Wednesday, May 9, 2012

How Madonna and Mr. Willis Revealed Me To Myself

When I was a sophomore in high school, I took a “loss of innocence” assignment for English class as an opportunity to purge myself of my not-so-pleasant experiences in junior high. I also took it as another opportunity to write about Madonna for an English class, a favorite pastime of mine that stemmed from my desire to fight for her integrity with the literary crowd. But with this paper, I wasn’t selling Madonna on her worth as an artist or even a commercial figure. Rather, I was offering an insight into the chapter of my life that lead to my loving her as passionately as I have ever since.

Now, it’s not as if I hadn’t loved Madonna for years. I was apparently fixated on her as a two year old watching “Burning Up” and went crazy for “Lucky Star” as a three year old. I have a dim sense of familiarity with the latter and rely on trustworthy cousins for the former. But my real love did not begin until the day my father took me to see Dick Tracy on a summer afternoon in 1990. Whether on the small screen or the big screen, I fell in love with Madonna first and foremost as a movie star. It wasn’t until a few months before my 1991 “Vogue” tribute that I became an avowed fan of her music. It wasn’t until the late 90s that I felt a great deal of shame for having waited that long, and that neurotic reaction was the result of Madonna’s impact on my life in the mid-90s.

During the seventh grade, Madonna became my internal and external salvation from what I perceived as a hellish adolescence. It honestly wasn’t as bad as I thought it was at the time, but I’d still not repeat that era for any figure below one billion dollars. I wish I had known then that my pain was significantly less than the pain being endured by those who tormented me. Had I been blessed with that understanding, I would not have quietly vilified a number of undeserving peers for most of my teen years. My negative self-image, formed as a result of failing to achieve incredibly superficial social goals, was far more destructive than anything being literally or figuratively hurled my way by others. Had I known this at the time, I might have benefitted from junior high as a lesson for the future, instead of spending years viewing it as punishment for an overly happy childhood.

Junior high school was the era that shaped who I am today, and that includes my love of Madonna. The famous indifference to homosexuality by the most influential figure in my life was vital to my self-acceptance. During the seventh grade, I finally admitted to myself that I was gay. I had been attracted to men before I even went through puberty, and I spent my pubescent years fantasizing about gay romance. But all the while I was convinced that I was going through some sort of developmental phase and would come out of it a heterosexual. I had snuck into books at the library about human sexuality and found that this was quite common. It seemed altogether rational to me as a confused adolescent since all of my idols were, after all, beautiful women.

My real awakening came about in early 1995, while watching Bruce Willis in Color of Night. I’d been infatuated with Bruce Willis since the sixth grade and counting the days till that movie came out on video so I could find a way to see it. Late one Saturday night, I stole the copy my parents had rented, and viewed this future bad movie classic while the rest of the house slept.  During the film’s most famous sex scene, the audience was offered two gorgeous, naked people making love in a pool in the form of Bruce Willis and Jane March. Only one of these people sparked a physical reaction in me while I watched the film. And the one who turned me on so overwhelmingly that I never questioned my sexuality again was, indeed, Mr. Willis. Since that fateful night I have regarded him as the man who most helped me to come out of the closet. It would be a few years before I fully came out to the world, but I never lied to myself about who I was attracted to ever again. I did this out respect not only to myself but to all women, and I have Bruce to thank.

I did not reveal my post-Color of Night sexual understanding in the paper I wrote for my 10th grade English class. But I DID reveal a lot more than I ever wrote before or since about my junior high years and why I hated them so much. In fact, I revealed more than I’d care to make public. This is mostly because it involves other people whose memories are as unpleasant as mine, and because the people who I looked at as my tormentors were just kids in pain. I know most of them now thanks to Facebook and they’ve all grown up into perfectly fine people who don’t need to be reminded of how they reacted to feeling that indescribable anguish of being thirteen years old. Someday when we’re all farther away from that stage of our lives, I’d be happy to offer the full story, but I hope this abridged version still manages to provide some empathetic reading for those who recognize the emotions of my younger self. 

