“They’re nice, don’t get me wrong,” a kid named Thomas said of the shoes I wore. “But why do you insist on wearing tennis shoes?”
Thomas was the only son of my dad’s friend, and this question came so soon in our introduction that he fell just short of working it into his greeting. He said the word tennis shoes with such disdain that I felt like a second-class citizen in them, before I knew what a second-class citizen was. He framed this question in a manner that suggested he had known me for years, but this was the first time we met. His question also laid a depth charge that would detonate throughout the course of this evening in the form of a theme: I missed something fundamental that every other pre-teen knows, and that something I missed defines the pre-teen years and the preparation that should have occurred to me in my preparation for the life beyond.
This kid’s confidence was difficult to mirror, and I didn’t. This onslaught caught me off guard. Had I prepared better for his assessments, I would’ve mentioned the fact that I had no say in the matter. I didn’t pick shoes out, and I didn’t pay much attention to style.
“My parents purchase my tennis shoes, I just wear them,” was something another kid said to me, later in life. After hearing that, I wished I had said the same to Thomas. Thomas’ assessment caught me off guard though.
I could’ve also said something along the lines of ‘I don’t pay attention to what other kids wear, and I don’t think anyone else our age does either.’ That would’ve been wrong, of course, for there was always a “cool factor” to the shoes one wore. The idea that tennis shoes could be deemed so uncool as to now be considered a tired element of the kid ensemble, however, had never occurred to me, or anyone else I knew for that matter.
I would endure many other assessments about my identity throughout the evening, and as with the challenge regarding my preference for tennis shoes, Thomas laced them with condemnations. It wouldn’t be the first time someone challenged that my identity, nor would it be the last, but this kid did a masterful job of placing me in a state of flux. I would later realize that these attacks were proactive in nature to distract us from Thomas’ flaws, but I had no idea at the time. At the time, I was formulating half-hearted answers to questions no one asked me before, but before I could answer, he was onto something else. The purport of our conversation was that he had little time for me, because even though I was but one year younger than he was, I was still a little kid in his eyes.
The next personal insult occurred when he showed a preference for my parents. As a pre-teen, I never met a kid that preferred to speak to adults. This kid did. He gave the impression that adults were more his speed. These adults, that happened to be my parents, were not special. They weren’t the types to discuss deep philosophical issues, politics, or the merits of one artist over another. They were typical adults that asked typical “How do you like school?” “Do you have a girlfriend?” questions of pre-teens. The typical response to such a question, we learn from our cool contemporaries, is to be polite but dismissive, with a heavy dose of the latter.
Not only was this kid respectful, he appeared to prefer the company of my parents before knowing anything about them. He also appeared to want their approval. It was so out of the realm of my experience that I was fascinated, after I determined that this kid was in full control of his facilities. His answer to my parents’ typical question consisted of a verbal flowchart of his path for life, built on various contingencies that he could not foresee at that point in his life. It was impressive, in a cute way. It suggested that he geared his life to having his father to muss up his hair with pride. The tennis shoe greeting became clearer in that light. I thought he was trying to impress my parents to impress his parents more. I thought I had him all figured out, until he commented on my hairdo.
“That bangs thang isn’t working for you anymore.” When he said that there were no adults around. It dawned on me that Tennis Shoe Thomas had a hairdo. The fellas I hung around had a preference for the part in their hair, some of them wore their hair long, and some wore it short, and there were some variances in the groups of fellas at school, but this guy’s hair had some craft to it that suggested he had been to a salon. He was one year older than I was, as I said, and I started to wonder if this kid was emblematic of what I’d be facing in a year.
Thomas also had a girlfriend. The idea that he had a girlfriend damaged the whole profile I had been building on him. I had been planning to tell my friends all about Tennis Shoe Thomas, so we could laugh at this kid, and they could bolster my belief that this kid was the aberration I considered him to be. I knew the idea that he had a girlfriend would damage that presentation, for in the pre-teen world, having a girlfriend nullifies all other deficits of character, unless he cherishes her.
If a kid our age was lucky enough to have a girlfriend, he was to be dismissive of her in front of the fellas. He was to consider her a fait accompli. No one wanted to hear about the process a boy had to go through to achieve boyfriend status, and those revelations often did more harm than good. To all outward appearances, a girlfriend’s role in a young boy’s life was one of adornment. She should be nothing more than a badge of prestige that that boy wore on his sleeve. Saying one had a girlfriend was more important than actually having one, in other words. This Thomas kid loved having a girlfriend. He cherished her, a fact made evident by the central location he placed a stack of letters from her on his dresser, in his otherwise impeccably clean bedroom. He also had a decorative red ribbon tied around those letters that he carefully unfurled for me. I went to touch the stack, and he pulled it back from me. I was not to touch it, and that struck me as odd, but I realized that the purpose behind the unfurling was to impress upon me the sheer size of the stack.
“She must really have it bad for you,” I said, looking at the size of that stack of letters.
