In Journey to Norman, I described my family’s big move to Norman, Oklahoma. As I was writing it, it occurred to me that that transition from Lonoke to Norman, from small town to big town, was especially formative for me. Before I tell you about this transition I’d like to say why I even write this blog. My Wife Says I’m Complicated is a sharing of the inevitable complications of life, but it’s a little more. My wife has said for years that I’m a complicated person with complicated problems. My wife is rarely wrong about things and especially about matters of my character and nature. She’s come to accept this about me, and I’ve come to accept this about myself. I say that I’m complicated with no pride or shame. I am what I am. Perhaps it’s genetics. I share because it helps me understand why I am the way I am. I couldn’t say why you read it, but I’m glad you do.
You first must understand the difference between where I lived and where I moved. Lonoke had a population of around 3500. It was a farm town with very few amenities. If you wanted to go out and see a movie or eat you went to Little Rock just 20 minutes up the road. For a kid, though, you really didn’t have to go anywhere. Lonoke was a perfect place for a kid to grow up. We could ride our bikes anywhere. We could shoot bee bee guns in the park. There were lots of trees to climb. There were high school football games to hang around at.
There was poverty in Lonoke, but most of my friends fit squarely in the middle class. There was almost nothing above middle class and that seemed to keep society pretty flat, at least in elementary school. There were only four schools: a primary school, an elementary school, a junior high, and a high school.
Norman is vastly different. It has a thriving commerce that is not agriculture based. I can do almost anything I want without leaving Norman. Although Norman was not yet a city when I moved there in 1984, it was a large town. Norman has a lot of wealth which really affects it’s social strata. Playing in Norman for a kid is more structured. The sports were organized. I don’t recall ever playing a pickup game as a kid in Norman like we used to do in Lonoke. No, our parents had to be involved. Norman had so many schools. I really couldn’t count how many schools there are in Norman. In Lonoke, I could no every kid in my grade for the entire town. In Norman, I couldn’t even know every kid in my grade for my one school. Lastly, no more black friends. I don’t recall more than 3 black students at Whittier at that time. It was a white school.
When I moved, I was so optimistic about my new life. I’d never had problems making friends or being successful in school. I thought I understood the world and how it worked…how it worked for me, but Norman changed that. Norman was a much wider world.
On the first day, Paul and I arrived with identical jackets and identical home done haircuts. The only difference between us was that I was wearing a plaster cast on my right leg. We were given a quick tour of the school which was so perplexing. It was an open classroom configuration. After our tour, the math teacher, Mrs. Pierce, took us to her area and tested us. This test would determine our mathematics path through our entire public school career. And for the first time, Paul and I took different academic paths. Paul got into the advanced math class and I didn’t. I have this vague memory that there must have been a mistake. I had always been on the enrichment path with Paul, but that had ended. I was now unsure of myself. If that had ended, then what else might end?
I’d never been the object of teasing and bullying before. I’m not saying it didn’t exist in Lonoke, but I’d never encountered it. On my first day, I was weaving through the crowd to get to my locker and a big 8th grader grabbed me by the neck with both hands and screamed in my face. In my math class, a girl teased me about my name, Burns. Kids had tried to tease me about that before, but the best they could ever come up with was “David burns it,” but it never stuck because what does it even mean? But this girl must have watched M.A.S.H and known about the Burns in that and his relationship with Hot Lips Houlihan. She called me Hot Lips for a year. But you know what? At first, I just thought she was flirting with me. But then I saw the way she treated other kids and realized that she wasn’t. I was an innocent kid who assumed the best of people…still am.
But the worst incident in that first year happened in English class. I’d given up on math, but English was one of my top subjects. I loved the teacher and she seemed to love me back. I was the kid who raised his hand with every question. I didn’t really realize I was making an ass of myself, I just wanted to please the teacher and do well in the class. I got tagged with a nickname, Mr. Computer, but it wasn’t from friends. I didn’t have any friends, yet. After class one day, the biggest kid in the grade came up to me with what I can only describe as cronies. The kid had actual cronies. He addressed me as Mr. Computer and then grabbed what little meat I had on my chest hard (purple nurple) and said that if I wanted him to let me go I had to whistle. The problems was, I didn’t know how to whistle. But this was really hurting and people were staring. “Whistle!” He shouted again. In my panic, I did the only thing I could think of to do. I made a wolf whistle with my little 6th grade falsetto voice. They laughed at me and he let me go. In retrospect, it was kind of funny, but I wasn’t laughing at the time. I went home reliving that sense of helplessness and humiliation.
Friends did come eventually. I shared a lab table in science with two boys, let’s call them Robert and Josh. I’d been at Whittier long enough to know what these kids were. They were losers. They were at the bottom, and I believed I was as well. I had come from a school where everyone liked me. Perhaps I wasn’t cool, but I was socially fluid. If there was a social strata, I felt comfortable with all groups. And now I was at a school where kids called me Hot Lips and Mr. Computer and wouldn’t have anything to do with me except for Robert and Josh. And why were they losers? I found out when I went to visit them each in their homes. They were poor. At Whittier, to be poor was to be a loser. These were the kind of friends that always tried to make friends with the new kids like me; the kids who might not realize the nature of their social status.
In the same year I got catfished hard by a girl over the phone. She pretended to be someone who wanted to be my girlfriend, and for all of a day I thought things were looking up. I thought this could significantly raise my social status which was something that was becoming very important to me. Read the whole story if you like! Girlfriend Bamboozle
Then I met Trent, and everything changed. He sat in front of me in English. The first thing I noticed about him was that his hair was clearly cut by a professional. No home cuts. This kid was living the life. And he was smart, but kids didn’t hate him for it. He mostly kept to himself in class. I struck up a conversation with him after class. God only knows what was said, but we hit it off. He soon invited me over to his house. He wasn’t poor. He had a nice house, even nicer toys, and an endless supply of Fruit Rollups. He was not a loser. After meeting him, I stopped hanging our with Robert and Josh. I made up excuses not to go to their houses or have them over. I did not understand at the time that I was contributing to the same social rules that had made the first part of my time at Whittier so miserable, and even if I did, I might not have cared. I needed to find a place in the world, and making this new friend was the first step.
He was in band, and so was I, and soon I would begin identifying as a band person, a musician. I wasn’t the most popular kid in band, but I was one of the best musicians. This was my group until I graduated high school. I’d found my place in the large world of Norman and I quickly made new friends. There were other humiliations, damaging rumors, bullying, but I felt secure in my place. There were people who didn’t care about the rumors. Even some of the girls liked me. Especially Jennifer Wilson.