A school is often not the happiest of environments for anyone who is a bit different from the norm. Children are free from the social niceties, rules, checks and balances with which adults police themselves and they have little thought or care for the effects of their actions on others so they are ruthless in their treatment of those who do not fit in.
At my school, I did not fit in. My background was not the same as that of my classmates, my interests were not the same as theirs, I was bigger than all of them yet completely useless at and therefore uninterested in their sports which really annoyed them, and though I didn't fully understand it at the time my brain didn't come from the same parts bin as theirs. As a result I was bullied and marginalised, and responded by becoming a troubled, aggressive and angry teenager.
I was fortunate enough to make three really good friends back then though. One of them I'm still in touch with from the other side of the world, one of them slowly drifted away and the other, well he disappeared abruptly in a way that has vexed me ever since.
J was always the very quiet kid, very clever, never put a foot wrong and never in trouble. The opposite of me then. We found ourselves thrust together in those dreadful activities dreamed up by PE teachers for non sporty kids that are supposed to foster an interest in sport but don't, and discovered in each other a surprising amount in common. We were both car nuts, we both really appreciated the natural world and we both enjoyed exploring our city's byways. Amazingly, a pair for whom school cross-country running became a release rather than a chore!
Also, surprisingly he was the first bloke I ever met who was a committed feminist. Now since then I've met blokes who've professed feminist views as a means to pull the birds, but in J's case he meant it, and since he was as bookish as I was technical he'd done all the background reading to support it. Like me he came from a family of powerful women so none of this was foreign to me, something that surprised him because back then my politics differed significantly from their current direction.
I stayed in touch with J through university, we hung out together in our holidays as young blokes do, wasted far too much money on bar-billiards as I recall. At the time I'd have described him as my best friend, he was certainly the friend I'd known the longest.
Then, about a year after we'd both graduated and were earning our first pittances in the real world, J's mother was found to have cancer. There followed another year of treatments and hospitals, radiation and chemotherapy, but sadly she passed away. And abruptly J disappeared from my life. He was never in, my answer phone messages were never returned, I never saw him again. I honestly do not know what happened.
In the fifteen years since then I have gone through various stages of worry and guilt over his termination of our friendship. Did I call enough, should I have kept trying? Was he somehow wondering where I'd got to? Had I done something wrong? Was it something I said? Then a few years ago I realised this: He never called me, not the other way round. So for some reason, probably personal to his grief for his mother, he decided he needed to be alone and cut himself off. I still can't release myself from a tinge of guilt that somehow I must have let him down, but at least now I realise it was a two-way street. I know his father didn't approve of me as a teenager, maybe that had something to do with it. Great, I always wanted to be the Kid Your Parents Warned You Against!
More recently I've wondered whether J and I had more in common than we realised and whether he too was struggling with gender issues. Nothing to back it up, after all I was as deep in the closet as it's possible to be in my teens and twenties, but I've never since found quite the same connection with a friend and as a teenager I certainly never knew anyone else whose interests diverged in the same way as mine from the usual male teenage obsessions.
I'd like to think one day we'll bump in to each other unexpectedly and renew our acquaintance. I don't do school alumni get-togethers because most of the people I'd meet would be most likely to give me a burning desire to slap them so I've no idea even what he's doing these days, but the profession he works in means he might be around my city from time to time. It's still pretty unlikely though.
I guess this post strays away from my usual fare of large-and-loud writings on gender variance, old cars and very large ladies shoes. But something reminded me of J yesterday evening for the first time in a while and I've spent the day musing about it all and still trying to make some sense. So you, dear reader, have become my dumping ground for the resulting page of navel-gazing. Don't worry, the Rusty Old Wreck and the Turbocharged Rollerskate will return in due course.