This was a joke I learned that one fella offers another to display their admiration for the manner in which that fella has impressed a girl. If a girl writes a fella a letter, it means she likes him. If she writes him a whole stack of letters, there must be a whole stack of reasons why. That fella must have done something right, in other words, and everyone wants to learn his formula for success. In the face of that interest, the “cool kid” is required to provide a nonchalant answer to give the impression that her interest was based on little thought and no effort. The essence of a “cool kid” suggests that that they leave the impression that his essence is what sets a girl’s hear afire. The cool kid wants his audience to believe he has a super-secret formula, and that those of us that want the details of the formula are going to be forever on the outside looking in.
A dismissive “yeah” may have been called for at this point, to keep it cool between the fellas, but this Thomas kid didn’t say anything of the sort. He said those letters were mostly responses to his love letters, and the plans he had with her. He informed me that the two of them were in love. He said he thought about her all the time and he had a smile on his face when he said that. My Great Aunt Mary Louise would’ve loved that smile. She would’ve considered it sweet. He talked about the fact that he wanted her to be his wife one day. He said that most of his letters detailed the long-term plans he had for her, and her letters were a positive response to that. If that day never happened, he said in response to whatever doubts he perceived I might have, he informed me that he would be just as happy with one kiss from her.
I didn’t think there was anything wrong with cherishing a woman for most of the older boys I knew well would confess such things to me, in private, after spending weeks bragging about the fact that they had a girlfriend. To state such things openly to a fellow pre-teen one has just met, without reservations or qualifiers, was unprecedented to me.
He had a deeper voice that he reserved for conversations with adults, a voice I presumed was an affectation he developed to garner more respect from them.
“I prefer Thomas,” he said when I asked him if he went by Tom or Tommy. “My birth certificate says Thomas,” he said when I asked him what the fellas at school called him. “So, I prefer Thomas.”
After his mother had all but physically pushed him out of the living room “So, the adults could talk”, and he was forced to play with me, he informed me that the one thing he did not want to do was play with his Atari 2600. He said I could play with it if I wanted, but the glare that followed suggested that I shouldn’t be so reliant on computer games for my entertainment purposes.
Thomas was such a violation of everything I held dear that I couldn’t tell if he might have been onto something that I missed, or if he was stuck in the same quadrant of self-defined cool that all the nerds in my class were. This Thomas kid’s violations of everything I held dear went deeper than the nerdiest nerd violations I knew, however. He stated that he thought it sucked to be a kid, without saying those words.
Kids I knew hated the idea that they were subjected to authority, going to school, eating vegetables, and some semblance of the idea that they weren’t older, but this kid appeared to loathe the idea of being young. This kid appeared to hate even the good stuff involved in being a kid. He envied those that displayed maturity, and he appeared to crave those opportunities that arrive in a kid’s life to show the adults around him that he is more responsible.
Thomas and I did not get along well, and he was one of the first kids I met for which I could not find anything in common. He also fought most of my attempts to find commonality. I was a kid, of course, and as such, I was vulnerable to him slapping my ideas back. I was also a typical kid in all the ways a typical kid is insecure about their beliefs system. Even if I disagreed with many of his ideas about how to be a kid, I didn’t put up much of a fight. Looking back from the vantage point of an adult that enjoyed all the trappings of being a kid, I now think that Thomas envied my ability to play, laugh and have fun.
I never saw Thomas after that day, so I have no idea if one of the idealized paths on his flowchart panned out. We did spend most of that evening discussing how much Thomas had going on, however, and how much I’d missed by being such a kid. When Thomas put so much effort into forcing me into such a narrow box, I couldn’t help but think about the subtext involved in Thomas’ condemnations. I couldn’t help but think there was something Thomas was avoiding, and I would capture this, after years spent ruminating on this interaction, that led me to believe the aggressive, proactive attacks on my adolescence were a distraction from the subject of how much Thomas missed.
My guess, now that I’m old enough to reflect on the people that shaped my life, both large and small, is that Thomas suffered from a debilitating case of only child’s syndrome. My guess is that he developed a deflection, over the years, to prevent us from witnessing the effect having no siblings can have on a child. My guess is that he developed this to prevent the revelation that he didn’t know how to befriend another kid, and that the ease with which the rest of us did mystified him. I think the frustration that resulted from all that led to an adjustment he made long before he met me and my foolish notions that life could be fun, and the idea that he could be foolish in these ever dwindling years of youth in which it’s acceptable to be foolish. My guess is that Tennis Shoe Thomas ended up getting so wrapped up in solitude that he forced others out by greeting them with a condemnation before they could condemn him.
I can only guess that Thomas became his parent’s whole world the day he was born, and that they obsessed over teaching him the ways to conduct himself around others, and that a day arrived when Thomas’ parents realized that they had been a little too successful in their efforts. My guess is that his parents invited me into their home to provide Thomas a counterpoint that would show him how to be a kid before it was too late. I can only guess that Thomas knew about this plan beforehand, and he sought to thwart this effort in any way he could.
My guess, not knowing how Thomas’ life panned out, is that soon after one of the paths on his flowchart panned out, and he addressed all of the variables that he couldn’t foresee as a kid, he began playing the home game system of that era. My guess is that he began regressing back to enjoying all the cartoons he informed me he hated at the time (Thomas informed me that he hated Looney Toons!). I can also guess that he started wearing tennis shoes, until he felt he reached that point of foolishness and immaturity that he missed in pursuit of the impressions he sought from adults in his youth.