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The Kiss of the Mind
It was the type of classroom to which I had become accustomed as a result of my seven years of public schooling. The yellow panels of the wooden floor were accented, by the lead paint on the walls, a hideous blue and yellow. There was no climate control; during the winters the only option for curbing the northeastern cold fronts was to turn up the furnaces all the way up. This created an ideal environment for daydreaming, a setting that I heartily took advantage of. I would look out the window at the dirty streets, and then shift my gaze to my lap, where I was hiding that week’s four-hundred page volume of non-fiction. It was Peter Maass’s Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, and I found its description of the Bosnian conflict to be much more interesting than anything I had ever done in school, much less in that sixth grade English class, to which I had stopped paying attention long ago.
Then there was the silence, and I realized that the class was staring at me. The teacher had called my name suddenly, and I had not even noticed.
“Ben,” the teacher said, smiling sickeningly. “Do you have any suggestions for our brainstorming activity?”
And then I knew where I was, when it was, what I was supposed to be doing. Another idiotic essay; state a problem, propose a solution, just like we did every year. I looked up at the chalkboard, and inwardly scowled at my classmates’ contributions: “littering,” “getting bad grades,”….
“Ethnic cleansing,” I said. The idea had been in the process of sinking from my brain to my vocal chords, and it escaped. Dead Bosnian children were a much bigger problem than any sort of bad grade, and anyway, I had never gotten anything worse than a B in my life.
The teacher gave me that look – half amused and half annoyed – that teachers had been giving me for years in response to my precociousness. I looked back calmly.
And then, Scott in the row in front of me, Scott with the whiny voice and the crooked teeth, turned around and said to me,
“Ben, do you kiss your mother with that mouth?”
The class laughed and I wanted to die. I had obviously done something wrong.
From that moment, I was sure, with certainty, that I was trapped. I was caught between the private world, where my thoughts and intellect were cherished, and the public sphere, where people mistook my intelligence for obnoxiousness, and my interests for cynicism.
My childhood began to fade that day in sixth grade, and that was only the beginning. I stopped being a child when I began to censor myself. I understood when it was and when it wasn’t to act naturally, or, in my case, blabber endlessly about Lebanese politics, or Portuguese grammar. No longer able to be myself without embarrassment, I fell silent for the first time. It was what many people called maturity, and it ran contrary to everything I had ever been taught.
I had been born silent, and they thought I was dead. The umbilical cord had, like the serpent of Eden, slithered it was way across my body and constricted my throat, where it hung like a noose. Only when the doctor had removed this necklace, could my parents breathe easily and begin to raise me in the only way they knew how.
I was the baby, the youngest of my generation. I had cousins that were old enough to be my parents. This extreme age gap caused me to curse my age; I wanted to be one of the big kids.
Eventually I saw my two older sisters go off to two prestigious colleges, and I was surrounded by stories of their wild ventures into calculus and Mexican history and German cinema. Eager for this experience, I formulated ambitious, but not unrealistic plans. I wanted to go to Yale and be a historian, the kind that was interviewed for documentaries.
I disliked fantasy and imagination; I wanted what was real, and that, for me, came in the form of history books. I read all about Yugoslavia, Richard the Lionhearted and his enemy Saladin, and the life of Italian peasants. I would rattle of my facts and dates (and even my own personal theories) to my parents, who, unable to answer, just beamed with encouragement.
“He’s only nine years old,” they would say, directing their words to me, although looking at someone else. “And he already knows as much as a graduate student.”
This, however, was the problem. I was nine years old, and fourth graders don’t study French Wars of Religion, they study cursive and Karate.
It’s not that I didn’t try. I did play soccer and I did have a Gameboy, but my parents made sure that they were only passing fads, and that I would throw them aside in favor of grander things
My friends accepted me, if only in an emotional sense. They would tease me because I was so awful when it came to videogames and baseball, to which I would respond the mantra that I had subconsciously inherited from my parents: “You can’t play Nintendo all day if you want to get in to Yale.”
But college was just a dream. My reality was the everyday boredom of my neighborhood school. Unable to bear the dullness, I divided my time between reading while the teacher spoke and saying witty things that made them forgive me with a smile. I was balancing the roles of class nerd and class clown, but doing so rather badly. I was still not happy.
Yet my parents would not let me skip a grade. Despite their pride in my uniqueness, they still had an unspoken desire for me to be “normal.” (This was ironic, because my classmates considered my abilities to be anything but.)
That day when I promised myself that I would shut my mouth for good, to keep the facts that were as embarrassing as halitosis from spilling out, my dreams started to slip from my grasp. How could I go to Yale after years of having my intellect ruthlessly stifled? My vision of the future self was one of a sad rejection, rather than an image of victorious achievement.
In the eternal debate of nature versus nature, I am tempted to point the finger at my parents for nurturing those nerdy qualities in me that were inevitably going to be picked on. It is easy to turn guilt loose on others, to say, “If you had only let me play soccer instead of the violin I wouldn’t have felt so ostracized. Yet now I understand that the way you are raised is part of your identity, that nurture becomes nature, and vise versa. I am no prouder or more ashamed of my brain or stores of useless information than I am of being right handed.
Most certainly the vow I of silence that I took in the face of Scott’s ignorance was not kept in the least. Rather, I realized that I would have to tread a very thin line, if I was to avoid being ridiculed or repressed. When I look down that line today, do I see the great ivory tower that I dreamed of as a child? The truth is that I only see the next inch, the next day, because it is dangerous for a child to yearn so terribly for adulthood.