My best friend throughout elementary and middle school was this dorky, chubby Eastern European kid with gigantic cowlicks in his hair. I thought he was the coolest person ever, and I couldn’t imagine anyone I would rather spend time with. Let’s call him Phil.
In second grade, I had trouble making friends. I remember being outgoing, but unable to communicate effectively with my classmates. My accent was very thick back then, and children rarely had the patience to parse my slurred and broken speech. I had my few friends, but I was regularly picked on by some of the popular kids. I became an introvert by necessity, satisfying my need for adventure with internal fantasy. I could stand on a manhole and pretend it was a portal to Disney Land, or I could convince myself that I was an alien with super powers. Though I often found myself alone, I was never lonely.
Still, when my second grade teacher introduced Phil to the class, I decided immediately that we would be friends. He sat close to me, and I ingratiated myself quickly. I hoped to keep him away from the cool kids, who would certainly turn him against me. Somehow, I was successful. We soon exchanged home phone numbers. Playdates were arranged. It was the beginning of something beautiful.
We were nearly the same person. We were both awkward and un-athletic in our own ways. We both lived in immigrant families. We loved fantasy and videogames, and neither of us cared very much, at first, about being accepted by the popular kids. He introduced me to Diablo, and I told him about Ocarina of Time. We ran around the schoolyard making airplane noises, embarrassing ourselves completely. We talked endlessly about Half Life, Halo, archery and magic.
Importantly, we totally believed in magic. I’m not sure either of us truly thought such a thing existed, especially since his family was Christian, but when we were alone together we acted as though magic could be found around any corner. It was an extensive game of pretend, and we never mentioned it to our mutual friends.
So of course I had to go and ruin our fun. By middle school, I began to concern myself with being accepted in larger social circles. I didn’t know how to start, so I stumbled blindly and selfishly through these situations. I tried to make people laugh, often at the expense of others. I found that I could be cruel to those few children lower in the popularity chain-of-command, and make myself feel and appear slightly cooler. I was a sycophant to the real cool kids, and bully to those truly outcast. I wasn’t very good at any of it.
One afternoon in class, my friends were sitting around a table doing some group work. Phil was there. I saw an opportunity to prove to others that I was a worthwhile person. With no iota of grace, I spouted loudly that Phil believed in magic, and that I had only been humoring him for years. I treated it, briefly, as a sort of expose, the outing of an official. Our friends were silent for a moment, but quickly moved on, as if they were only embarrassed for me. I believe and hope that it was quickly forgotten about. It wasn’t quite the stupidest thing any of us had done for attention before: our red headed friend would always insist that he was Japanese.
But I remember the shame I felt, distinctly and immediately. I remember Phil’s silence, and I remember that I didn’t see him much after that. I am, still, so sorry for what I did. For me, it was a formative experience. Slow as treacle, I eventually learned (and continue to learn) how to treat friends.
Oh, I’m currently listening to Brian Wilson’s wonderful SMiLE.