I was a cute kid. I have the pictures to prove it. My parents’ first child, with my dad’s parents living across the street and Mom’s mother in the next town, I got lots of attention. Mom was a singer, so there was always classical music in the house on the radio, or sometimes Broadway shows on the record player. I was bright, too – how many kids know the second verse of “Deck the Halls” at age 2 ½? I did, and I have proof of that, too.
But I was also born with the seeds of manic depression. Always wanting to be in the spotlight, I was, under that bubbly exterior, horrifically sensitive to being laughed at or otherwise humiliated – something that would worsen severely as the years went by.
The seeds started to germinate early. When I was small, my mother told me, I cried watching I Love Lucy. When she asked me why, I said it was because people were laughing at her. I had no concept of comedy, no understanding that Lucille Ball was behaving like an idiot to make people laugh. I suppose that conceptual lack is normal in small children, but I have to think it’s unusual for a child of five to cry because she thinks a woman on television is being humiliated.
After Kindergarten it started to get much worse. I clearly remember two incidents in first grade. One came just at the very beginning of the school year. The teacher wrote a two-letter word on a blackboard and asked if anyone knew what it said. I shot my hand up! I’d learned that word from light switches – it was “on.”
But the teacher said no. It wasn’t “on,” it was “oh.”
It speaks volumes that I still remember, decades later, how mortified I was at that moment. I was wrong, and everybody knew it.
The other incident happened the day our class pictures came in. We were all sitting on the floor in the same place we’d been when I exposed my interest, while the teacher held up each person’s picture in front of the class. Freddie’s eyes were closed in his picture, and everyone laughed, including me. Yet I sat there knowing I couldn’t stand it if they laughed at my picture. Praying they wouldn’t laugh.
When my picture came up, the class giggled. And I got up and ran out of the classroom, into the cloakroom where we were sent if we were bad, and sat down in the back, in the dark. I knew I’d been bad for running out, you see, so I went to the punishment place.
My social skills were off to a bad start. So was my psyche.
(By the way, the picture wasn’t funny or odd. I have no idea why the class laughed. If I can find it, I’ll add it.)