“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 was made to feel like a second-class citizen in them, before I knew what a second-class citizen was. His question was framed 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: There was something I had missed out in this whole definition of the pre-teen years, and in the preparation for the life beyond.
This kid’s confidence was difficult to mirror, and I didn’t. I was not prepared for this onslaught. Had I been better prepared 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’d never given much consideration to preferences.
“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 wore, 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.
More assessments of my identity would be made throughout the evening, and like the challenge regarding my preference for tennis shoes, they would be all wrapped up in condemnations. It wouldn’t be the first time that my identity would be challenged, nor would it be the last, but this kid did a masterful job of placing me in a state of flux. Thomas was on the attack. As soon as I formulated some half-hearted answer to a question I had never been asked before, 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 him, 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 had never met a kid that preferred to speak to adults. This kid did. He gave the impression that adults were more his speed. There was nothing special about the adults that happened to be my parents. They weren’t the type 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. It was impressive in a cute way that suggested that his whole life had been geared toward getting 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 all the more. Until, that is, he commented on my hairdo.
“That bangs thang isn’t working for you anymore,” he said after his mother all but shoved him out of the room of adults, so adults could talk. There were no adults around when he said that. He was the first boy I recalled meeting that had a hairdo. As I said, he was one year older than me, and I wondered if this kid was emblematic of what I’d be facing in a year. He also had a girlfriend.
The girlfriend thang damaged the whole profile I had been building on him. I had been planning to tell all my friends about him, so we could laugh at this kid, and they could bolster my belief that this kid was the aberration I thought he was. I knew the girlfriend thang would damage that presentation, for in the pre-teen world, having a girlfriend nullifies all prior 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. She was to be considered 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. Her 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 one. He cherished her, a fact made evident by the central location he placed them in on his dresser, in his otherwise impeccably clean bedroom.
“She must really have it bad for you,” I said, looking at the size of that stack of letters.
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 his plans 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, a smile my Great Aunt Mary Louise would’ve considered sweet. He talked about the fact that he wanted her to be his wife one day. He said that most of his letters had 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 from me, he informed me that he would be just as happy with one kiss from her.
He had a deeper voice that he reserved for conversations with adults, a voice I presumed was an affectation he had 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 he did not want to play with his Atari 2600. He said I could if I wanted, but that invitation was followed by a glance that suggested that I shouldn’t be so reliant on it for my entertainment purposes.
Thomas was such a violation of everything I held dear that I couldn’t tell if he did have something that I had missed out on, 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 in my class however. He basically stated that he thought it sucked to be a kid.
Kids I knew hated being 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 that he was considered 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 kid’s I met that I could not find anything in common with, and he appeared to fight my attempts to do so. I was a kid, of course, and as such I was vulnerable to being slapped 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 paths on his flowchart panned out, but we spent most of that evening discussing how much Thomas had going on, and how much I’d missed out on by being such a kid. 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 syndrome. My guess is that the reason the two of us focused on how much I missed out on was, in part, a deflection he had developed to prevent the rest of us from focusing in on how much he had missed out on. My guess is that that deflection was developed, over the years, to adjust to the fact that he didn’t have siblings, didn’t play well with other children, and he was mystified by our ability to make friends with such comparative ease. I think the frustration that resulted from 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 in which it’s acceptable to be foolish. My guess is that he ended up getting so wrapped up in his solitude that he forced others out by greeting them with a condemnation before they could condemn him. My guess is that I was the reason that our family was invited over to their house, based on the need Thomas’ parents thought Thomas had for another kid to teach him there was another way of conducting one’s self as a child, a way other than the one his parents had taught him too successfully. 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 time, he began regressing back to enjoying all the cartoons he had hated at the time (the kid informed me that he hated Looney Toons!) and he started wearing tennis shoes, until he felt he reached that point of foolishness and immaturity that he missed out on in pursuit of the impressions he sought from the adults that defined his youth.