Jul 16, 2015

Who Says Childhood is the Best Time of Our Lives?

After reading about the 38 gay events  from my childhood  -- marrying the boy next door, seeing my cousin Joe naked,  getting kissed by a boy vampire, slow dancing in the school gym, my boyfriend Bill -- you might get the impression that I grew up in a homoerotic Eden, with muscular guys torn out of their shirts around every corner, all waiting for me to hug, kiss, or fondle them.

But those events are memorable because they were rare.  There were countless days of boredom, fear, and misery.  Life was rough, and there was no hint that it would ever get better.

1. Gender policing was constant.  Boys could reveal that they were really "girls," and therefore reprehensible, by carrying their books wrong, by wearing the wrong socks, by using the wrong words (greetings consisted of "H'lo," not "Hi," and we used last names, not first names.)

2. Thus opening themselves up for a barrage of physical assaults from Mean Boys and miscellaneous bullies.  And the adults never intervened.  "You will be fighting every day for the rest of your life," they said.  "You must learn to defend yourself."

3. Even more oppressive was the utter lack of civility in children's culture.  You found a small group of friends and clung together to ward off the constant jibes and insults from members of other groups.

4. No one knew, or let on, that same-sex desire, behavior, or romance could exist.  Same-sex friendships were portrayed as trivial, inconsequential, always abandoned instantly and without hesitation for the pursuit of the feminine.

5. That pursuit of the feminine was expected to be, or to soon become, our sole reason for living. So the interrogation of "What girl do you like?"  What girl do you like?" never ended.

It got better.  By high school, the gender policing was minimal -- it was ok to play in the orchestra, or say "delicious," or wear white socks.  The physical assaults ended.  Members of different cliques began to treat each other civilly.

But still, same-sex desire, behavior, or romance was never mentioned, presumed not to exist, and the "What girl do you like" interrogation intensified day by day, year by year.

That's why I hated it when a nostalgia-minded adult exclaimed "This is the best time of your life!  All joy and freedom, no problems, no responsibilities!"  I still do.

Where did that idiotic idea come from, anyway?

I blame Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who disputed then then-current view of children as born evil, infested with original sin.  He proclaimed that they were "noble savages," untrained but endowed with the best of human nature.

By the time of the Romantic Era (1815), William Wordsworth was proclaiming that we come down from heaven "trailing clouds of glory."  Only later do "shades of the prison-house" close upon us.

During the late 19th century, more and more children were attending school instead of going to work, and gradually adults and children began to inhabit different spheres. They had different daily activities, games, toys, books, music; children were shielded from knowledge of sex and death, shielded, indeed, from any knowledge of adults except for relatives and childcare professionals.  And the adults began to look back at that separate child sphere with nostalgic longing.

Lewis Carroll was only 28 years old when he wrote:
I'd give all the wealth that years have piled, the slow result of life's decay,
To be once more a little child for one bright summer day.

But the worst offender is "The Barefoot Boy," by John Greenleaf Whitter (1851), which millions of schoolkids were forced to memorize by adults trying to impress upon them that their lives were perfect.

You've probably heard of it, or some of its many parodies, such as Max Shulman's humorous novel, Barefoot Boy with Cheek

But have you actually read it?  It's awful, even worse than James Whitcomb Rileys stuff.  It's about a "barefoot boy with cheek of tan" who wanders around the countryside, investigating woodchucks, moles, tortoises, orioles, and wasps, which is something a thousand times better than anything adults do.  The moral: we are born with an intimate connection to the natural world, but when we grow up, life stinks.

Ok, I never did any of those things when I was a kid, and the only cheeks of tan I was interested in were in a different part of the anatomy.