Near the end of second grade, my mother told me we were changing schools. This was initially met with confusion and fear. A new school, new people, forced change…many unknowns. My first day of school at St. Peter’s Catholic was one for the record books. Things were way different and there would change.
My mother sensed a change in my attitude toward school during second grade. I never confided in her about Mrs. Page’s threat but Mom noticed I no longer looked forward to school. Ultimately, we switched schools because my mom wanted me to go to the public elementary which she had attended, but we went to the Catholic school because my grandparents (my dad’s parents) wanted their grandkids to go to the best school in the town, which they determined to be St. Peters. My mom grew tired of their constant pressure and yielded to the Catholics. Why the religious school? I think because it was expensive, had uniforms, the largest campus and biggest buildings of the private schools, certainly the biggest church. There was likely a little bit of the whole religious education bit too. Pop-pop was former navy, and of the last generation to fully flower and seed (to reach maturity) under the doctrine of right and wrong—the USA way or the Highway—and St. Peter’s clearly ran a tight ship when it came to rules of dress, conduct, and all that Catholic rigmarole, so perhaps there is a connection.
At St. Peter’s, all the grades (1 thru 8) lined up on the driveway outside the main building and waited till the bell rang to signal it was time to gather around the flag pole for the morning prayer and to recite the pledge of allegiance to the federal government. At the old Baptist school we sat at our desks and did these things and the bigger schoolwide gathering outside was different enough that I remember feeling excited. I also remember being anxious; new people, new class, new school, even new clothes—a uniform of blue shorts with a red polo shirt.
Standing there reciting the pledge gave my mind time to run wild with thoughts: Why did we have to change schools? Would I have friends? Will I like my teacher? How long will we be out here? Anxiety spiked, woe to the new third grader. Then, abruptly, a bird flying high above pooped and that poop splatted directly on my hand. A big, wet, white and gray loogy of poop. My kid-self thought this was a very, very, bad sign. I discreetly brushed the poop off into the grass with the edge of my backpack strap and stared straight ahead. The last thing I wanted was to be known as the bird-poop boy. Oh brother, right? Fortunately, no one ever knew. Nowadays, I view that bird pooping as Good Medicine. That bird was saving me from self-destructive thoughts. What better way to jolt an eight-year old out of self-destructive thoughts then to poop on his hand during the Pledge of Allegiance?
We made it into the classroom without further excitement and I sat down at my new desk. My newly sharpened pencil was glittering and a bit of excitement for the day crept back in. We all did introductions, I think there were three other new kids, but everyone else had been together since at least first grade. There was certainly some self-doubt that I would fit in but I remember feeling that everything was turning out just fine and had mostly forgotten about the bird poop bomb.
Early in the day, Mrs. Paiva called me up to her desk, she was calling each kid to her desk so I carefully placed my pencil in the groove at the front of desk before standing up. Once standing, it was suddenly quite intimidating to walk to her desk, I was instantly anxious about it. What it is about walking up to the teacher’s desk that feels so scary? Being up there, in front? Everyone is looking at you. I could trace the gaze of thirty other kids on my back. At third grade, I was already preconditioned to cultivate a false image and the pressure of it was astonishing. How do we help kids deal with this? Anyway, I liked Mrs. Paiva. She had good energy and was able to calm your nerves with a simple smile. A feeling that she would take care of me warmed me right up. But when I got back to my desk, my pencil was gone and the kids who sat around my desk were snickering. Great… I looked around and suspected it was the blond kid sitting next to my right, Jose. At a complete loss of what to do, I raised my hand and informed Mrs. Paiva that my pencil was missing from my desk. Jose quickly handed it over with a chuckle and informed everyone that he found it on the floor after it rolled off my desk. Sure Jose. Anyway, I decided to forget it and soon enough we would become friends. To put it bluntly, I wanted to be friends with him so he wouldn’t have a reason to pick on me.
That day I also became friends with Jeffrey. Now that I think about it, he was the most non-white kid in my class. Jeffrey was half Trinidadian and half white but he was just as dark-skinned as his dad. Something clicked between me and him. We became best friends. Throughout our friendship, I knew I could always count on him.
