Sometimes I wished that I were more insensitive so that when the social world attacked, I could just laugh it off the way I saw others do. I wouldn’t have needed my chameleon colors if I hadn’t cared so much what others thought of me. It took forty years and the fusion of many life events to create the right milieu to allow me to exploit my sensitivity but also be safe. But back when I was eleven years old and entering seventh grade, I was still incredibly vulnerable, uncertain about who I was, and needed some kind of chameleon manifestation to fit into junior high. With a new school, I had no reputation—which we called a “rep”—and I had an opportunity to create a new persona. I even managed to make some school friends, the kind you hang out with only at school, but when you try to imagine them in your home, you can’t; somehow, it doesn’t fit.
My new buddy was a rough Chicano named Ramon who thought I chose strife over peace because we talked tough to each other and assessed everyone’s rep for toughness. Between classes, he and I pretended to own the hallways. I learned the junior-high rules the way a new convict learns inmate rules. During PE, when some knucklehead nipped you with his red eye in the locker room by sliding his bare bottom down your back, you had to object and get red-eye revenge. If he had lower status, you yelled, “At the bus stop!” You couldn’t just take it; you had to fight. If you acted scared or ignored it, you’d eventually find yourself surrounded by red eyes and labeled a “pussy.” If the attacker had a status equal to yours, you called him a “fag” and then exacted payback. Adequate revenge ranged from sliding your own red eye down the back or arm of the offending boy or, if you were canny and patient enough, on his face when he did a sit-up or lay on the weight bench, or on the back of his head when he leaned over to tie his shoes. Dry nippers were with pants or underwear on. Wet nippers were bare-bottom. The equivalent of nuclear annihilation was to deliver a wet nose nipper. It meant absolute humiliation and was the most feared—and coveted. Receiving a wet-nose nipper was the coup de grace for any junior-high boy’s emerging rep; delivering one elevated a boy in the eyes of all. Of course, adults didn’t understand. Teachers said to cut out the shenanigans, which left an already transgressed-upon guy looking like a “pussy.” His only recourse would be to fight at the bus stop. It created great anxiety in me, as sensitivity often was labeled “pussy.” Once a guy was labeled a pussy, it was hard to shake—like with Blanco—as everybody except the pussy benefited by moving up in the campus hierarchy. Today, I wonder if I was the only one who obsessed over this dynamic. It consumed me, and I assumed it consumed everyone else.
Reps had nothing to do with being a good person or an intelligent person and everything to do with toughness. Out of the hundreds of boys at Jackson Junior High, I reckoned I could whip almost all of them in a fistfight. My distress arose because almost all of the boys figured that they could whup me. With campus like a prison yard, we clustered into our little gangs for safety. I was a black-skinned chameleon, glaring down any kid as long as he didn’t glare back.
The only adult around during PE was the coach, and he insisted we dress out in jocks and gray gear and then shower after class. He enforced his mandate by monitoring the shower entrance. He smacked a broken arrow against his thick thigh and whacked our slippery butts as we exited the shower. I’d never been in junior high before, so I thought red eyes and coaches lurking outside the shower with a broken arrow were normal. It was a stretch to act tough when I was skinny, nude, just sprouting peach fuzz, and hyperalert for leaping red eyes. At least my tire-tread sandals; my orange-and-red psychedelic pants; my canary-yellow, wide-collared shirt; and my leather vest with tassels were very groovy. I suppose I was an amalgam of an intimidated preadolescent wearing the threads of a hippie and acting like a convict. To say I was confused and exploring my identity would certainly be close to capturing those junior-high years.
By adolescence, I’d learned to be privately intimate but publicly wild. I’d learned to mimic extroversion, stereotypical masculinity, and insensitivity, which meant that I had adapted to my environment. See, I faked it. I faked it really well, I have to say, because I fooled many people, some of whom still believe one or the other of my former manifestations today. I played more active, gregarious roles that I thought I should play in order to be socially accepted and appear successful. But other than the varied experiences and, admittedly, occasional fun of it all, I mostly just hid my shame over what I secretly knew that I was: woefully imperfect.
Early on, males had modeled insensitivity, misogyny, and aggression for me, but they did not model anything similar to the way I felt inside. So, I kept people from knowing me intimately. I also kept people from knowing that I yearned to be known and to know others. Hiding myself reinforced my shame base; I became even more defensive, and I withdrew the way any mammal might withdraw from a noxious stimulant. I did it to minimize the pain of rejection. That’s what mammals do: they attack, flee, or sometimes freeze. This psychodynamic caused me misery over the years—albeit much of it made up in my own head, I can admit now. I’m telling you up front that I was neurotic. That meant that I was self-centered and worried a lot. I was “wired” this way, as they say. The thing was, for the most part, I liked it. It made me more thoughtful, more aware, more pressed to get stuff done, and more persistent to get to the bottom of things. But it also caused me a lot of unnecessary suffering, some of it by imagining bad outcomes and some of it due to disagreeable reactions from others who didn’t appreciate my chameleon antics and made it their business to correct me. Many times, I deserved their criticism. Sometimes, I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time—when human predators were near. Sometimes I engaged in predatory behavior myself, preferring preemptive striking to suffering unexpected attacks. Much of my behavior was self-consciously and purposefully chosen, but some of it was subconscious, and I wouldn’t become fully aware of my offensiveness and chameleon behavior until many years later. There were some victories and some regrets.
One day, Ramon wanted to pin some kid’s arms in the breezeway while I slugged him in the mouth. I did a lot of antisocial acting out back then that looked like nonconformity and aggression. Remember that Cluster B stuff? Antisocial behavior is in that cluster. I was hardly the only one acting out, though. I’m not letting myself off the hook, but to me, it seemed as if I merely joined in with what most of the other boys did, at least the boys whom I wanted to emulate, the boys who appeared higher in the social hierarchy and were thus safer and better liked.
In the breezeway that day, the poor kid’s eyes got wide, and fear came off him like halitosis. I felt pretty dang mighty and liked the feeling—but then I felt sorry for him. I knew how he felt, and I figured that I was a wuss for knowing and worse for caring. Empathy was in short supply in junior high—and it certainly was not helpful when trying to establish a tough-guy rep. When I refused to slug the kid, Ramon asked, “Hey, man, what gives, ese? I thought you liked to fight.”
I shrugged as if I were offering the kid mercy. It was bizarre to have a friend who didn’t know me, to have someone actually believe what I pretended to be. He didn’t understand that I only acted tough to better fit in with the other Chicanos and him. I’d never pulled off my tough act so well before. Still, there was something inside me that wanted to be good. I did not want to hurt other people the way I’d been hurt. I just didn’t know how to be safe unless I was tough and controlled the image that other people had of me.