After I finished my first couple of years at my neighborhood elementary school, fate intervened and I began to take my act on the road.
The IQ test I was made to take, without knowing it was an IQ test, was administered by a man I remember as having sparse hair, a white beard, glasses, and a severe expression. Because I was so young, much of the test involved me doing things with bricks and blocks, manipulating them into patterns under the watchful eye of the psychologist.
I’ve since come to realize that I conflated my memory of the doctor with photos I would see much later in life of Sigmund Freud.
I was eventually told that my neighborhood school didn’t have the capacity to handle me. I accepted this as the routine course of things. I had already had my first crush, one that was reciprocated on the part of a blonde girl called Sally (we were terribly uncomfortable around one another, always a sure sign). Inexplicable things were happening, and being told that I was somehow too much for my school was typical of that time.
An identity was being confirmed: a fundamental sense of difference, bordered by regions of melancholy.
To commemorate this alienation, I boarded a bus for a school on the other side of town. I remember Cranbrook Elementary as shaped like shoeboxes arranged in perpendicular shapes. My best friend was named Allen, he was African American and could launch a kickball with velocity and an arc like no one else. I would laugh with sheer absurd pleasure as the defense scrambled into the distance, trying to catch up with the ball while Allen rounded the bases with a head-down, hard-charging ferocity.
The other children at Cranbrook all came from around the neighborhood. The school was simply part of the geography of their lives. I landed like an alien every morning, looking around at a foreign country I was simply visiting.
School was still absurdly easy, but I no longer had the sense of being years ahead of everyone else. Cranbrook was a better school. But what did that mean about the school in my own neighborhood?
More to the point, what did that mean about the neighborhood in which I lived?
Many decisions were being made without my participation, the lot of the child. Nearly everything was beyond my control. My parents’ brief marriage was already tucked away in pre-memory. My dog Louie had died. Soon enough, for reasons somehow related to that IQ test, I was taking the morning school bus to another part of town, to another school, my third in my Elementary career.
Douglas Elementary was known as an alternative school. Finally, we were getting somewhere! Knowing nothing of theories of education, I made a reasonable determination: this was a place for misfits.
We had no desks, just shelves where we stacked our crap haphazardly. Instead of class periods we had semi-informal swathes of time in which we tackled weeks-long projects sometimes tangentially related to conventional academic subjects. We were put into tracks based on aptitude and testing. I was placed in the highest track, where I toiled on massive presentations and was encouraged to spend as much time as I liked researching anything at all in the library in the center of the building.
I loved Douglas Elementary, even though the sky was always gray and I remember feeling confused and alone nearly all of the time.
The Enneagram is a model of the human mind that delineates nine interconnected personality types. It lays out predictable patterns of behavior and self-perception for each of these types, roughly identifying the path of each psychic tendency when it operates from positions of wellness or distress.
Type Four of the Enneagram is often identified as the Individualist (other interpretations call this bundle of personality traits the Romantic). This person is prone to sadness, and fixation on fantasy. He is afraid of having no solid identity and yearns for a tangible origin to his existence that he fears does not exist. With a loneliness that comes from a sensation of uniqueness, he can drift into realms of the imagination that stifle the immediate experience of the everyday.
The textures of imagination were my every day. The rich world of comic books was a parallel world for me.
Peter Parker’s life in those days was in turmoil. His friend Harry Osborne had freaked out on drugs, and Harry’s father was a supervillain. Peter’s love Gwen Stacy had died in his arms. His boss, the newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson, was an irascible asshole. And as Spider-Man, Peter was constantly under assault from crazed lunatics who hatched elaborate schemes to drive him insane, wreck what little order his life enjoyed, and kill him in sadistically inventive ways.
When I looked up from books, I learned that I could commit to big projects. I seemed to be able to concentrate on things longer than others, and to immerse myself in making connections and executing grand visions.
The world moved around the fixed point of my eyes, and I always felt about five seconds short of actually understanding what was going on. Feelings of satisfaction and connection would rise up then fade away like smoke. I looked over the railing, down into the library of Douglas Elementary, and felt the pull of endless searching to distract from the yawning emptiness. I embraced sadness as a version of self, and never really told anyone that was what I was doing.
It would also be decades before I began to realize that my fear of not having a fixed self was actually an accurate perception, an insight that would lead to a profound shift in understanding. In the meantime, there was a terrible amount of wandering to do.
The psychologist who administered the IQ test that defined my childhood would return to my life in an unexpected fashion many years later: as a landlord.
He owned a large, two-story brick house that had once been a residence for Union officers at Camp Chase, a staging and training camp for the military during the Civil War (it opened in 1861, at the dawn of the war). The house was very odd, with high ceilings and antiquated fixtures. I lived there with my mother when I returned home from college during the summertime. I loved its idiosyncrasies and the weirdness of the place, although it was also the site of a disturbing episode in which my mother’s psychic afflictions came into stark focus. I learned one summer that her life and reality was not what I understood, and that fear and disorientation was just beneath her surface, and probably always had been as long as I had known her.
The only other remnant of Camp Chase was several blocks away: a Confederate Cemetery, where 2,260 men who died in captivity were buried in long rows. Many died in appalling conditions of disease and malnutrition.
An entity known as the Lady in Gray used to haunt the cemetery. She was perpetually in her late teens, and she held a spotless white handkerchief. She was said to walk between the rows of graves, reading the names and looking for one in particular. She reportedly gave up some time ago, and is no longer seen.
I’d peer out the window of my room, trying to spot her.
Other stories in the Neutral Observations project are here.