There were a few other boys in my class that I considered friends, though the only houses I ever slept over at were Jose’s and Jeffrey’s, but the best friend I’ve ever known is my younger brother. Good ol’ Richie was born 15 months after me and there is hardly a memory that does not feature his blond shaggy head and massive grin. We didn’t live in a neighborhood so we were each other’s only playmates. We grew up together. Though Richie and I were inseparable at home, at school we barely talked. It is easy to catch myself in a regret mood about this schoolyard separation and why regret that I believed it was uncool to talk to your siblings at school. In elementary school I was highly fearful of any reasons for people to pick on me and I was convinced that hanging out with my younger brother was ammunition. Furthermore, on some level I was envious of Richie’s outgoing personality and the ease with which he navigated school’s social groups. Richie always seemed so happy after school when we waited for our mom to pick us up. He was always engaged in conversation and was always the last of the three kids to get into the car. Meanwhile, I was always waiting silently and carefully watching for mom’s car to appear. Mom noticed these things.
St. Peters presented new challenges for social navigation. The new school was larger and more kids ate lunch together which meant more kids took recess together. This meant there was more opportunity for kids to bully others. One of my new friends, Michael, was constantly being bullied around. One day during lunch, I was doing my usual thing where I stood alone, not really talking to anyone, but observing everyone, when I noticed Michael being bullied by another boy in our class. This boy liked to prove how tough he was. Michael looked upset. He was being shoved around. I could feel his fear and I could feel the other boy’s thrill. I also noticed that the single recess referee was oblivious and I felt that it was up to me to stop it. So I started running. While I ran, I felt myself give in to the feeling of revenge. I felt myself run faster. I felt kids watching me. I felt the playground monitor, Mrs. P, notice my movement. No doubt she felt my intense energy. At the last moment, I leapt into the air and pulled my right leg up so that my right knee would impact with the boy’s left thigh. We crashed to the ground in a tangle of limbs. He was crying. I was fighting back tears. Michael looked alarmed. Mrs. P wasn’t pleased. We were taken straight to the principal’s office where I explained that I did what I did because I didn’t believe the adults would intervene. That the adults never stop bullies. She said this was unacceptable behavior and that I must trust that the teachers know better than me. It was clear that the Principal was caught off guard by my comments and she reacted defensively—her tone was defiant and I left without feeling circumstances would positively change.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that I was usually more excited about seeing my dogs stretched out under the Live Oak tree back home then was for lunch recess. Sometime around 4th or 5th grade, my mom asked if I wanted to learn how to ride horses. Nowadays she explains that she wanted me to have a passion and was hoping it would give me something to look forward too—Mom was worried that I wasn’t stoked on school. She knew I preferred the company of animals to people. In fact, mom recently told me that it was common for me to get all worked up over another person’s actions if I deemed them “not right”. Probably why I preferred playing with the dogs. My first horse friends were Aunt Anna’s horses, Rhythm and Dancer. ‘Twas love at first sight. It was instantly clear that I could relate to horses and they to me. It was intuitive. I trusted them and they trusted me. When mom saw this, she took me to the stable down the road where they taught me to groom the horses and how to ride. My cousin Ashley started riding too and before long her dad built a barn and bought two horses, Blaze and Dixie, and 10 or so black angus cows. Uncle OJ was incredibly generous with his horses and barn; I remember being thrilled when he asked if I wanted to ride with him and his daughters to go buy the animals. I think that was one of the first trips I took with Uncle OJ, but there would be many more. It was soon time for a bigger stable and mom, always ready to support me and not entirely fond of the stable managers, started driving me once a week to a stable that was at least ninety minutes away. It was called Affinity Farms. Mom said they did competitions and that there would be more horses I could ride—though she knew by then I wanted my own horse friend. I remember being nervous. New people did that to me. But oh the Horses. And the Barn! Huge! And so many horses. I wanted to ride there!
