After having switched schools several times in the past few years, I ended up at Mountain View Elementary in Casper, Wyoming part way through the fourth grade year.
My teacher was Mrs. Butts, who would also be my teacher at the school in the sixth grade, which was strange coincidence since I had the same teacher in kindergarten and second grade back in Newton – Mrs. Shump.
Mrs. Butts was a pretty nice lady, all told. Not at all like the boy-hating troll, Mrs. Hopkins, whom I had to endure throughout the fifth grade. The latter became my first real authority figure to fully rebel against, including scratching my name off the stupid “Class Constitution” she made us sign at the beginning of the year.
After being shown my seat and being introduced to the class, a tardy student named Alex stumbled into the classroom with his arms full of various belongings. If I picture it today he was sort of a kid version of the nutty professor. He had a backpack and a briefcase and other items that fell about as he rushed to his seat.
When he saw me, he stopped and thrust a hand out from the pile of stuff in his arms and introduced himself, adding a Woody Allen thing to the Nutty Professor thing.
Alex was a nerd before it was even remotely cool. He was the real deal. He had a computer which he was very proficient with, which got him in trouble in the seventh grade when he tried to hack our math grades. He drew a very quirky comic strip called ‘Turds’ that was basically just anthropomorphized poo having sarcastic interactions and tragicomic encounters. It was awesome. He had stacks of MAD Magazines and several Weird Al Yankovich albums.
Even though I thought he was interesting, funny and fun to be around, Alex was not well liked by most of our classmates. They found his eccentricity and disinterest in male cliches to be a sign of low character, rather than appreciating his humor and creativity as I did. I kept feet in both camps, though. I hung out with the ‘cool guys’ and with Alex alternately, and took a bit of heat every once in awhile from both sides for my perceived disloyalty. But I really just liked things about both parties.
Alex lived on the outskirts of town in a trailer that was on some land with several outbuildings, campers and assorted machinery and junk. We would sometimes hang out in the main outbuilding, an old house which was essentially the man cave of his stepdad, whom Alex once claimed he tried to kill by spiking his coffee with bleach. It was populated by stacks of old nudey mags which we would always browse through, as well as several rooms full of various junk we imagined making things out of.
One day we were out wondering his kingdom when we came across a bunny rabbit. We chased after it for fifty yards before managing to corner it in a pile of lumber scraps. As we chased it we had talked about killing it, mighty warriors we were, and roasting it as a testament to our self-sufficiency and general badassedness.
But as we looked at the furry little guy, scared and trembling, looking up at us armed with rocks and sticks, we just couldn’t do it. We watched him for a little while and then just sort of wordlessly walked away, both ashamed and proud of what we could have done but didn’t.
That was why I liked hanging out with Alex. With those other guys, there would have been male honor at stake. Had anyone not participated in the bunny slaughter, they would have been shamed and derided endlessly and labeled a ‘pussy’ for life. But with Alex it was more about being creative together than destructive.
Today when I hear people talking about when “men were men” I wanna pour bleach in their coffee. I saw that toxic masculinity damage almost every boy I grew up with, whether as a participant or outsider. The pressure of machismo mythology prevents self-exploration and intellectual freedom, and creates a strata of status that promotes bullying.
In that macho world many claim to learn who they are during their first kill. But I learned a lot more about myself when Alex and I decided not to.