Bob Jeffrey-Sophomore English, Per. 2

Personal Narrative/Loss of Innocence


            I still remember the first day. I had been telling people all summer long how I was nervous about going back to school. I never liked to get too excited, because I knew that halfway through the year I would sorely miss the summer. But secretly I had been dying to go to Masconomet. I had just finished the sixth grade, and would be going into my first year of junior high school. I couldn’t believe that I was about to be in “real school”, and that I would fulfill my childhood dream of being a teenager.
            Despite my somewhat naïve optimism, I was still nervous about going for the first time. I walked in and checked the bulletin board to find where my homeroom class was, where I would get my class schedule. Throughout the day we basically were introduced to the material we would be covering, and there wasn’t very much work involved at all. It seemed like junior high would be a blast, even better than the 6th grade. Little did I know what was in store for me.
            The first few weeks of school were enjoyable on a social level, but somewhat challenging in regards to academics. But it wasn’t until a few weeks into September that things took a turn for the worst. I really didn’t consider myself one who had many enemies, and at the time I wasn’t a very self-conscious person. So I had no reason to suspect that people either didn’t like me or were making fun of me. But one day during my health class, while I was talking to someone and the teacher was not looking, two people who I hardly knew were throwing paper at me. At first I just pretended to laugh it off, and didn’t pay much attention. But everyday they would continue doing this when the teacher was turned around. Being somewhat shy and not very confrontational, I never said anything and every day I just sat back and basically let them do this to me. For a while I considered my behavior to be a form of ignoring them, but over time what they were doing made me feel more and more worthless until I felt like I was less than a human being. Eventually the teacher caught word of what was going on and they finally let up. Nevertheless, by that time it was too late. The permanent damage had already been done.
            Even though things at Masco were not off to a good start by any means, the turning point of junior high and, in a sense, my life took place several weeks later. I had been on relatively good terms with the two boys who had been throwing paper and other objects at me, but that changed after the fatal dance on October 7th. I still remember it like it was just yesterday. I had been debating between going to see The Specialist, which opened that night, or going to the dance. The dance won.
It is hard for me to pinpoint specific memories of this time, because much of it I have blocked out and many of the events were minor but, when added up, had a lasting effect on me. I would be mocked constantly, sometimes by people I had never seen before, and was never accepted by any one crowd. Sometimes people would be outgoing to me and treat me like a friend, but I could never tell if they were being sincere, or were really just trying to give me the wrong impression so that I would be humiliated. People were always borrowing money from me and never paying me back, and I always felt as though people were making fun of me whenever I looked the other way.
            Masco is a regional school, and so about 2/3 of the student body were strangers to me and 1/3 were kids who I had practically grown up with. But as the 7th grade progressed, I became estranged from the people who I had previously considered a second family of sorts. Some of them had given me reason to, whether it be because they had “mistreated me” or because they didn’t want anything to do with me anymore. With others, it was because I now felt inferior to them and didn’t risk any kind of social involvement for fear of being ridiculed. The people who I had considered my peers became strangers, and I even became separated from my friends to the point where we acted like mere acquaintances whenever we ran into each other.
            My personality also changed drastically. I became reclusive and paranoid, and I felt as though I couldn’t trust anyone. When walking in the hallway, I found myself pretending more and more not to see the people walking past me. Some of them were people who had been cruel to me during the year and who I now feared, and others were friends who had given me no reason to distrust them, but who I just couldn’t feel comfortable around anymore. I had been an outgoing, optimistic, and extremely social person a year earlier, but now I had unconsciously become a completely different person.
            This transformation spawned much of the humiliation I went through during the 7th grade. Because I was such a naïve and ridiculously “over-kind” person at the time, I never stood up for myself. And it wasn’t the Hollywood depiction of junior high either. I wasn’t the smart kid being tormented by a powerful clique. I was the boy next door turned loner who felt completely rejected by much of the student body. I didn’t have many friends, and there wasn’t really anyone to defend me. I was on my own, plagued by the personality I had developed as a result of my experiences. This reclusive behavior I was exhibiting gave students opportunity to make fun of me throughout the year, and my lack of self-confidence and naiveté prevented me from standing up for myself. Soon every day became an almost masochistic game of cat and mouse between me and the school, and I was letting them win. Many times I felt like I was watching myself being torn to pieces in school, and even though I had the power to stop what was happening to me I literally chose not to. This was definitely the most frustrating and infuriating aspect of all of junior high school. I didn’t feel comfortable enough to trust many people, and I assumed that there weren’t too many people on my side.