Which brings me to an interesting tid bit about that first visit to Affinity Farms. Richie came along, and I guess Kayla did too. Riche and me enjoy a special relationship. We always played together but we also loved to antagonize each other. He nor I, ever tired of discovering new ways to get under each other’s skin. We were walking along through the center corridor of the barn, stalls lining both sides, when I came across an open stall. I just had to walk in and examine everything. This was the moment Richie was waiting for. No sooner did I reach the center of the stall when the door slammed shut behind me. A clink of metal and high pitched laughter told me that it was now locked. I spun around and demanded that he unlock it. He did not. Instead he laughed. I started to get mad. This was not the time! This wasn’t funny, I yelled. Richie laughed again. I stepped back to consider my options. There was no way Richie would let me out. I’d have to find my own way out, which meant climbing up and over the ten foot tall fence that separated the two of us. Luckily, the boards were spaced about two inches apart, tight, but plenty of space for my kid-sized fingers and shoes. A smile bloomed on my lips as I walked towards the fence where Richie was standing and still laughing. I felt victorious. Richie looked worried. Yet, I clearly underestimated his resourcefulness. The second my fingers reached out to grab the boards, Richie’s hand reached out and grabbed a leather riding crop that was leaning against the fence. Oh yes he did. Dear Richie began lashing out at my fingers with that crop. It hurt but there was no turning back now. I was going to do whatever it took to get over that fence and who knows what I would do when I caught up to Richie. When Richie realized I wasn’t going to give in to the finger whipping, he dropped that crop and ran right out the barn to where Mom was talking to the owner. Revenge would wait.
This was our childhood pattern. One of us always ran to mom. There was only one occasion where the battle didn’t stop at home base, aka mom.
That time we were in high school, Riche was in 11th grade, me in 12th. A year earlier, our dad introduced us to a game called paintball. It was the new craze. Everyone wanted to play paintball. You ran around and shot each other. Often, the balls traveled hundreds of feet per second and left bruises. We loved it. It was terrifying and thrilling. The adrenaline rushes were incredibly addictive. Sneaking around. Crawling on your belly through the woods, fully aware that at any point the world around you could explode into a fury of paintballs. Knowing that at any moment you could sneak up on someone and put a single paint ball square into their back. We were playing war and we were completely unaware of the harm this game was inflicting on our psyche and nervous systems.
Every weekend was paintball. Me, Richie, dad, CJ (our grandpa), John, Rob, and Uncle Scott were the main crew but others would come and go. Our course was giant dirt hill left over from the pond Uncle Scott dug out. There were bunkers dug into the top, barriers to hide behind, old barrels or pieces of fence. All of us were addicted to it. But tempers would flare. This was war, remember? Or was it a game?
Anyway, Richie and I were the main instigators and energy behind the course, whether or not we had company. Just the two of us would go out there and entertain ourselves. If we had money for paintballs, then great, but if not, we threw compacted balls of dirt. It was while playing dirt bomb wars that the home base rule was broken. I was standing atop the dirt hill, which was at least ten feet tall with steep sides, maybe 85 degrees. Richie stood beneath me at grass level. I Found a big one. It took two hands and a over head throw to launch this sucker. He turned to run but it was too late. The dirt bomb connected wit his right calf and he face planted into the earth. Something told me to run. So I ran. I sprinted the entire way home. Well aware of the boiling rage that was consuming my brother. Mom was my only chance. I stood behind her, clutching at her waist, smiling victorious. Then I saw the paintball gun in his hands. Mom yelled in surprise. Richie fired two shots. One exploded on my shirt and the other missed. Mom was pissed. This is also an example of the damage paintball caused to our psyche. I was willing to hide behind my mom, knowing that there was a good chance she would be shot by a paintball, and Richie was willing to hit her to get to me. Paintball was glorifying reactive aggression at the expense of active compassion.
There was, however, a precedent to paintball. Before we had guns, we had go karts and sour orange trees. This game was simple. If you were driving a go kart, your objective was to avoid being hit by oranges thrown by whomever was on foot, whose objective was to throw oranges at whomever drove a go kart. This was often very painful and nearly always resulted in shouting matches and heated tempers—exactly like paintball. Once, I hit my brother in the groin and he responded by attempting to run me over. Only a last second vertical leap saved me from being mortally wounded, if not killed. You’d think this was a warning we’d heed, but no authority figures in our lives we prepared to teach mindfulness in the face of society’s unrelenting pressure to shoot first and ask questions later. Mom would tell us not to play orange wars, and she didn’t like paintball either. But Dad liked paintball. And Mom was losing out to the strength of a corrupt USA culture which celebrated violence. Many of the moments in which I threw an orange were imbued with the angst and frustration, the sense of separation, which came from school. This is a pattern which existed during the dodge ball and war ball games on the playground. These were the few group games I actively sought to participate in. In dodge ball, one person stood within a circle of 10-15 throwers—I liked being the dodger because it was truly satisfying to avoid the balls. It felt like I was avoiding bullies. War ball was different. There were two teams of around 20 kids facing each other across a dividing line. Nearly everyone looked at war ball as a way to inflict pain. It speaks volumes of the intense popularity of these two games at my school. War ball in particular, was perhaps the most widely favored group game on the playground. At our school, we used basketballs and there was at least one occasion where a boy’s head was split open. Everyone knew it was no accident. The boy, Jose, who kicked the ball was intending to hurt to other and kicked it with his full strength. He feigned innocence and though war ball was suspended, it soon returned. Tempers would flair during these games. Just like paintball and orange wars.
