asked, weeping, “Why won’t you talk?” It must have been hard for her to deal with, as my mother began talking in 1937, and hasn’t stopped yet. According to mom, I looked at her, and answered, “Because, I don’t have anything to say.” These were the first words she heard me utter.
Now, this in itself is not odd. What is odd is that I remembered that conversation for most of my life, and was shocked to learn, in adulthood, it happened when I was two. Yes, I do have memories from this age, though it is spotty, to say the least. My real memories start at age 3. Mainly, I remember sitting by myself, or keeping my mother company. She was still reeling from the death of her daughter, and I decided I would be her rock. Of course, at age 3, I didn’t know what a rock was, but I did know that neither hell nor high water would get me to leave my mother all alone.
So we grew up that way, together, my mom and I. I made my first friend at age six, in the first grade. He was hit by a car while walking to school. The car was not totaled. He was. I was the only kid who didn’t go to his funeral. I also didn’t try to make another friend until I was eight. I didn’t ask a friend to come to my house until I was ten years old. I was painfully shy, and dreadfully lonely. To exacerbate matters, we moved around a lot. We left Washington D.C. when I was four, and moved to Hampton, Virginia. We then spent a two-year hitch in Oakland, before returning to D.C., and then to Hampton. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated while I was on the Santa Fe railroad from Oakland. It marked the end of my innocence, and the start of my years of anger and militancy. But that’s another story.
This is about the shy kid from the broken home. Thankfully, my mother divorced my biological father when I was four, before retreating to small-town Virginia. We moved to my grandparents’ house, just me and seven or eight of my closest relatives. I barely spoke to any of them. As was true when I was a toddler, I knew how to talk, I just choose not to. There still was nothing to say.
I didn’t go to daycare, or pre-school, or Kindergarten. In those days, it just wasn’t done. Instead, I stayed at home in Granddaddy’s house, and discovered his library at the top of the stairs. There was just one obstacle. I was four, and no one would teach me to read. So, I asked my mom what the letters were, and how to pronounce them, and taught my damn self. I think it took two days. That was something else I never told anyone. I used to be really, really smart. My sister would come home from Kindergarten, and “read” to me. She grew up thinking she had taught me to read. I would never have told her otherwise. I didn’t talk about myself in those days.
Books, all kinds of books, were my salvation. My grandfather was a career Army officer, having made Captain by WWII. He had learned the power of education in Negroes’ lives, and made certain his children learned it too. We had at least 3 encyclopedia sets, volumes of history, art, literature, science, and, of course, the National Geographic (for pictures of boobs). I read everything there was to read. By first grade, I was two years ahead of the other kids in school. So they did what any respectful school did in those days: they ignored me.
By age eight, when we’d moved to Oakland, I was even further ahead. See, Oakland was ghetto, and even a segregated southern school beat an integrated ghetto one. By third grade, I was three years ahead of the other kids in school. I helped a cool Mexican kid I met with his work. They pulled him out of third grade, and placed him in the 4th grade. I went nowhere. Years later, I learned that they had asked to place me in the sixth grade, but mom said no. See, I was, by now, even more shy than before.
I had no friends, was bullied relentlessly, and there was no hope in sight. Then I discovered the library, and the Catholic Church. I took myself to the library, and would walk the 8-10 blocks to get there, alone. I’d check out 5 Dr. Doolittle books, read them, and 3 weeks later, I’d return. The librarians would smile, and then I’d check out Silas Marner, David Copperfield, and Treasure Island. They would counsel me those books were too advanced. I’d read them faster, just to piss the librarians off.
I doubt anyone had an idea I read. The only time I really did so was in school, when teachers were teaching the other kids whatever the hell they taught in those days. Some days, I didn’t want to read, so I’d color in my coloring books. I never did get much out of school. But books, I learned, meant I could still teach myself.
I’d love to say the remainder of my childhood improved. It did, in some ways. My mom remarried, and my stepdad was, and is awesome. Something else good happened, though I can’t remember it at the moment. It must have, as I have a photograph of me smiling at age 13. It was the first time I’d ever smiled in a photo. (This wasn’t it.)
But I got from my childhood exactly what God wanted me to get. I received an understanding of childhood that few adults will ever have. I learned that no amount of torment can bend a strong will, if there is but a single person who stands behind you. I learned that for me, God was also enough. So was my mom. I was bullied, but not always. I used what I’d learned to help other kids. Being helpful kept most of them from kicking my ass.
For the rest of them, I learned that at some point, they would get tired of hitting me. When they did, I beat the living shit out of them.
Life is like that. Some things we endure. We are strengthened by the trials. We learn to survive, and take bits and pieces to form the person we need to be. School was never of much use to me. I had ADD, I was different, I was alone, and ignored. But everything I ever needed I could find in a book. And, with books at my disposal, my mom at my back, and God in my corner, I never stopped believing I had the world fucking outnumbered.
I still do.