When I was a teenager, I had this… toy? Game? Equipment? I don’t even remember what it was called. I wanted to say “Battle Ball,” but Google searches don’t seem promising. Anyway, you had these metal bars with a hard yellow plastic circle serving as a paddle on each end (facing away from you as you held the bar) and a yellow plastic oval in between your hands (also facing away); your hands were naturally about shoulder-width apart.
There were two sets of these, one for each player, and there was an inflatable hard rubber ball, sort of like the ones you get in big box stores for little kids to play with, but a bit harder and about the size of a cantaloupe.
The idea was that you played a game a lot like tennis with these, bouncing the ball back and forth and using a punching or pushing motion to hit it with the various paddles.
I thought this was the most awesome thing ever.
I could never find people who wanted to play it with me. It was easy to mess up, I guess, so some people got bored with chasing the ball around. Or it was just sometimes too fast — you could really get that ball to fly if you got a good hit.
Or (and this seemed to be the key) it was just… different.
But I didn’t want to play actual tennis. I was (and am) completely unable to direct the ball where I want it to go. I didn’t want to play any of the other games the kids my age were playing either. In basketball, I just got knocked around, and I still can’t figure out how to get my body to obey my mental commands to shoot a lay-up. In baseball, I never stopped being terrified of being hit with the ball, and I almost never managed to hit the ball, and never managed to catch it. I didn’t understand football, and most of the guys my age who did were really kind of jerks about it.
I was never scared of standing out. Sometimes I look back at the noisy kid I was and the (relatively) quiet guy I am in most settings now, and I’m sad that I changed so much. Other times, I know it was for the best, but I may have just gone a bit too far. Anyway, this paragraph is going on a tangent — let me reel it back in and start this one over.
I was never scared of standing out. If the pastor wanted me to help with a skit in front of the whole Vacation Bible School, no problem. If it meant singing a Weird Al song in a talent show, fantastic. If we were playing dodgeball, I’d be the kid running right up to the borderlands line in the middle, standing spread-eagle, and screaming at my fully-armed opponents, “HIT ME!” (They almost — almost — always missed, too excited about the easy target to aim correctly, or guessing that I’d dodge at the last second like a normal kid and throwing where they thought I’d be, or just unable to hit a kid as small and skinny as I was.)
Although I despaired at the thought that most of my friends didn’t really like me (a topic I visited a few days ago), I never considered changing who I was to suit them. I learned, slowly, to hide some aspects of who I was (I had a teddy bear collection literally hidden in my closet through high school) and to find some like-minded individuals for other “unusual” interests (singing Simon & Garfunkel duets with Cory H or Carrie M are still some of my favorite memories; I never even heard a Guns ‘n Roses song the whole way through until I was out of college).
But I remember the day when I finally started feeling bad about being different.
I owned a Star Trek: the Next Generation uniform top. I was disappointed that the collar pips that came with it were stickers, but I couldn’t afford the pins. I had also spent money on the insignia communicator device to pin on the left breast of the uniform shirt to cover up the cheap-looking decal. It had a sound card, and it chirped like the ones on the TV show. I was also disappointed in this, a little bit, because it needed heavy clasps (actual terminology? no idea) to keep it pinned through the shirt, and those dug into my chest a bit.
But when I put that on with a pair of black pants and black shoes, and looked in the mirror, I felt every bit the lieutenant commander that my carefully positioned sticker-pips declared from my collar. (I felt that the lieutenant commanders on the show had the most fun, and that choosing to be captain would have been egotistical, and choosing to be commander not much better. I put that much thought into my imaginary rank on my cheap costume, people. That’s how much I liked it.)
I could never find a reason to wear it. I didn’t have too many friends who were into Star Trek, and the ones who were weren’t into it so much that they would have uniforms. I had tried it on, of course. A few times, I wore it while reading Star Trek books, but only when I knew I was going to be left alone in my room behind my closed door. I didn’t want to get hassled by my siblings, and as much as we love one another, I certainly would have been hassled by them. I didn’t have any conventions I could go to, and I was at least conscious of the fact that if you walk around your neighborhood like that, you’re not going to get the welcome response that you’d like to get.
Then one day, I decided to wear it.
I was part of a singing group in my school. One day, we had some time scheduled at a park for a picnic, taking a break from long days of learning and practicing our songs for that year. I don’t remember exactly what year it was in school, but I remember that there were a high percentage of friends of mine who were, like me, pretty geeky. I knew that there were several Star Trek fans. And I knew that there were several kids who really weren’t into most sports.
These were my people.
I brought the battle ball game — whatever it was called — and I wore my Star Trek uniform.
I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about it ahead of time, but I guess subconsciously, I expected at least one of these geeky, awkward friends of mine to be… I don’t know. Impressed? Enthusiastic? Amused, at least?
Instead, even the geekiest ones seemed to be desperately trying to stay polite. Some of us played the ball game for a while, and I think one or two of them did enjoy it a bit… but within ten minutes, I wished that I had worn anything else. It was only then that it occurred to me that wearing the uniform just because I wanted to wear it was not enough for others to be comfortable with it. And in some weird way, having this battle ball game made it worse. I think there were kids in this group who absolutely did not want to be seen with me.
Within ten minutes, I didn’t want to be seen with me either.
I started changing that day, in order to fit in more. I felt horrible, because I had realized — these weren’t my people. And I was suddenly sure that I didn’t have people.
There were people I could think of who might have been fine with all of what I was and what I did… and, although I’m not proud of this, I realized that I didn’t really like most of those people. Most of them seemed either painfully immature, or psychologically damaged, or unable to hold a conversation with me due to either their obsessions or their social awkwardness.
That was the day when it occurred to me that maybe that’s exactly how others saw me.
And maybe I was. I didn’t know anymore. That one day, my entire idea of how much I was accepted was flushed right down the toilet.
Now, some two decades later (give or take), I can look back at the evolution I went through, and I realize that I still have a fine balance that I try to maintain. I’m not ashamed of most things about me, even if I do still have a few things I try to hide from public consumption. I’ve found plenty of friends who are fine with my being weird, although I’m still not sure exactly how many of them would “play dress-up” for no reason whatsoever. (I tend to be huge fans of the ones that I suspect would, and a heck of a lot of them are ComedySportz people.)
I’m not scared of people’s reactions when I introduce myself as “Strange,” but I still have a tendency to tell neighbors it’s “David,” mostly because I don’t want Ann to feel obligated to explain it if they don’t ask me, and also because Ann doesn’t (usually) call me Strange.
Now, there are days where I sit with a group of friends and I watch one of them become the equivalent of a class clown — doing ridiculous things without fear of reprisal or social negativity — and I miss that about myself. I miss being confident enough in my friendships that I can just be goofy without feeling like I need permission… and I haven’t completely felt that since that day in the Star Trek uniform.
And every now and then I wonder… the way that I look at my crazier friends now and wish that I were doing that… did anyone, way back in those days, look at me that way? Were they all put off because they thought fitting in was important? Or was there even one person watching me wear that uniform and wishing that they were able to be that brave?