I never really identified with Eudora Welty’s or William Faulkner’s South. And Tennessee Williams may as well have been writing about life on the planet Vulcan. My South was a much more succinct and less colorful region with three additional seasons besides the long hot summer. There were no Big Daddies or Black mammies or mint juleps or fat willow trees dripping with fermenting moss. No scandals whispered on verandahs or cats on hot tin roofs or lunatic fringe folded and tucked away in the attic.
My South wasn’t so steamy or Gothic or romantic as New Orleans or Charleston or Savannah. It was a small world composed of mostly small towns and small churches and relatively small ideas. We had our steel magnolias but they didn’t dress up like every day was Easter Sunday or launch into drawling, outrageous speeches at the drop of a hatpin. I’ve often wished for a little more of that sort of drama. I’ve wondered if it might have made things a little easier if there had been a few acknowledged eccentrics or a few bad apples on the tree. Maybe a crazy uncle or two could have taught me to throw a punch or at least to roll with one.
I was fourteen years old before I even realized that I had a regional orientation. The lessons about individual and group differences began in earnest when my father decided that God was directing him to leave the small south-central Virginia town where he’d been pastoring a Pentecostal church and to transplant the family into a mid-sized, Midwestern city within a couple of hours of Chicago. It was my first extended foray across the Mason-Dixon line, and from the first day of school I felt as though I was more or less ambushed.
When the principal at Decatur, Illinois’ Roosevelt Middle School assigned me to my class—the group of eighth-grade students with whom I would be spending seven hours a day for the next nine months, there were no warnings posted. No “Southerners Keep Out” signs outside homeroom. Picture it: 1973. A city best known for its soybean processing and Staley’s corn syrup production. A skinny, bookish fourteen-year-old boy in wire-rimmed glasses, just awakening to the hormonal surprise of same-sex attraction walks into a classroom—a few days after school has started—and is immediately hit in the back of the head with an eraser. Word spreads faster than the spitballs fly that the new kid is a hillbilly. Worse yet, “Jethro” makes straight “A’s” and can’t throw a football. No amount of prayer and fasting could have saved me.
For the first time in fourteen years I began to conceptualize hell as something more than my father’s sermons had depicted, something other than a roaring inferno awaiting the end of a wasted life. In fact hell had a dirty red brick exterior and cracked asphalt surfaces and seven deadly periods that started over again every morning five days a week. And the part about the demons? All true . They punched each other in the face and wrote obscenities on the blackboard and gave the teachers the finger. And that was just the girls.
To say the least it was an inhospitable environment for a cerebral Southern sissy—an uncivil war zone where there were no gentlemen and no ladies—and where guerilla warfare had clearly supplanted croquet as the primary pastime of the young. My eyeglasses seemed a particularly compelling target for spit wads and my introduction to the word “faggot” came in the form of barely legible penmanship on a crudely crafted paper airplane that crash landed regularly on my desk. Self-consciousness was a new phenomenon. Having basked in the benevolent glow of family and teacher approval for fourteen years, I was ill prepared for what I saw reflected in the beady, predatory eyes of this new species. They were aliens whose behavior I could not comprehend and by comparison I appeared a witless, spineless slug in a nerd mask. As I was hastily nominated “Most Likely to Get My Butt Kicked”, teachers looked on with vaguely horrified expressions on their faces.
Complicating the struggle was the fact that I was becoming increasingly aware of both mine and other boys’ bodies. Finding it nearly impossible to take my eyes off the sculpted, denim-clad behinds of my male tormentors created a conflict of interest few fourteen-year-olds are equipped to manage. The anatomy lessons were the worst, and among the several I was learning was the realization that perspiration could defy the laws of physics—that is, I could experience the effect of sweat with no discernible cause.
The discovery was made in class one afternoon: A cool, rather sudden wetness crept like a spider down my arms and sides. When I made the mistake of investigating, punishment was swift and severe.
“Hey look Jethro’s feeling his pits!” announced one of the more observant cretins in the vicinity (one whose bottom, I am happy to say, never held my eye). It was about the most titillating spectacle these paramecia had apparently ever seen, and much banter and snickering followed. All I could think to do was to sit perfectly still and wait either for my merciful death or for their limited attention spans to take effect. It was the first in a series of sweaty afternoons, but I’d at least learned to keep my hands at my side.
“Would you suck my dick for a dollar?” a much cuter delinquent whispered over my shoulder in study hall one morning. The guards let us listen to the radio and Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” was playing.
“No,” I replied indignantly. He had hair the color of white corn and long lashes and he was maturing early.
“What would you suck it for?”
“Nothing!” I said as self-righteously as any preacher.
“Okay then,” he winked triumphantly. “Go ahead.”
I still remember the burn of that dumb, you-got-me grin on my face. And his name.
Taken out of context any one of a hundred or so such incidents would have seemed like little more than youthful hijinks—kids being kids. But cumulatively, period after period, day after day, week after week, it took on the feel of cruel and unusual punishment. I was the gift that kept on giving—the ready scapegoat never more than a book or a rubber band or a rock’s throw away. I would carry my lunch and in cold weather, scan the cafeteria for the table farthest from any recognizable faces. When it was warmer outside I would find empty corners around the building where I could sink into the shadows and steal a half hour’s peace.