Mind you, all this was occurring at a private Catholic Preparatory school, with mandatory religion classes and weekly church-service. Amazingly, the kids who most often bullied others were also the kids who wanted to be altar servers. Granted we were all encouraged to participate in Mass, from ushers, to choir, to reading, to serving, but the altar server jobs were highly prized and the popular/bully kids would hold grudges against anyone if they thought you were encroaching on their turf.
Mom says I immediately joined the choir when we started at St. Peters School. She says I was excited to sing and that it was clear I loved it. I struggled for years to pull any memories of this. It was if a black shadow enveloped all images of the choir section. It was only during the writing of this book that I remembered yes, I did love singing in the choir. Singing felt good. But it wasn’t cool to sing in the choir and those kids who did sing were made fun. Those kids did their best to rob the choir of the joy and I soon succumbed to the pressure.
Strangely, it was cool to be an altar server and because I so desperately wanted people to like me, which I now take to mean treated as an equal, I asked about serving. Nope, you have to be a Catholic. Episcopalians cannot be an altar server in a Catholic church. This was in 5th grade, also the age that kids could choose to convert to Catholicism. So I pondered this for awhile. Should I convert so I could participate in Mass and be one of those altar servers? Will people like me then? If I’m up there in the corner behind the altar, up there with the popular kids, would I then be popular too? During my deliberations, I remembered that non-Catholics have to pay significantly more in tuition. If I converted, my parents wouldn’t have to pay so much. This appealed to me. I knew that God was God, no matter the church, and I felt it was wrong to force people to pay more just ‘cause they go to different church. If I converted, then I could be an altar server, and save my parents some money. A win win. I converted, though I told the priest it was because I agreed that Catholicism was better than Episcopalian—I figured he wouldn’t agree with my money saving tactics. Afterwards, a little voice in my consciousness was questioning the attitude of the priest when he asked why I wanted to convert. It felt a bit like I was being accused of subversion. This set off a chain reaction that led me to notice all the other times, mostly in the mandatory religion classes, that the Catholic religion seemed…off. For example, during a discussion on other religions—such as Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism—the teacher made a declaration that even though these other people mean well and claim to believe in God, they’re mistaken and not true Christians. This felt cruel. If God is God, how can she say that other religions are wrong? Or that they’re not as true as Catholicism? I was slowly becoming aware that something was weird about religion. But that didn’t stop me from looking forward to middle school when I could altar serve and sit up there with the popular kids.
Wanting to altar serve coincided with choosing to quit riding. Yes, riding was amazing. I loved every minute of it and was nearly always begging for more and longer lessons. Soon I was begging to go straight from school to the barn, no going home first. The friendship, the partnership, that I experienced with the horses was incredibly energizing and calming all at once. Then one day I decided to change into my riding clothes after school—so excited was I to ride. Because I rode English, my pants were tight like yoga pants and my boots were actually women’s and sported a bit of leather lacey-fringe. You might guess that it never occurred to me that kids would point and make fun of me for my outfit. My fragile ego buckled. Despite those verbal attacks, my passion for riding held strong, right up till an announcer in a dressage competition mistook me for a girl. The combination of schoolyard peers rejecting me for riding and the announcer’s mistake sapped the last bit of self-confidence and I abruptly told mom that I no longer wanted to ride at Affinity.
