I spent my 8th grade year at Dean Junior High School in Spring Branch. It was my first year in Houston. I was really dumpy and awkward. That year I had four separate ear infections, two cases of strep throat and the flu. I got in a fight every day at school for two months at one point. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
When I left New Jersey, I had a cadre of devoted friends. I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, and I certainly didn’t have to figure out how to get people to like me. It’s hard enough being 13 but to be in a new environment where I had no friends was terrible. When I found the courage to open my mouth, I was either too loud or just flat out offensive.
“There’s a little black spot on the sun today.”
It literally took me three months to figure out where to sit during lunch. I just didn’t eat or sit down. I stood in the hallway that ran along the cafeteria watching the kids at their tables eating. There were a couple of times that I actually made an attempt to sit down. But I couldn’t do it. I just walked through the cafeteria.
“It’s the same old thing as yesterday.”
Each hour of that first three months of 8th grade was excruciatingly long. I barely spoke and when a teacher caught me off guard with a question, I spoke in mumble or a whisper. After a while, even the teachers avoided my awkwardness. I was a ghost in the system.
“There’s a black hat caught in a high tree top.”
Every day I daydreamed of better things. That I wasn’t so fat. That I knew what to say. That I had some confidence about anything. That I could play the guitar. That I was back in New Jersey with people that I understood and who understood me. Texas might as well have been a different country in 1983. I knew nothing of what that meant then. No culture shock will ever compare to the move we made to Houston.
“There’s a flag-pole rag and the wind won’t stop.”
On the drive to Houston from New Jersey, we only had FM radio. So we would search the dial as we left a radio station’s reach. And usually the first song that would come on the new station would be Every Breath You Take. On that 3 or 4 day trip, we must have heard that song about 10 times a day. It was played every half hour. Everyone in the car would groan every time it would come on. I was so optimistic on the drive.
“There’s a fossil that’s trapped in a high cliff wall.”
My brothers seemed to adjust to the move to Houston before the summer was over. They had friends across the street and around the neighborhood. I went to the pool a lot and got 3 ear infections within 6 weeks. My energy wained. I signed up for football with some optimism. Spanish sounded fun.
“There’s a dead salmon frozen in a waterfall.”
I got more and more frustrated until I was offending people I had just met. A kid that would later be my best friend was trying to get me in a fight. Truly I was so whiny that I would have wanted to beat me up as well.
“There’s a blue whale beached by a spring tide ebb.”
I waited all day for my mother to get home, but I didn’t really have any reason to see her. I hardly even talked to her. It just seemed like a good point in the day to look forward to. Some of it was the ear infections. She was a nurse, and I was in a lot of pain. One day I spent all day groaning on the floor. The pain was constant.
“There’s a butterfly trapped in a spider’s web.”
If I thought the summer was bad, school was so much worse. On top of not knowing where to sit for lunch, I realized that I really hated football in Texas. More than anything. Getting a bunch of pads on and standing around in the August heat and humidity was just stupid. So I started skipping practice which included a first period gym class replacement. So within a few days of starting 8th grade in a new town that I hoped would be a good opportunity to start over, I was skipping classes on a regular basis. I dropped football, but it took three weeks to process. So I just didn’t go to first period until I was given a new schedule.
“There’s a king on a throne with his eyes torn out.”
I discovered the rest of the Synchronicity album. I hated it. I wanted Sting to stop speaking to exactly what I was feeling. I listened to it way too often trying to find a way out of the maze of emotions that was my life. But I was always trapped in a dead end of rejection. Retrospectively, I realize that the biggest rejection of me was from myself.
“There’s a black-winged gull with a broken back.”
I found a table to sit at at last during lunch. It was the table where all the stoners sat in the back of the cafeteria. Nothing was going to be any different here. I didn’t speak. When I did speak, I was almost in a fight with someone at the table. I went outside with a couple of kids to smoke cigarettes after eating. They used chewing tobacco. I tried it and nearly threw up.
“There’s a rich man sleeping on a golden bed.”
The Police concert was coming up and the kid across the street bought a couple of tickets. Somehow my brother was supposed to get the extra ticket if he couldn’t sell it. I didn’t know this was part of the deal. So this kid asked me if I wanted to buy the ticket. It seemed like a good idea. Nothing else was going right. I bought it. Then my brother was mad at me. I tried to give him the ticket, but… Nevermind.
“There’s a skeleton choking on a crust of bed.”
The show was great. The first big show I saw in Houston. As an adult and a musician, I appreciated seeing that show a lot more 10 years later. All three of them are ridiculous. Their presence on stage was gigantic. The sound flawless. And there really is nothing that sounds like the Police. All of Sting’s work after The Police is not the same. The combination of Sting with Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland produced some profoundly original work. King of Pain is one of those. How do you point to a musical and lyrical influence for this song? They played together and fought and their conflict produced this.
“There’s a little black spot on the sun today.”
The day after the show, I wore my shirt to school. Someone at the stoner table that was far cooler than me said, “You go to the show?” I said or whispered, “Yes.”
Cool kid, “Those fags.”
Me lying, “Well I went for free and the shirt was free.”
Consensus of cool kids at the table, “I’d see The Police for free.”
“It’s the same old thing as yesterday.”
I couldn’t believe I had lied about something that meant so much to me. But I wasn’t going to retract it either. Every day of 8th grade was just something to survive. And if it meant lying, then so be it.
“I have stood here before inside the pouring rain”
As the year wore on, I became very attached to my English class. I spent hours on the simplest writing assignments. I suppose the object was that we would be able to write a simple essay by the time we got to 9th grade.
“With the world turning circles running ’round my brain”
My English teacher, I can’t remember her name, started to speak to me more often. My mumbling and whispering couldn’t be corrected, so when she wanted to talk to me, she would wait for the rest of the class to be occupied. Then she would pull a chair up to my desk and lean in close to listen.
“I guess I’m always hoping that you’ll end this reign”
Toward the end of the year there was an assignment that was more or less a full essay. It was describing an event and how it made you feel. I couldn’t express how I felt by speaking, but it was a revelation to me that I could express myself in writing. So I wrote. And I wrote. And I re-wrote it. Then I wrote it again. And I ended up with something that wasn’t overstated or rambling. It was an easy 1000 words from an 8th grader about how painful it is to move away from everything you know to something so foreign and difficult to connect to. How everything was just out of reach and indecipherable. How every day was a heroic mission in tolerating pain and rejection. I couldn’t turn it in.
“But it’s my destiny to be the king of pain”
A week before the end of the year, the teacher pulled her chair up to my desk while the class was reading. She asked me softly whether I had written my essay. I said yes. She asked me where my essay was. I told her it was in my book. She asked for it. I slid it across to her. She sat there and read it. She forgot herself and her eyes welled up. She thanked me and got up and walked away. The next day someone from the Gifted and Talented Program came to talk to me about my essay. They published it in something that I never got a copy of, and they enrolled me in the Gifted and Talented Program for high school. I burned the essay along with the rest of my writing and music and art when I was about 16.
“I’ll always be king of pain.”
How can I possibly resolve this story except to say that I’m glad it’s over.