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Masquerade

 

He was always the odd one out.

At lunch, he sat alone, idly picking at whatever slop the cafeteria was serving that day.  In class, he sat in the back corner, as far removed from the noise and turmoil of his peers as possible.

When he wasn’t taking notes or doing classwork, his face was replaced by the spine of a book, usually one thicker than what any of his classmates had ever picked up.

He sat against the back wall so that nobody could attack him from behind.  He preferred heavy, hardcover books not only because they usually offered better reading, but because they were a good shield as well.  For the quiet, pale-faced weakling, such military defenses were parts of everyday life.  His classmates picked on him.  He was smarter than they were, and the only reaction a third grader could have to such a situation was violent jealousy.  Known as “geek” and “nerd” and “dork,” he kept few friends.  His tormentors liked it that way.

***

Today, I look at this child with pity.  He never stood up for himself, never returned the comments that left his face burning, never raised a finger to protect himself.  I want to grab that child by the shoulders and shake him, to tell him to do something, to stop allowing those painful visitations of peer acknowledgment.

Then I stop.

And I think, don’t be so hard on yourself, Adam.

             After all, in some ways, I was better off then than I am now.

Then, I was a child who wanted nothing more than a chance to read a decent novel.  I silently endured the pain others dealt me so I could live the life I enjoyed.  Now, a stack of novels piles high in my room.  Where I used to read three and four books at a time, I am now lucky to pick up one.  Today I speak more than I did then, but it is a speech of careful lines.

In the third grade, I lived my life, regardless of how others lived theirs.  Today, I modify my actions to fit what others want to see.  I never do anything spontaneous.  Every movement is weighed and calculated.  I have, it seems, lost the ability to live as myself.

The truth is that I am too much a product of my society.

The truth is that I am an actor whose script is heavily dictated by his peers.

The truth is that I am too weak to put their script down and pick up my own.

But I am really much more comfortable following the crowd.  I no longer sit alone and read.  Instead, I sit up front and talk to others, making myself out to be someone who is not entirely me.

It seems that many people wear similar masks, putting on faces they wish were really theirs to disguise what they truly are.  I am lucky; I realize I wear a mask. That knowledge enables me to take the mask off every now and then, such as when I write; I can occasionally become a member of my own social order again.

***

He sits in the front of the room, talking to his classmates.  His glib tongue lets fly with some invective.  He is an accepted member of the social order.

Every now and then, he glances at the empty seat in the corner, and wishes he had the guts to go over there and read.

 

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Copyright ©1999 Adam Rutledge