Mom tried hard to support me. When Aunt Kay asked if I would like to have Caliber, mom said Yes! Caliber and I enjoyed an amazingly strong soul connection. Early in our relationship, before he was officially “my” horse, Caliber was attacked by one of OJ’s dogs. The dog left foot long gashes in his hide—it looked like Caliber was attacked by a panther. It was as if a magnet was pulling me to spend time with him. I was out there all the time speaking with him. Our bond was deep. At one point who moved him out to my Aunt Anna’s barn where I’d visit every morning before school to feed him. So strong in fact that neither my mom nor I were inclined to “Break” him. The only horse trainers we knew, trained rather roughly. Their methods were one of domination and not compassion. The word commonly used to train a horse was “Breaking in”. That speaks enough of the methods we were exposed to. We did invite one lady out who tried but failed to get through to him. We eventually sold him. We simply didn’t know how to handle two-year-old stallion. Afterwards, I went into a bit of a depression. What I find fascinating is that it wasn’t till I wrote this paragraph and my mother commented on it, that I was able to dig up more complete memories of this era. For example, in the first version I did not remember that Caliber first belonged to OJ. I did not even remember his time at my Aunts. Once my mom reminded me, or corrected me, images began to trickle in. Was I blocking these memories?
The first time I lied to a teacher was caused by my intense desire to do anything to be liked by these popular kids. In seventh grade end we took a field trip, to celebrate the closing school year, to Sea World Orlando. I was extra excited for this trip because my mom would be chaperoning—surprising? Mom was always a safe zone for me. She understands me better than anyone and during middle school, even though I often pretended to be annoyed by her care and curiosity into my life, I secretly yearned for her daily question—how was school today? Also, a lot of my classmates really liked my mom, so I would be sort of popular that day. The day was going great till the last hour or so when myself and four of the popular kids asked if we could go on one more ride. We promised to be at the exit gate by the agreed departure time. Our teacher was not inclined to let us wander the park solo, but because I—the good student—was with the four others, she relented. After the ride however, the others wanted to explore the nearby playground. There, we saw a child crying. The five of us went over to him and learned he couldn’t find his father. While we were talking to him, his dad found him and thanked us for trying to console his boy. I checked my watch and saw we would have just enough time to make it back to the gate but my friends had a different plan. They declared we would all be going to take one last look at Shamu, on the other side of the park and far from the exit. “Don’t you want to hang with us?” They inquired of me, not so lovingly. “We can’t go unless you come too, and besides, it’s not cool to rat us out.”
One of the girls, a daughter of another teacher at our school, told us we would all need to agree on a story. She said we would be questioned, probably individually, and we would have to all say the same thing or we would all be in trouble. Our story was that we spent the entire time helping the little boy find his dad. Apparently, the others sensed my discomfort at lying and in unison they stopped walking and turned toward me. They pressured me into agreeing to tell the lie. Mostly they feigned we’re all old friends and suckered me right into their sticky web.
We were an hour late to the exit. Our teacher was not impressed. My mom was not either. When I was questioned, when I lied, I felt terrible. It felt like I was being cut open from my heart to my gut. I was anxious. Terrified. But I also wanted the others to like me. The teacher believed us, but only because she did not think I was capable of lying. My mother knew though. She knew I lied. I couldn’t bear to lie to her, so later that night I told her the truth. That was also the last seventh grade field trip to Sea World. Richie complained that I ruined all the fun for his future seventh grade experience.
This begs a discussion on what it means to be popular, at least in my childhood. When I pause to consider the most common traits shared by the most popular kids throughout elementary to high school…it is a truly depressing list. The most popular kids were often the ones who spoke the most. Not necessarily via answering teacher-posed questions during class, quite the opposite, those kids were often not popular, but rather the kids who spoke the most when the teacher was speaking or when it was clear that we were not to talk. They also fostered an air of superiority. Constantly commenting on the dress of others—since we wore uniforms, it was mostly on the style of someone’s shoes or how new the uniform clothing was. The fashion sense of a haircut. They were also the most likely to bully another. This bullying was most often in the form of condescending chatter and the incredibly painful, effective method of pointing and laughing. The top criteria for the most popular kids was the willingness of the student to laugh or mock the teacher—in front of the teacher and with the teacher fully aware of the action. Once, the majority of my eighth grade class openly mocked the music teacher until the gentleman broke down and cried. I clearly remember a feeling of intense shame, embarrassment, and fear as he exited the room. That was only five minutes into class. The rest of us so-called unpopular kids were the ones who intuitively felt that it was deeply wrong to bully others, that it was disrespectful to speak while the teacher was talking, and that it was mean to mock a teacher. Unfortunately, most of us were also afraid that if we spoke up to protect each other, we would become the focus of the negative attention. This specter was often sufficient to quiet us down and accept the cruelty—especially after I was disciplined on the playground for knocking the bully to the ground. A few times, I tried to intervene verbally, but cowered once I became the focus of attention. Fear won out.
