I wasn't a popular kid. Nor was I an unpopular kid. To most of my peers, I was a complete non-entity. The only people who seemed to notice me were the bullies - they knew an easy mark when they saw one. Whether I was shy and quiet because I was constantly picked on, or I was constantly picked on because I was shy and quiet, I don't know. All I do know is that I kept to myself and had no real friends.
Until 5th grade, that is.
The year was 1976. It started out like any other year, and held no promise that things might improve from there. The better part of the year was spent playing alone with my GI Joe's (with King Fu grip!!) or Matchbox cars or Army men, or battling imaginary Commanches/Nazis with my imaginary cowboy/Army-men friends. What few highlights (birthdays, visits with my nephew, trips to my grand-father's house, etc.) the year held were fairly similar in shape, size, and excitement level as those of any previous year.
As summer faded into the oblivion of my memory and the new school year began, I faced the same old prospects: interacting daily with the kids I knew, but who were no more than acquaintances, and being tormented daily by the bullies. I can't say that I approached the new school year with a sense of dread, especially since I recall little of my expectations from the time; but I can safely say that I approached it with little hope or joy.
This was the 5th grade, and it was to be different from the grades before: Now, instead of being in the main school building with the rest of the kids, we were in "The Relocatables." I guess at some point the school's population had outgrown the main building. As a result, a small camp of outbuildings, the size and appearance of double-wide trailers (only with more windows) had been erected adjacent to the main building. IIRC, there were four of them; they each housed two classrooms - and the 5th and 6th grade classes.
Being in The Relocatables was a rite of passage at Memorial Park school. It was where the oldest kids in the school were (7th grade and up went to the high school), and for the last four years of my life, it's where most of my playground atagonists returned after the recess bell rang. Now I was a Relocatable kid, and only a 6th grade-worth of bullies (a precious small sampling, thankfully) remained at the school to cause me grief. But still I was a pariah.
I recognized most of the faces in my classes, kids I'd known for half of my life: Carl, Stacy, Michelle, Kenny, Jeff, Jane, Wayne, Benny, Tim, Brian, Terry, Tanya, Bob, etc. The usual suspects.
But this year there was a new face in the crowd.
He was a tall kid (well, taller than me, FWIW), quiet, and pretty much kept to himself. We didn't talk to each other, even though he sat in the desk in front of me in English class. I think we saw each other every weekday for several weeks without saying a word to each other. (It may be less - the distance of the memory has made the passage of time that year hard to determine.)
Then, one day, I noticed that he was scribbling on his paper while the teacher was doing something at the chalk board. I glanced over his shoulder, and saw that he was drawing on his paper - drawing cool stick-figure men shooting at one another in some sort of running gun battle in an underground complex. It was similar to drawings I'd been scribbling in solitude for years, but his stick men had triangular bodies, and were waaaay more awesome than my own poorly proportioned mutant stick men.
"That's cool!" I told him, in a hushed but enthused tone.
We then proceeded to have a quiet conversation about the finer points of drawing stick men having running gun battles in underground complexes. I believe we may have gotten "shushed" by the teacher and forced to return to our school duties, but it didn't matter.
I'd just met Brian Z. - who would be my best friend for the next six years.
Later: Growing Up Geeky - Part II: The Early Years
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