As a man that has, for the most part, learned to use this clumsy body that he's been bestowed, I truly appreciate seeing that almost all youth, across cultural, gender, and socioeconomic boundaries, have some stage in their lives where they feel uncomfortable in their own skin.
I made this realization on a recent trip to Paris. We were waiting for a bus when a group of kids, probably between fourteen and sixteen years of age jostled up aside us on the busy walk. It was hot, with the afternoon sun beating tirelessly down on us. After a long day of walking around the city, all we wanted to do was get home, which meant that my conversation with my wife was nonexistent. As we waited in catatonic silence, I began to study these adolescents. Although I could not understand their quick french chatter, I quickly began to see into their little social hierarchy. It all started with one boy.
He was taller than all of the rest, by at least six inches. Despite the blistering heat, he wore a light blue jean jacket, something that may have been worn by Matt Dillon in The Outsiders. His greasy black hair was parted messily to the side, and his face was riddled with craters from pimples of both past and present. Across his upper lip were the paltry attempts of follicles to populate an otherwise virgin plot of skin. Judging by the rest of his face, this was the only semblance of maturity to grace this young boys public appearance, and he wore this strip of hair with a pride fit for a decorated army vet. No one had told this boy that his pale attempt at facial decoration was meager at best, and gave the appearance of a child pedophile over the virile beefcake he saw in himself.
What added to this pathetic charade was the boys clumsy, animatronic gestures. It was as if the young man had recently been given new arms and legs, and was not quite sure how best to use them. His entire body slumped forward slightly, the weight of his extra long arms being more than what his back was accustomed to carrying. As he walked, that additional arm baggage caused him to fall forward at an alarming rate, but luckily his feet had extended in expectation of providing a base for his wiry frame, so he lumbered forward under his curiously bent legs to catch him every time. But these extraneously spindly legs could not be trusted to break the fall on their own accord. It was as if, left to their own devices, these mantis-like appendages would fold up under the boy, leaving him tumbling to the ground. Each step was a conscious choice to move forward, each interaction with the earth below him a new experience.
My own personal pubescent experiences were a bit different than those of this young Parisian. While the incongruous limb growth certainly gave me an awkward gate and horrible posture that plagues me to this day, the most memorable adolescent cross to bear was of a more turgid manner.
It was sophomore year of high school, one of the busiest semesters of my high school existence. I had a habit of overextending myself in high school, and this particular semester was one of particular stress – show choir at 7am before class, show band for the pep choir directly after school was out, followed directly by soccer practice, then finally play practice. Home by 10 or 11pm, a little homework, wash, rinse, repeat. I envy the energy that oozed from every pore of my body back then.
The event that haunts my memories of awkward high school misstep to this day took place during one of those play rehearsals. I was fortunate to be cast as one of the leads in our spring Shakespeare production. This was an awesome opportunity, one that I accepted with eager ambition. We were rehearsing a scene in which my female love interest and I had just run away from home to elope, and were setting up camp for the night. My character was adamant that my betrothed and I sleep next to one another, for “protection”, but her lady like composure would have none of it. Finally my character wins and we lay down together. As that dispute is settled, another conflict begins to arise. The girl playing opposite me was one of the most beautiful beings that I had laid my eyes on, at least for the 16 years I'd existed thus far. She was fit, curvaceous, and had a smile that could melt a pubescent boy like butter. As I laid beside this beautiful creature, my wardrobe of a dirty tee shirt, mesh shorts, and sweaty soccer socks began to show its weaknesses. If you ever want to see an uncomfortable sight, watch a 16 year old try to hide an uninvited erection. First I shifted, then I attempted an inconspicuous adjustment with my forearm, which appeared to the outside world as if I was having an apoplectic seizure. As I squirmed, contorting by legs to avoid detection from my director, fellow classmates, and heaven forbid the target of my arousal, I finally realized that if I were to get out of this alive, I had to take action immediately. The eyes of the entire room were on me as they awaited my next line, but in my mind, they were staring directly at my crotch. In a flash I was on my feet again, doubled over to conceal any protuberance. As I made my way to the door, I mumbled something about not feeling well, and that I had to get to the restroom. I didn't wait for a response. I bee-lined to the teachers private bathroom, where I locked myself in the safety and seclusion of a stall and waited for things to subside.
In the bathroom I worked up an alibi for my peculiar behavior. Heat exhaustion. I was just overworked, after soccer practice and then this rigorous play rehearsal – it had taken its toll. I would tell the director that I had been sick, gotten some water, and she'd tell me to go home for the day. It was genius. I returned to the rehearsal to be greeted by the quizzical looks of the actors, unsure as to what had happened to me. I told the director my tale, being sure to sniffle a bit and breath in a labored manner to fully convince her. She was a drama teacher after all. She listened sympathetically, then allowed me to go home.
I clunked home in my beat up, purple, hand-me-down GMC Safari, relieved that I had avoided what would have been a catastrophic disaster in my adolescent life. It's not that my social situation was gleaming, but I preferred not to give anyone fodder. I did enough on my own to attract the jeers and opprobrium of my peers, without my body sabotaging my efforts of surviving my tenure at Central Lee High School.
As I lay in bed that night, I couldn't help but think of the events of the day, and my near miss with sexual shame. In the end, I made it out alive, and that was all that mattered. I'd live to rise another day. Or night.