Son, you may remember me telling you that there are two kinds of kids in middle school: those that are miserable, and those that make them that way. I was both.
In short, that’s because nobody else had to make me miserable; I did it just fine myself. And I didn’t even wait until middle school to get started. I was making myself miserable when I was the age you are now. Yup, while the rest of the kids were busy not making me miserable, I spent 6th grade fine-tuning my neuroses, insecurities and self-defined inadequacies so that by seventh grade I would have felt bullied even if I were the only student in school.
No pressure or anything, but pretty much everything you do for the next four to eight years is destined to bring back a flood of angst-filled memories for your dad. Maybe it’s a good thing. They say that one way to deal with PTSD is to re-experience and address the traumatic situation. I’ll let you know in four to eight years if that’s the case. In the mean time, forgive me if I project a wee bit of that angst on you as I watch you navigate this stage of your life.
For example, when you said you wanted to go to the dance—your first ever—this is what I imagined:
Girls on the left; boys on the right. That’s how I remember it.
There were always people in the middle, and I envied them while at the same time I feared what would be required to actually become one. It wasn’t likely to be of my instigation if it did happen. That would mean I’d have crossed over, approached a girl, made eye contact and actually asked. That would also mean that she’d have accepted.
I could picture her—whoever she was—accepting. I could picture us out there dancing and maybe even staying on the dance floor for a slow dance. It’d be Freebird, and when the song kicked into full speed, we’d still be holding each other tightly, swaying back and forth while everybody else rocked out. That’s what the tall boys and popular girls did.
But I could also picture her pausing for a beat instead, jutting out her jaw, rolling her eyes back and tilting her head slightly askew. Then, while her friends began to giggle, she’d sucker punch me with a blow as damaging as only words and body language could deliver. “Um, yeah, right.”
That scared the bejeezus out of me. At the time, I was sure that was the most likely scenario and it wasn’t anything I was willing to risk.
But the fear didn’t end there. What if I did end up dancing with a girl? The great majority were a foot taller than me. Where would I look? The obvious—straight ahead—while probably pretty awesome, would also be pretty damn awkward. So do I look her in the eyes for 3 minutes straight? Could I manage that with such major distractions at eye level?
And what if we did slow dance? My head would be, well, you know, right there. Should my head go between them, or is it better to rest on one? Which one? If it’s her right, then I’m staring at her left, but if I put my head on her left, well then I’m stuffing my nose in her arm pit which would be weird to say the least.
Would I get aroused? Then what? At that age, just knowing girls were in the same building was enough to cause a total redistribution of blood southward of the belt.
What if she actually ended up liking me? She might have wanted to kiss. I’d never done that before. I was thrilled with the concept, but knew nothing of its implementation. I’d heard girls complaining about bad kissers and I sure as heck didn’t want to be that guy. If I got labeled as a lousy kisser in 7th grade, I might as well have gone to Catholic divinity school, which, for a Jew would be extreme, but probably my only viable option. At least I’d have an excuse for being a virgin when I died.
When a girl finally did ask me to dance, it may not surprise you to hear that I looked at my feet and mumbled, “No, thanks.” I assumed it was a dare anyway.
So 35 years later, I spent most of the time you were at the dance worrying and preparing to sit up with you most of the night, talking through your anxiety and embarrassment. I was going to tell you that’s how everyone feels at dances, that it’s normal and you shouldn’t let it get to you. Maybe you’d cry a bit and I’d assure you that you’re not a loser.
Instead, you came home happy. Happy! I asked if there was anything you wanted to talk about, any questions you had, things you needed help figuring out. You had none. Five girls asked you to dance and you danced.
My first chance to deal with my 35 year-old anxieties and you’re no help at all.
Thanks. Thanks a lot.