         Throughout the year, one forms of salvation was Madonna. I had been a huge fan of hers for years, long before the 7th grade. Nonetheless, during the 7th grade I felt like she was one of the few people I could turn to for protection against Masco. Because of her outspoken, sometimes sexual, and often controversial persona, I felt as if telling everyone how much I loved her would prove to them that I was in fact cool and not the “perennial virgin” I often came across as. I also tried to incorporate Madonna into school projects and class discussions, though this was often in the hopes of making some of my peers fans as well. In October of 1994, the fall that I started Masco, Madonna’s album Bedtime Stories was released. It wasn’t until several years later that I fully appreciated this particular album, because the songs were of a very different style than most of Madonna’s music. Nonetheless, I listened to the songs “Survival”, “Secret”, “Don’t Stop”, and “Take A Bow” quite often during the Fall of ’94. Though most of them I listened to for enjoyment, “Survival” was probably the only song that perfectly described the experiences I was going through and the way I wanted to respond to some of the harsh treatment I was getting. “I’ll never be an angel, I’ll never be a saint, it’s true. I’m too busy surviving. Whether it’s Heaven or Hell, I’m gonna be livin’ to tell.”
            On January 20th, 1995, I remember coming out of school having an urge to go out and have fun and party with my friends. The problem was that I didn’t have any friends to party with, and the only fun I could have in my area was going to the movies. Instead, I had a rockin’ time going to the video store.
            Though initially it seemed depressing to spend my Friday night at home watching videos by myself, the videos I rented would go on to provide an escape from the harsh realities of the 7th grade for many more Friday nights to come. That night I rented a video of the Madonna tour The Girlie Show and the film Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Watching The Girlie Show, I felt like I was at the party I had dreamed about when walking out of school that day. Madonna’s performance was so care-free and uninhibited, and it seemed like she was speaking directly to me as well as to all of the other lonely souls waiting for their chance to be in the spotlight. Watching “Fast Times”, I saw onscreen everything that I had expected junior high and high school to be. Many of my cousins, whom I am very close to, had gone to high school during the mid to late 1980s, and so the teen culture of that period was what I assumed being a teenager was all about. But it couldn’t have been any more different from what I expected when I got to junior high. But with this film, I felt like I could completely escape. Over and over again I would watch the film, becoming completely immersed with the characters’ stories every single time.

On April 9th, 1995, my pet rat, Shiner, died unexpectedly. He had been with us for just under two years, which was a little bit less than the average life span of a domestic rat. I went to feed him, and noticed that he wasn’t moving. I tried not to panic, and petted him and said his name. Suddenly he jerked back violently, and then he lay limp on his back. His feet looked cut, and his nose looked like it had been bleeding. He was breathing very slowly and his breaths were far apart. I comforted him for a while, knowing that this was likely the end, before taking him to the vet’s, where I found out it was. His death continues to haunt and sadden me for it was, fortunately, one of the few deaths of a loved one which I had to experience in life, and because it was so unexpected and ultimately unexplained. That night, after he had died at the vet’s, I still had homework to finish. I remember being so furious, because it was as if I couldn’t mourn because I had work to do. It was at this point that I found myself beginning to hate Masco. All the feelings I had felt immediately after Shiner’s death had shattered the lid on the feelings that had welled up over a seven month period at Masco, and I wanted something towards which I could direct these feelings of anger, sadness, and frustration. Through there are still many reasons for which I find myself angry at the school, I think I wanted a place to direct my anger towards, and so I just blamed the school in general.
            After a long, tumultuous year, the 7th grade was finally over. My memories of it are dark and shady. Everything about the grade seems “untraceable”, because I have unconsciously blocked it out of my mind since I have been there. I never wanted to even hear the word “Masco” or talk about anything school-related during the summer. But during the last few weeks of summer the prospect of throwing myself back to the wolves scared me to death, and at the last minute I attempted to transfer to a new school. The transfer didn’t work out, and so I went back to Masco. Fortunately the 8th grade was not nearly as bad as the 7th, but it was still a very unhappy, lonely time in my life.
            All in all, those were the two worst years of my life. Still, I feel they strengthened me and opened my eyes to a world that wasn’t as kind and caring as I had thought it would be. I would never want to repeat that period of my life again, but knowing that I can’t turn back the clock, I think that those two years were something that I needed to go through to make the transition from childhood to adulthood. 

1 comment:

  1. Everything in this piece is painfully recognizable to me on an emotional level. Ugh, middle school was such a nightmare. Whenever people insult Madonna or say that she is talentless or unimportant, I inform them of the seemingly hundreds of stories like this that I have heard. Because whatever you think about her work (and obviously I think very highly of it), you can't turn your nose up at such stories unless you're an asshole.