I’ve wondered many times since why I didn’t fight back, why I didn’t tell the little beasts to fuck off or find the nearest projectile and hurl it. The only answer I’ve come up with is that it was a clash of cultures and my limited coping style. Feeling unarmed and surrounded, I tried to make myself invisible. I would make every effort not to move, to hold my breath, hoping that if I stayed out of sight, I would be safely out of mind. In my South, even in the mid-1970’s, decorum still prevailed. Even juvenile delinquents gave lip service to the notion of respecting one’s elders. I said “Yes, ma’am” to teachers and went to church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday evening. I played the piano and my timid soul was unaccustomed to anything but unconditional approval. Good manners and good grades had pretty much provided a magic carpet ride from nursery school through seventh grade. It had never occurred to me that something as natural to me as my accent or the “A’s” on my report card or my tendency to not speak unless spoken to could give offense. No one had ever turned on me before, and I was woefully unschooled in self defense.
In spite of the trouble it caused me, however, the overachiever’s virus that had infected me years earlier continued to rage unchecked. I hid from my classmates. I cried myself to sleep. I got sick most every morning. But my grades never suffered. What’s more I never told anyone what was going on. Not my mother. Not my father. Not even my pillow. Yankee trash might have their weapons but Southern sissies have their pride. I stubbornly refused to drop my grades so much as one percentile and I remained as tightlipped as tupperware in the face of all the consequences.
Any evidence of my suffering or my nightly prayer for a return to safety surfaced only as an occasional expression of homesickness when visiting relatives back in my mother’s home town.
“If there’s such a thing as reincarnation then I want to come back as a cardinal” (the bird, not the priest), I confided to one of my aunts during a visit.
“Why a cardinal?” she asked.
“Because then I could fly South—back to Virginia (It’s the state bird).”
Years later, my South would shrink to several sizes too small. It would grow frizzy and unmanageable as a J.C. Penney perm. I would complete a long, arduous climb to be free of its humid conformity and its honeybaked intolerance and the distinct drawl that had marked me unmistakably as an outsider. But at that point in my life my South meant everything hospitable and sure. It meant a grandmother’s buttery cake biscuits and sweet potato pie and soft, wide arms; a grandfather’s sly pressing of a Kennedy half dollar in my palm. It meant aunts and uncles and cousins who spoke my language and who treated me like a gift. It was home and I wanted to go back.
I even made it into a cause, my own private confederacy that I defended in my junior high English essays and journals, arguing to indulgent teachers how the southern states had been constitutionally within their rights to secede, coveting that right as I fantasized regularly about my own secession from the hostile territory I was inhabiting. I started escaping as often as possible from the hard facts of my life into any poems or fictions I could find or create. In the imaginary world to which I retreated, I was a wistful, beleaguered belle clinging to the old days and the old ways, yearning for wide comfortable porches where I could sit surrounded by handsome young suitors—where I was not the ostracized Jethro but the resourceful and hotly pursued Miss Scarlett.
Of course, no drama with a Southern context is complete without the heroine’s inevitable breakdown. Mine arrived unannounced on a day when my mother was picking me up at school for an appointment with the orthodontist (Jethro also wore braces). It had been a traumatic morning. I had unwittingly managed to rub one of the more aggressive female fauna the wrong way. I think I may have allowed my eyes to meet hers. Whatever the offense it provoked an unrelenting verbal assault—severe even by wartime standards. When the teacher stepped out of the room, the conflict escalated, and the young she-devil moved quickly to my desk and began repeatedly slapping me in the back of the head. Even when the teacher returned the taunts continued.
I suppose a hardier soul would have disarmed the little heifer or played the good sport. I, on the other hand, had never been given permission (or perhaps, the balls) to use force, and I hated sports. I just sat there, flinching, and when I got into the car where my mother was waiting to take me to the orthodontist, I collapsed into six months’ worth of pent-up hysterical, dry heaving sobs. We drove straight home and after calming me enough to piece together the story, my mother phoned the principal’s office and in her sternest, “If I weren’t a lady” voice, delivered the message that I would not be returning to school until we’d been assured that I would never set foot in a classroom with “those hoodlums” again.
Later we learned that I had been mistakenly assigned to a class of notorious underachievers and trouble makers. There was talk of police records. I was personally escorted by the vice-principal to my new class, where I spent the remainder of our stay in the Midwest in a more civilized group of my peers, trying to pretend that the previous months had been a bad dream. I stopped having to dodge missiles. I stopped eating lunch alone. But I would often find myself following a former tormentor down the hall, my eyes focused like two tractor beams on his tantalizing behind.
Several years later I would spend my first night of quaking, adolescent passion with a lanky, red-haired boy from the Midwest. It was hardly screwing the enemy, but there was a certain closure to it nonetheless. Even now when I think of the events in my life which I regard as having truly changed it, I always seem to end up back in Illinois. Clearly I survived the initial trauma of that brief transplant, but although we returned to Virginia where we seemed to belong, the short war had taken its toll. The landscape of my South was forever altered, and the long period of my reconstruction had begun.