My Nicholas turned 12 today, and the occasion has me thinking back to my own brush with that awkward, not-quite-a-kid/not-quite-a-teen year.
It was 1973, and I was entering junior high—the same junior high that Nick will attend in just one week. Only when I went there, it was brand-spanking-new. So new, in fact, that construction wasn’t finished yet and we had to do double-sessions at another school.
I was in orchestra and played the violin. I had a crush on Anita, Regina and probably half-a-dozen other unobtainable girls. The OPEC oil embargo was going on, so the grown-ups were all complaining about gas prices. I had my first encounter with P.E. class, running the mile and showering in a big room with other guys. Government safety rules required shock-absorbing front bumpers on cars, so my beloved Corvette (when DID that crush start, anyway?) went through cosmetic surgery and had its chrome front bumper replaced with a body-colored urethane one. (The old chrome bumperettes remained in back and would be replaced in 1974 with a matching rear urethane bumper, making the 1973 a one-model-year-only oddity.)
More than anything, though, I remember Edgar Rice Burroughs. We had a class in seventh grade called “Core,” a two-hour affair that included English and social studies. Because my new junior high was sharing a campus with another school, our Core class was in a portable. My English teacher loved Burroughs, and for one of our units he required us to read a Burroughs book and write a report on it. He explained that Burroughs was the creator of Tarzan, and offered us a big pile of his own personal Burroughs collection. I chose the 1914 classic Tarzan of the Apes, and my life was transformed.
Burroughs was enjoying a bit of a renaissance at the time, so nearly all his novels were in paperback. My family had just moved across town to a new house in a new neighborhood, and there was a new outdoor mall just down the street with a Little Professor Bookstore. I nearly lived there my entire twelfth year, buying Burroughs book after Burroughs book. I’d ride my bike there several days a week just to see if anything new had come in. The proprietors nearly adopted me. The Burroughs book covers were glorious paintings of muscular heroes and shapely damsels in distress, and while it’s true that you can’t judge most books by their covers, you could with these: The words inside backed up the covers’ promise.
My bedroom in the new house was my kingdom—a loving tribute to Burroughs, model trains, and the innumerable plastic model cars and planes I’d built. I had a huge modular desk/bookshelf unit my dad built for me, and in the middle was a gigantic corkboard that folded down to make a table for my trains and slot cars. On that corkboard was a large map of a land I knew better than my own: Barsoom, home world of John Carter of Mars.
What a messy mix of nerdly and cool I was. Mostly nerdly. I didn’t play any sports, but in P.E. I was strong and fast, which at least earned me the respect necessary to allow for my violin playing and book reading without being bullied. Little did I realize at the time, but that would be a pattern for my life: As the years went by, I did indeed become a bookish, weightlifting, car-adoring, classical-music-listening mish-mash. Those credentials earn you the title “Renaissance Man” as a grown-up; as a kid, they leave you lost between worlds.
But twelve was a glorious year, a fantastical year. I was perpetually high on Burroughs-driven fantasies: Wild, romantic, heroic visions of glory and grandeur, all while my real life was anything but. I was a shy kid with one or two carefully chosen nerdy friends, trying to figure out where he fit. And completely incapable of talking to cute girls. They’d look, they’d inquire. But when it turned out I didn’t really do anything, they’d move on. I just couldn’t get into that circle.
And now, here’s my own kid at that very age. It’s funny that I don’t spend more time visualizing what Nick must be going through. Is there a fantasyland inside his head, as there was in mine? Does he see reality but not quite live in it, as I did? Is he struggling to fit? Is he wrestling with that transition from little boy to teenager, as I did? Does all of it kinda freak him out like it did me?
Twelve is probably the first year of my life that’s really, solidly fixed in my memory. I have bits and snatches of years prior, but I can really summon 12 in my mind and almost hear it, smell it, feel it. Is that what my Nicholas is going through right now? That stage? Because that 12-year-old—that me from 40 years ago—left a mark. He’s still in here.
Which means that my Nick—the little boy in the other room watching TV as I type this—is, even now, a glimpse of who he’ll be in 10, 20 or 40 years. Wow. My Nick is . . . 12.