The thing about middle school is that you are thrown into close proximity with people who you would never socialize with by choice. The kids tend to self sort, so the smarties hang out together, and the burn-outs corner a table in the lunch room from which they emit their dreadful vibes. But that doesn't mean you won't get stuck sitting next to someone who loathes your very soul in math class.
There was this one guy I remember from school who seemed to see into the very pit of my being and recognize some irredeemable shortcoming there. His name was Mark Something. I didn't think much of him either. I was always a good student, and he never seemed to try very hard. He was kind of chunky, and he walked with the kind of lumbering gait you see more often on a middle aged retiree. We were in band together, and he was a consummate musician. He played the French horn, or the Souzaphone, or some large, curly brass instrument. I played rhythm piano, quite poorly I might add, which probably didn't do anything to dispel his contempt.
It was people like this I learned to avoid. I sat with my speech team compadres at lunch, I hung out after school with my goofball pal Annika, I avoided parties altogether. In short, I was not very sociable, though I felt like I ought to be, and to be honest, that hasn't changed much even three decades later.
I wasn't without my petty rebellions, though. One day I wrote on the corner of my desk, "This sucks." I thought I'd gotten away with something occult and mysterious. I'd defaced public property! I was a true rebel! Imagine my surprise when the next day I discovered that someone who sat in my desk during another period wrote a reply: "No kidding." I had a partner in crime! Naturally I don't remember the conversation, but it went something like this:
"School is boring."
"I hate social studies."
"Who cares what the Netherlands exports?"
"You got a problem with tulips?"
"Yeah. I got a problem with tulips. What of it?"
Like that. Meaningless banter, but kind of funny, kind of entertaining, and healing to my introverted soul.
Finally, after a couple weeks of this exchange, I committed a fatal error. I finally breached the firewall of our concealed identities, and asked the name of my desk buddy. The reply came: "Mark Something. Who are you?"
Mark Something? The guy who loathes me in band? The chubby guy who walks like my grandpa? Mark SOMETHING? I was very disappointed.
I wrote something I wish very much I hadn't. I wrote: "I'm Amy Ryan. I'm not thrilled about it either."
And boom. When I saw Mark Something in band class his loathing had morphed into a complete withdrawal of any kind of emotion whatsoever. He no longer looked into my being and found it wanting. He no longer looked at me at all. I did not exist to him. All desk banter stopped.
And ever since, I can't help wondering if I'd left that last bit off. If I'd just told him my name and waited for his reaction, if he might have become my friend? We had a connection after all. If I hadn't assumed that he would be bummed out to see my name under his, if I hadn't been so defensive, maybe band class could have become fun instead of boring, and I'd have made a friend instead of an enemy.
That is one of thousands of moments in my life I wish I could go back and fix. Mark Something, if you're reading this, I'm sorry I ruined it. You can write on my desk anytime.
That's the problem, though. I will probably never see him again, and even if I did, I doubt I'd recognize him. But I remember what happened. It has stayed with me through the decades, even haunted me a little, as though it were whispering in my ear that I was supposed to learn something from it.
The connections we have with people make life interesting and worthwhile. Before our desk graffiti, I had a connection with Mark, even if it was defined by a mutual dislike. The graffiti could have changed that, and gave us a chance to create a different mode in our relation to each other, but I was too stubborn to let my idea of our connection change. With one sentence I gave Mark a reason to sever our tie altogether. Maybe if I'd been willing to tolerate the ambiguity of our relationship, something even more special and interesting than our desk graffiti would have happened. But I couldn't tolerate that ambiguity. I had to keep defining us as enemies, so I wasn't open to anything else. Something about that negative definition felt safer to me than the possibility of change.
If I hadn't been defensive, if I'd just let my name hang there, he might have responded meanly, or he might have decided to offer friendship. I couldn't have done anything to prevent him from putting me down if he'd wanted to. My only power in the situation was how I behaved. I don't know if I let Mark Something down, but I think I did let myself down a little in the name of self protection. I don't know if the experience really changed me, or if I learned anything from it at the time. I think I was too young to think very deeply about what this exchange meant for me and the way I related to the world. But I can think about it now.
It reminds me of a quote from the poet W.H. Auden: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"
So here's what I think: My definition of Mark Something as an enemy was actually useless. It was useless to define him at all. A better attitude would have been to accept the fact that I had no idea how he would react to seeing my name written on that desk. I had no control in the situation. Trying to maintain our old orientation to each other, persisting in seeing him as my enemy, was cowardly. If I'd been brave, if I'd been open to change, I might have a happy memory of that time instead of a sad one.
It is better to face the world with an open heart than a closed one.
Sometimes it's better to let your name stand alone.