When my siblings and I moved from the slummy parts of Lewiston, here in Maine to a middle-class trailer park in Exeter, New Hampshire, it was the early 1990’s and we didn’t realize at the time how tough things would be for us when we arrived. We were excited and at the same time terrified to be leaving our home of all those years. We knew the streets, we knew the people. New Hampshire sounded so fancy to my ears when I said it out loud. I would often say it with an English accent, or at least as much of one as I could muster. “Nyew Hamp-sheer,” I would say, holding up a cup of imaginary tea and slurping it loudly.
As the days drew nearer to the time we’d officially be moving, I started to grow increasingly hesitant about moving there. I remember one of the nights before we moved, I was angrily discussing with my younger sister Monika and my brother Gary how it sucked that we had to move so far away from our home and leave everything behind, and to a state we’d never lived in before on top of that. Any other time we’d moved it had always been to another location in the same city – a different street in the same town. This was going to be in an entirely new state, with a school we’d never been in and kids we wouldn’t understand.
I was probably eleven years old at the time, and as we discussed this, I practiced what I thought was karate (which was really just me striking the empty air with my bony arms and legs, trying to look like I meant business) as I said “Well, I’m not gonna’ give those other kids there a chance. It’s so stupid.” This mental push-back, of course, came from fears that I would not be accepted in this new place we’d be living with our soon-to-be stepfather, Richard. I could imagine a scenario in which we arrived and a mob formed to push us back to Maine. Get out of our state, they would shout, pitchforks in hand.
I eventually calmed down enough to sleep that night, and a few nights later we eventually made the move during the early morning hours. I fell asleep off and on, as I usually did, on the way there. I can still remember the anxiety coursing through my chest interspersed with snippets of time where I would nod off. Two hours was a long drive for an eleven year old kid. The air coming in through the cracks in the door was a soothing balm. As we passed over the giant green Penobscot River Bridge, I thought This is my new home. Please don’t suck.
Things started out slow enough. We all even thought that things might be good. Maybe it was just Lewiston where you could get into a fight just by being on the wrong side of the street. However, after the first couple of days went by, I discovered that I’d been much too optimistic.
I became the target of ridicule. I can recall staring at a pretty girl. She was probably the prettiest girl I’d ever seen in my entire life. Her hair was golden and curled, her eyes shadowed with makeup. She had a mole above her lip like Marilyn Monroe. Her lips were full and drawn up on one side in an impish way. She sat a few seats ahead of me in class, and I couldn’t help myself.
She saw me staring.
She came to sit next to me.
My heart did leaps inside my chest.
“Do you like me?” She asked. Another boy, much more presentable than myself, started chuckling next to her. They made eye contact. I was a rube, then. I didn’t know at that moment they were openly ridiculing me but I figured all that out later. It happened to me many more times during my school life. But those early times? It was a more sophisticated type of bullying than I was used to. A kid named Greg used to punch me in the stomach every day, but I at least understood the mechanics of that type of bullying. This, I was clueless about.
“No,” I said, quietly, opening a book and furrowing my brow. I cleared my throat and pretended to keep reading. It was a math book. My heart may as well have been a jackhammer.
“Why were you staring at me, then? I just saw you. You were practically drooling.”
“I wasn’t,” I lied. My voice cracked. “I was daydreaming. I didn’t mean to stare.”
“I think he wants you,” said the much more presentable boy. She grinned back at him, already knowing this. They laughed, knowing that this dirty kid from Maine, who was one year behind everyone physically, was out of her league.
This game went on for a while. I eventually hated her for it. She was beautiful on the outside, but void of humanity and beauty on the inside. Or at least that’s the conclusion I came to at the time.
Being from Lewiston and having been poor, and not having decent care from our single mother…we were sort of a ragtag group of children. We didn’t think anything was wrong with us back then, but looking back, I looked sickly, bony and pale and my hair clung to my head with my natural oils on my unwashed scalp. Our clothes were dirty and tattered and we probably smelled a little bit like cigarette smoke and poverty. But I went about my days, unaware of how different I was compared to everyone else in my grade. They were cut from a different cloth than I was.
Gym class was a nightmare.
“I bet his balls haven’t even dropped, that little faggot,” said one of the more jockier boys. He said my sneakers belonged in the trash, just like me, and threatened to throw my British Knights shoes in the trash. My aunt Debbie had just bought them for me before the start of the school season.
Everyone laughed. “Hey, I bet he doesn’t even have any hair down there.”
The gym teacher, of course, said that ALL I needed to do was change in the locker room and I’d get a passing grade and he was angry that I refused. It gave me a complex for years, and being sexually molested when I was four years old was not on any of the lists about me given to the school because I’d never told anyone. Instead, I was ridiculed mercilessly, whipped by towels, had my things thrown in the toilet or the shower every single day.
On my way back home from school, other kids would always try to fight me, allowing me no respite. There were two other kids in particular who would walk around me, shove me back and forth between themselves and try to throw me into snowbanks or into ditches. Sometimes, I would fight back with pushes of my own but they’d always threaten to horribly maim me the more I resisted.
Once, some of them rode by our trailer on bicycles and threw rocks through our windows, smashing them to pieces. I was blamed for it, of course. I had to have done something to spark such animosity. “You should go try to make more friends, Joey,” my mother would say. My only friend was a kid next door who was much younger than me. His parents thought it was strange, but I explained to them that kids in my grade hated me.
Some others would see me walking through a certain point in the trailer park and ride around me on their bicycles (almost everyone had one there) and say things to me, trying to get me riled up. “What are you staring at, queer? Take a fucking picture, it’ll last longer.” I would have to walk the gauntlet, trying to let their hate roll over me, off my back, and onto the ground behind me. It was very hard sometimes to do, and of course every once in a while I’d have to run when they got tired of making fun of me, trying to elicit a more primal reaction like fear.
Once, one of the kids who always pushed me down into the snowbanks openly ridiculed me in class. He was speaking about me, looking at me as he said certain things, and the entire class…even the teacher…was laughing hysterically. It was a class exercise of some sort in which the students were supposed to use description to describe some sort of annoyance in their lives. After the class was finished, I walked over to the teacher and explained that the speaker had been making fun of me.
“You’re probably just misinterpreting it,” he said, trying to avert his eyes.
“They were talking about me,” I said. “And you were laughing, right along with them.”
For years, I just took it all in like a sponge. I felt like Ghandi sometimes. I would cry sometimes at night, sure, but overall, I kept to myself and kept out of trouble. I tried to be invisible. I washed my hair, I wore the clothes they deemed appropriate and cool, I avoided certain hallways, certain streets, certain people. But it never seemed to go away. I had to do something.
They’d been ridiculing my appearance, so I went even further with it. I wore these bright, baggy pants called Skids (think tie-dyed MC Hammer pants) on purpose because I knew they didn’t want me to. Anything they teased me about, I defiantly discovered ways to amp up even more. I did the complete opposite of what they were trying to bully me into doing, damn the consequences.
This eventually earned me respect with certain people, even the girl who I thought was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. She later befriended me and then things became hard for her, too. Her former friends turned on her, such was the hatred for me. And though it did my heart good to see someone on my side for once, I felt sorry that I had drawn others into my circle of social exile.
The things that came after are too numerous to list here at this time. Suffice it to say, I fought for anti-acceptance yet acceptance was eventually the prize. It wasn’t easy and it took its toll, but that’s the way the world works sometimes. You need to fight to be ignored, you have to wage wars to become invisible. Or, at the very least, respected.