Third period, art. The only place in that horrible school where I wasn’t a pariah. Art classes tend to attract an interesting mix of students. We had the Easy A’s, the Very Talented, and the Clueless Yet Earnest Artistes. That would be me.
There was perhaps a bit more pressure on me to produce than my fellow students experienced. Funny hair and funnier clothes meant “artist” (or “gay,” or “same difference”) in a small town, and on top of that I periodically pumped out a decent drawing. What the other kids didn’t know was that for every good doodle I trotted out I hid nineteen horribly deformed homunculi. (Note: That ratio hasn’t changed much.)
Many others were much more consistent. My good buddy Matt could knock out a quality Marvel Bullpen-style superhero without any trouble; Lee G.’s graceful, cartoony lines never disappointed. Andi, the teacher’s pet, worked in watercolors. She possessed an exceptional color sense, and effectively collaged elements like dried leaves into her paintings. Most importantly she enjoyed flashing me in the supply room.
Jarod probably was the best draftsman in the school. We’d been classmates since the eighth grade but didn’t really become friends until after a motorcycle accident during the first weeks of senior year nearly killed him and left him with no more than a whisper. His sense of balance and proportion was unequaled.
My elementary school art breakthrough was rendering a dilapidated barn. Jarod’s was being that kid who could draw a hot rod at a three-quarter angle with the front wheels cut hard to the right. I’ll wait right here while you give that a quick try.
But I was the guy with the asymmetrical hair and the eyeliner, earrings, and trenchcoat; therefore, I was the artiste even though my good doodle batting average rarely topped .120.
“All right, y’all, we’re going to work on self portraits,” Miss Potter announced. “Bring in a picture of you that you like and get to thinking about what medium you want to use.”
“Is this going to be graded?”
“Can I do a horse instead?”
“Yes, they’ll be graded, and I’ll hang the best ones in the library. No, Tami, you can’t draw a horse unless you’re on it. Medium means paint, charcoal, pen and ink, that kind of thing. You can even use clay.”
There it was. Another opportunity to show in public, and another opportunity to fail. The artiste was going to be exposed in an “Emperor’s New Clothes” way, not the much more interesting “Andi in the storage room” manner.
Failure wasn’t even my biggest fear. No, what really weighed on me was this photograph business. My comfort with cameras ranges from terribly shy to pathological fear. I’m no psychiatrist but I think a quick diagnosis of low self-esteem should cover it. My nose is big, my chin is not. A few years later, losing my hair made matters even worse. I have been likened to a baby vulture, Frank Zappa’s ugly son, Chris Elliott, and in a story for another day, Bobcat Goldthwait. Why in the hell would I intentionally step in front of a camera? Looking in a mirror is disturbing enough.
That’s a little too easy, though. Lots of people are uncomfortable with their appearance, yet they manage to slap their visage all over the internet. My level of mortification has to be more deeply rooted than a passing resemblance to Ahmet Zappa.
Here’s what I think happened: For my first grade class photo I was tucked in the back, in the tall kids row. The photographer and our teacher combed our hair and ensured that nothing too prominent hung from our nostrils.
“Let’s take a good photo, kids! Make me proud!” Mrs. Hendrickson said. Yes, yes. I needed to make my first grade teacher proud. She stuck up for me when I brought Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya” to music day. She taught me what “sigh” meant in Charlie Brown’s thought bubbles. It was time to give back.
I stood confidently, back straight and head high. I flashed a mature half-smile, the sort that adults use to say “good job” without speaking. Years later she would look at this class portrait and be reminded what a difference she made.
My whole class was so excited when the prints arrived. We eagerly searched for ourselves. Cindy Wilson was adorable as always. Randy Owens owned the front row with his zipper shirt and bell bottoms. In fact, everyone looked great.
But in the back row among the tall kids lurked a deranged zombie, eyes bulging and body stiffened by rigor mortis. My unnatural posture was topped only by my “good job” half-smile, which in reality was my first grade class’s first realization that the mouth is also a sphincter.
Fortunately we left the state at the end of the school year so I didn’t have to endure the “butt mouth” moniker for the rest of my childhood, but could I really count on my parents to move after every photo? No, better just to avoid this camera business altogether.
Anyway, for the next couple of weeks while the class worked on their self portraits I hid in the supply room reading, drawing, and looking up Andi’s skirt.
“Mr. Stafford, when are you going to bring in that picture?” Miss Potter asked.
“Soon. They’re getting developed.”
“You better hurry. This project is half your grade.”
“Oh, I know,” I said.
The hallways were getting worse every day, just one long emotional battering beginning in the parking lot in the morning and ending when the car door closed in the afternoon.
“Hey, Jim! You’re pretty. You want to be my girlfriend?” somebody yelled as I walked through the parking lot earlier that same morning, and then a louder voice right behind me —
“Hey, fuck you motherfucker! You want to fuck with him you got to go through me! Yeah, that’s what I thought, you fucking pussy!”
I turned to find a huge guy standing behind me, hair cropped short, lip curled into a Billy Idol sneer. “Eric? Hey man, where you been?”
“Military school, but I just transferred back.”
Eric. Hal the Drummer’s best friend. My ninth grade Rush buddy. He’d put on a good twenty pounds of muscle and another forty of attitude. “You okay, man?”
“Yeah, no problem.”
But it was a problem. Not that morning, all of it. They were wearing me down, they were in my head. All I wanted was out: away from them, away from Boiling Springs, away from confrontation. I spent the day imagining my brains stuck to the bright white tiles of the bathroom near the cafeteria, my blood running red on the carefully mopped floor.
That afternoon at home I grabbed a sketchbook and sat on the bathroom counter. Maybe if I could knock out a likeness Miss Potter would throw me a C and get off of me about bringing in a photo.
My hand was paralyzed. The charcoal would not move. My eyes locked onto their own reflection. I stared at all of the sadness, anger, hurt, loneliness. My eyes told all of my secrets. The weakness. The enormous weakness. Fragility. I didn’t want to look at them. I didn’t want anyone to look at them.
“Jim, are you okay?” My mother’s voice rushed toward me. I snapped out of my reverie, climbed down from the counter and met her in the hallway.
“I was thinking about killing myself,” I said flatly.
“I know, and I just wanted to tell you that I love you before you made a decision.”
She wasn’t due home from work for another two hours. To this day that moment remains my strangest experience.
I spent the rest of the night in my basement. I stretched a bed sheet onto a frame and primed it with white house paint, propped it up next to my stereo and put on Aerial Boundaries by Michael Hedges.
Brush in one hand and wine bottle in the other, I slapped black textile dye on the makeshift canvas while Hedges beat the hell out of his acoustic guitar. When it was over the bottle was empty and I was staring at twenty square feet of eyeless, emotionless portrait. I don’t remember what grade I received, but I felt a hell of a lot better.