I Was a Teenage Hermit

I listened to the Borodin Second Symphony on the way into work this morning; it's a work I first got to like in 1972, when I was sixteen. Whenever I hear this particular piece I think of back when I was a teenage hermit.

When I was twelve, in the sixth grade, I had a bad case of acne which persisted until eighth grade or so, when I was fourteen. As I recall, it finally cleared up when I was about fifteen. Sixth grade was miserable; according to a psychiatric exam I was borderline neurotic. Partially as a result of schoolyard taunting, partially as a result of puberty, I became almost pathologically introverted. People would address me and I wouldn't look them in the eye, and, in general, I avoided making contact with people entirely. Life was just easier that way. So, all through junior high school instead of eating lunch in the cafeteria I would walk to the library and read a book, by myself. If the library was closed for whatever reason, I would stand on the outskirts of the cafeteria and read, leaning against a pole, listening to the mayhem and noise going on - kids being social. In the three years I was in junior high, I can't remember ever sitting down to eat in the cafeteria for lunch. One teacher, on his daily way to something or another, would encounter me and ask why I wasn't in the cafeteria with everyone else. I forgot how I answered, but he took to calling me the "Pole-leaner." That's how he signed my yearbook: "Good luck to the pole-leaner."

It was during these days that I developed an ulcer. I really, really hated gym, and can remember getting terrible stomach aches in the class prior, which I would just endure because I suspected they were psychosomatic. I knew they would subside once gym was over. Years later, after my first endoscopic exam, the doctor asked me, "Did you know you once had an ulcer?" No... but I wasn't at all surprised. So junior high was pretty miserable for me, and when it finally came time to graduate I was very ready to leave.

I remember being pleased to learn that high school was a different situation: the student body was more mature, and, in general, I could fade in with the larger crowd and become unnoticed. Dances, sports games and proms were for other people. As was my habit in junior high, during lunch I brought a book with me to the library to read. After I discovered classical music, via special permission from the head librarian who liked and encouraged me, I would sit up in the upper floor storeroom by myself near a window and read, with the Wollensack cassette deck connected to a set of headphones. I used to plunk myself down next to a rather poor model of the Globe Theatre some student had constructed, undoubtedly in connection with a class module about the Shakespeare plays. And there I sat, reading, listening to Borodin's Second Symphony on the Wollensack, doing my best to avoid the rest of the student body. I assumed life would be this way until I graduated - and perhaps beyond.

My withdrawal from teenage society ended when I first met my friend Mike in eleventh grade biology class in September 1972. (He's the fellow I do the Burbankia stuff with nowadays; I mention him frequently in this blog.) He sat in front of me. I had no idea at the time that he would become my lifelong best friend. But as we began to hang around with each other and his church friend Bob (I communicate with him all the time now, too), I finally began to integrate back into society. We used to eat our lunches in the flatbed of Bob's Mazda minitruck, which was invariably parked on the same street in front of the same house near school. He put AstroTurf in the bed of the truck; I became enormously fond of those occasions, that AstroTurf and that truck. I am sure Mike and Bob do not know how much it meant to me, and what a turning point it represented. And I recall the occasion when they pulled up at my house after school and called for me with the P.A. system Bob had installed in the truck; I was enormously flattered. Hey... I now have friends!

As I write this I am finishing up watching all of the Wonder Years episodes, which perfectly capture the sweet, confusing and sometimes frustrating and sad years of teenage growing up. The protagonist, Kevin (who is described as being twelve in 1968 as I was) was no hermit - he couldn't be. If he was there would be no show, would there? The Wonder Years has caused me to reflect. At age 55 I recognize that regrets in life are pointless, but I now wish that I had eaten lunch in the cafeteria with everyone else, attended a dance, a game or a prom occasionally and had gone to Grad Night at Disneyland with Mike and Bob. It is true that I got something from all of that book learning: a substitute high school history teacher once asked me to lecture briefly about England after 1066, which I could do, easily. He kept asking me, "And then what happened?" and I believe I got us all the way into Elizabeth's reign. But I now fully realize what I missed, and it saddens me.

A late bloomer, I am not at all the person I was as a teen. A stint in the Marine Corps removed most of my uncertainties and turned me into an extrovert. Playing rugby for years completed the process. I talk to complete strangers easily, initiating all sorts of conversations in elevators, meetings and other occasions. And while I still like to read (I read somewhat voraciously), it's far from the be-all and end-all of life. In fact, lately I have become persuaded that reading isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Doing anything in excess is bad - even that. It shouldn't preclude having a normal social life.

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