A Tribe Called Drama
How a shy, awkward kid learned to act normal.
I started public high school at a distinct disadvantage. Catholic school might have been worthwhile academically, but it was a disaster socially. I spent elementary school with the same 25-or-so classmates, several of whom I was related to, in a very sheltered space. We got our knuckles rapped for tiny indiscretions, and built up a huge well of guilt and insecurities about right and wrong. If that wasn’t enough, I was one of the very youngest in my grade, shorter and pudgier—and one of the last to hit puberty.
Half of my classmates from Sacred Heart School went on to the Catholic high school across town, never to be seen again. So when I was dumped at age 13 into a seething pool of teenage hormones, swimming with 800 strangers who intimidated me, the sharks smelled blood. I was declared a weirdo from the start—a nerd because my grades were good, and a pussy because I was no good at sports.
Manville High School was a twenty-minute walk from home, allowing plenty of time to contemplate and dread what lie ahead. I doubled down on my otherness, and even though I no longer was required to wear a uniform, I chose to wear a tie to school every day for the first three months. This was 1971, when formality was out and “casual” was beginning to take hold as a way of life. What was I thinking? Perhaps I needed to own my weirdness from the start. There was no point in trying to hide it.
I did myself no favors by speaking up at school. Notoriously, in Miss Kilbert’s science class, the subject of energy waves came up. As a lifelong reader of Popular Science magazine, I was prepared to explain how broadcast television worked, from the image capture via photo electric cell thru the transmission towers to the cathode ray tube in everyone’s home. By the time I sketched out a quick diagram on the chalkboard, many of my classmates had come to the same conclusion: This nerd is gonna screw up the curve for everybody.
Their response was a verbal beat down, with catcalls in the halls, and snickers in the classroom. The worst was gym class, where a few ornery creeps who loved to tease the weakest came out to play. And typically, the instructors thought this was an opportunity for me to “grow a pair.” As I struggled to climb a rope, catch a basketball, or survive a tackle, I got it from both ends, teachers and classmates reminding me how I didn’t measure up. I tried to fit in the locker room, lowering my voice, making leering remarks or pretending I knew or cared how the Jets were doing. It didn’t work.
One of my teachers could see I was having trouble adapting. When he asked, I proclaimed that I was actually from Mars, stranded on Earth. Perhaps he could explain the strange ways of his people? To my great surprise, he went along with the gag. What started out as a joke turned into a small comfort—for a few weeks I would talk about the strangeness of Earthlings and he listened sympathetically. He had a funny voice and an artistic sensibility—he probably related to my problems more than I realized.
Eating in the cafeteria was a miserable experience, despite the fact that Boston Cream Pie was a fixture on the menu. Faced with a roomful of potentially hostile strangers, I took my lunch tray outside and sat alone on the steps. Even then, I saw kids pointing at me through the windows. What gives, I wondered? Why don’t they leave me alone? After a few days, I was informed by a hall monitor that students were not allowed to eat outside. Now they tell me. It promised to be a long four years.
Then I saw a flyer for the drama club and a casting call for this year’s production. I thought acting might be fun, and mustered the courage to tryout for a part in William Inge’s Picnic. I showed up after school and nervously sat on the far side of the auditorium. Scanning the crowd of other kids, I saw they were mostly upperclassmen, who did nothing to put me at ease. But with one look at the club advisor—Miss Tischio, a young brunette in a tight sweater and chunky high-heeled boots, I decided to stay. She met my gaze and decided that I was perfect—to play the part of the obnoxious paperboy “Bomber.” My earnest enthusiasm made the upper classmen look more like adults by comparison.
Once the part was mine, I did everything I could to justify my presence. I proudly brought in a vintage 1940s bike for the duration. I diligently rolled up a huge supply of papers to toss across the stage. The rest of the cast had to remind me that I only had a couple of lines, and to take it easy, but I sat through every rehearsal, ran lines with the others, and tried to make myself indispensable. I learned to dry brush canvas flats to make them look like wood. I hand-lettered the flyers for the show. I got my first taste of roaring greasepaint and smelly crowds.
Drama club was never very popular, and attracted a fraction of what the football and basketball teams could muster. But the show went on for two weekends, four shows, with 50 or 60 people attending each performance. I’d already been on stage a few times at group recitals, but this was different. Miss T. expected us to act like professionals, and I took it more seriously than most. I was the first on stage for curtain calls and stared out into that tiny crowd like it was the Schubert Theatre.
It was just a small part, but the payoff was huge. I suddenly found a small tribe of fellow outsiders. They appreciated my spunk, affectionately called me “childee,” and I was adopted as one of their own. They become some of my best friends, and I found a way to cope. My first teenage social gathering was the cast party. I prowled the dark house where some of the older kids were nuzzling in the corners with their dates or hamming it on the porch up between beers and the first joint I’d ever smelled. I was still a bit of an outsider, watching and learning. But slowly, surely, I was finding my way, and these kids were showing me the ropes.
I thought they were weirdos too. Rich was our good-looking leading man/party animal who had a surprisingly sensitive side. Jean and Lynn were like the big sisters I never had, who would coach me on women’s lib and dating etiquette. Michelle was another brainy survivor of Catholic school and we’d work out our neuroses with each other. Robert was the first gay man I had ever met, who introduced us all to the concept of the flamboyant thespian. Ron and Pat were planning to make super-8 movies, and wondered if I’d be interested in helping out. (Boy, would I ever!)
Sadly, most of them were on their way to graduation, and I had another three years to go. In a pattern that would repeat itself throughout my life, I was out of sync with most of my contemporaries. Drama Club centered me. From there, I got to explore lots of interests, like stagecraft, design, writing and performing. And while these interests made me a weirdo in some people’s eyes, I also gained others’ respect for expressing myself and trying to be a force for change. I hope that I carried on the tradition of making other, incoming “weirdos” feel a little more accepted.
As for coming to grips with my own social awkwardness? It would take a lot more than the drama club to figure that out.
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