There was one moment, in 8th grade, in which I gave in to the evil voice and laughed along with everyone else as the regular bullies were verbally harassing one of our classmates. This moment haunted me for years afterwards. There was boy in my class with only one lung. He seemed to have a few other minor physical ailments but he was also one of the brightest students in the school and always held a joke at the ready. There was rarely a day that someone did not point and laugh at him. I liked Sam. He was only ever friendly, never did he speak ill of anyone. He was incredibly outgoing and amazingly creative. He was quick to laugh and he laughed good and hard and when he laughed he nearly always broke into a wheezing cough which turned his face bright red. The popular kids zeroed in on him. This harassment was a constant in Sam’s school life from at least third grade, when I joined the class, through eighth grade. Publicly, Sam held up well, till one day at the lunch table. All I remember was that someone started poking fun at Sam for being “sick”. Soon, nearly everyone was laughing and pointing at him. At some point, caught up in the furor, and wanting to be popular, I found myself laughing. Sam was in tears. Suddenly, his mom appeared behind him (she was cooking lunch for us that day). She was crying, but she managed to unleash a punishing lecture on cruelty to our class that sent my gut into twists and left me feeling dirty. I am grateful for her efforts to make us feel the way her son felt. That feeling has stuck with me ever since as a reminder of the perils of wanting to be liked.
wanting to be liked is wanting to be an image. let go of the image and be who you are.
This brings me to piano. My mom encouraged me to play piano. It was pretty awesome. You push these keys in and beautiful sounds fill the air. I displayed a keen interest in learning how to play. Mom started finding me piano teachers. One of these teachers told me it was time to play a recital. Just me and a piano in big auditorium with stadium style seating. Though I played plenty of church tunes, especially Christmas songs, I picked a very simple piece out of my instruction book. The teacher stressed the importance of memorizing the piece. During the recital, I forgot the ending and, in a flash, made up my own. It felt really good, yet I was worried people would know. Mom said no one could tell. The teacher told me to practice harder. I quit taking lessons soon after. Was there a battle of images at play here? The idea that you have to stick to the prescribed tune versus improvising? Clearly, it was ok that I made up my own ending, especially since I forgot the original, so why was I worried. In my mind, I failed. The stress surrounding the possibly of future recitals—and future so-called failures—became the focal point for distancing myself from playing piano. It was a distance that took around 15 years to come back ‘round to when I lived with a classical guitarist who rekindled my love of playing music. Nowadays, I play the flute and exclusively improvise. I’m simply not interested in reading someone else’s music when it comes to expressing myself through the flute. When I play the flute, I feel in synch with myself and with the cosmos.
Yogi Bhajan said that there is only one you in existence. In all of creation, in all the billions of universes, there is only one you. Yet, if you spend your life on Earth not being you—mirroring images and pretending to be what you are not—then when you Die, it is as if you never existed.
This message certainly brings forth fresh realizations that my early school years—maybe even all my school years—were spent chasing images and living in fear of expressing myself—fear that myself was not an approved image. I’m not saying every moment whilst at school, but many of them. Because if you are afraid to raise your hand in class because you don’t want to be see as a know-it-all, so you never raise your hand, were you ever in class? I’m inclined to say no, you weren’t there. Fortunately, home was a safe place where I felt comfortable to be me. School though was a constant struggle. This means that for most of my early life I did not even exist. Think I am being dramatic? I often kept to myself and shied from speaking with people because I feared being judged for saying something not cool, or simply not knowing what would happen. I quit riding horses, an activity that I deeply loved, because I feared being judged. I quit the choir. I quit piano. And as you shall see in the next chapter, these images affected my involvement in sports.
in which case, let us lose all which is not truly ours, and let what is thine shine forth.