Paula Sophia Schonauer, LCSW, continues a serial memoir. If you haven’t read the earlier parts of this series take a look:
- Manhood, from the inside out — Memoir and Mythology
- Manhood from the inside out, part 2 — Cubby Hole
- Manhood from the inside out, part 3 — Magic Carpet Cocoons
- Manhood, from the inside out, part 4 — Snips and Snails and Puppy-Dogs’ Tails
- Manhood, from the inside out, part 5 — Mirror
Victims who don’t seem to be confident in themselves will likely be eager to please, and not certain of their own identity [sic].
–Darrel Turner Ph.D., forensic psychologist
By the time I was seven years old, I studied boys, how they dressed, behaved, and talked. I observed their mannerisms, the way they walked, and I imitated them as best I could. They became a mirror with which I measured success or failure at being a boy.
I found myself looking at them, almost dreamy, trying to spot the most minute gestures, listening for inflections in the tones of their voices, and I envied the ease with which they navigated their worlds. These boys had confidence, charisma, and a swaggering presence. They knew who they were.
Perhaps, my study of boys put out a queer vibe, or maybe, it was my sensitive nature, the way I was more comfortable playing with girls, how easily I cried, and that I had a lisp. Likely, all of that.
Whatever the case, I encountered bullies almost everywhere I went, and because I was eager to please them, they manipulated me into doing things I would not ordinarily do, and the worst thing, they laughed at me, laughing and laughing, perhaps amazed at my willingness to endure abuse.
In late August, my aunt and her boyfriend took me swimming at Munroe Falls Lake in Northeastern Ohio. Back then, the lake was full of children all summer long. They climbed waterslides, slid down, climbed up again, dove off diving boards, swam from dock to dock, and ran and played, wrestled, and fought on the grassy beach. Some of the kids younger than me were already proficient swimmers, and I envied how they thoughtlessly jumped into the water, gliding along the surface.
I couldn’t swim, and I was afraid of the deep water, afraid of the docks, the diving board, the big slides. I enjoyed the kiddie slides, but I was already big for my age and two to three years older than the little kids. My aunt restricted me to the wading depths, admonishing me to stay away from a line of rope suspended by floaties, which marked the beginning of deep water.
Plus, when I got past the point where the water hit my waist, the bottom of the lake turned from sand to mud, and the mud, cold and slimy beneath my feet, disturbed me. I imagined a globulous monster stretched flat on the lake bottom, ready to eat some kid dumb enough to venture too far.
Of course, I drew bullies within the first thirty minutes.
They snickered at me for staying in the wading area, and I felt the sting of shame and self-hatred, a growing determination to show them I could be as brave as they were. They encouraged me to follow them.
I glanced at my aunt and her boyfriend, who were still laying on towels, talking on the beach. Clustered among the boys, I snuck toward a ladder on the edge of a dock protruding way past the rope line. I was already scared but determined.
The boys brought me to the end of the dock where it split left and right to form a T. Each side of the T had a diving board, standard length, standard distance above the water, but they scared me as I recalled movies and cartoons depicting pirates making victims walk the plank. The boys pushed me toward a diving board and up the ladder. They nudged me forward, first with their hands and then with their words, “Do it! Get out there. If you don’t jump, you’re a queer.”
I was close to the edge when the lifeguard in the middle of the T blew his whistle. He waved at me. “Hey, kid, can you swim?”
Several of the boys shouted, “He can swim. He’s really good.”
I could only nod. The lifeguard twirled his whistle in a circle, staring at me, sizing me up. At that moment, I wished I wasn’t so big for my age. At seven I was the size of some nine and ten-year-olds.
“Okay,” the lifeguard said. He blew his whistle. “Come on, you’re holding up the line.”
When I got to the edge of the diving board, the downward flex scared me, my balance unsteady. The boys yelled in chorus, “Jump! Jump! Jump!”
I looked across the water to a dock in the middle of the lake. It had a high dive, and I watched a guy run to the edge of the board, bouncing at the tip to let it propel him high into the air where he stretched his arms like wings, suspended for a moment as if in flight. When he began to fall, he maintained his graceful pose until he was just above the surface of the water, slipping into the waves like a knife.
I wanted to do that, to be that strong, that graceful, but I froze. The lifeguard blew his whistle again, calling me back to the dock, but when I tried to walk backward away from the edge, the diving board bounced beneath my weight. I fell, bumping my head on the way down.
The next thing I knew, I was on the dock, people staring down at me while I coughed water. My aunt was there, scowling at me, her boyfriend standing behind her with folded arms, a disgusted look on his face.
My day at the lake was done.
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Last Updated April 16, 2021, 6:08 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor