I Didn't Know How To Play When I Was A Kid


I was ten during the climax of our nation’s awareness of the Childhood Obesity Epidemic. Under immense public pressure, my school district implemented a policy that prohibited schools from holding activities during hours typically reserved for outdoor recreational play in order to ensure that kids weren’t prevented from getting a half-hour of social and bodily stimulation. This seemed like a good idea, except that it blatantly overlooked kids who wouldn’t be moving their bodies or making friends during this time anyway, kids who didn’t have the slightest idea how to move their bodies in ways that seemed productive, engaging, or in any way stimulating, kids like me.

Before the implementation of this rule, I would typically spend my recess hour in my school’s library, which was explicitly prohibited per the wording of the district’s new policy, and as I found out a few days later, so was reading books outdoors against a wall or under a tree. In retrospect, I know that the recess supervisor who used to confiscate my books and tell me to “go play with the other kids” was probably just making that part up in an attempt to “turn me into a healthy 10-year-old” or something. This was weird and confusing to me: there was a time and place in a fifth-grader’s world where reading was forbidden. And even more weird and confusing was my uncertainty of “how to play” — at least in a manner that seemed inoffensive and similar enough to the ways that I saw other kids doing it. My definition of “play” often involved me moving furniture around my room and crouching under blanket forts, pretending I was a hobo who lived in a cave underneath a YMCA and subsisted off of toenail clippings and loose hairs (pubic and otherwise) that would fall through the drains at the bottom of the locker-room showers.

I had a hard time finding kids with similar interests.

I used to believe that everything experienced by everyone in the world was somehow equivalent, was somehow shared, and that no one person could ever feel happier in their life than another, and that when I felt a quantifiable amount of sadness or loneliness, that everybody in the world would somehow experience that same amount of sadness or loneliness, but in a different form and at a different time. When I saw kids playing sports, having intimate friendships with people, and feeling things that weren’t in my Catalog of Positive Emotions I’ve Experienced, I would feel comforted by my belief that they were somehow quickly depleting a predetermined amount of happiness, edging closer to an eventual “running out” that would result in living the rest of their lives dealing with their unused, negative emotions. I took comfort in believing that I was only capable of being sad and socially-inept for so long. I took comfort in a typical progression I saw exemplified in the lives of every adult male I knew at that time — of building friendships, a family, a career, and a relationship with God — and that I would wake up one day in my mid-forties and suddenly feel measurably better at making and keeping friends, at having sleep-overs, at believing in God and committing minor transgressions like kissing girls and ingesting mind-altering substances.

When I used to go into the library to read during recess, I believed that what I felt when the librarian discussed books with me was what the kids playing football felt when they tackled each other, when they made “touchdowns,” “interceptions,” “pass-interferences,” or any number of acts of athleticism I couldn’t understand as anything other than a means to experience something akin to a librarian remarking on your worldliness, giving you chocolates and tussling your hair as you leave after the bell rings.

On the days I was forced to be outside without books, I would make my rounds to all the other groups of kids and investigate what they, what anyone, did during recess. After determining that I didn’t possess the technical knowledge to partake in or comprehend football, that I didn’t possess the lack of a political conscience to wholeheartedly participate in a game that involved pretending to be a cowboy, “slaughtering Indians,” and “taking all of their women,” I would usually end up sauntering off to the bike racks on the edge of the playground and leaning against the chain-link fence that encompassed it, wishing I knew how to “smoke things” and pretending that I possessed some sort of rare skillset that activated from within me a kind of incomprehensible charisma that would make people want to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for three to five seconds of life-altering, uninterrupted eye contact with me.

Eventually I got to sit against the wall and read my books during recess. I was able to do so because sitting against the wall during recess was a punishment for bad behavior, which I had begun to exhibit. This usually manifested itself in throwing handfuls of pebbles at other students. My parents, in search of a rational answer as to why I was doing this, why I would come home from school screaming and crying, slamming doors and throwing things, assumed that I was “being bullied” for “being different,” a comforting assumption, as it put none of the blame on me, their child. They spent an excess of time worrying and hypothesizing about me, never once worrying about their own “capacity for play” with each other.


Sometime later in my life, when I arrive at the point in a relationship that it becomes necessary to share acute details of my childhood and the complications that plagued it, what will I tell them? I was never bullied, my parents are divorced, but they’re both still alive, and they provided for me and did everything expected of parents in a family comfortably nestled within the American Upper-Middle Class. Will I tell them that I was “incapable of play”? Is that even a thing? Will I ever be in a relationship that makes it to this point? Will my “incapacity for play” eventually develop into an “incapacity for love”?

My family has always found comfort in thinking that I was the victim of some societal injustice perpetrated by an imaginary gang of beefy ten-year-old bullies. I’d like to try and communicate to them that I wasn’t so much a “victim” as I was a “road trip companion” to the likes of public libraries, art teachers, and the internet. There were no incidents, only divergences that brought me to where I am now, somewhere far away from where I or my parents or anybody who expects things of people would have pictured me at this time. Someone incapable of feeling anything during his youth except for characteristics of youth he’s read about in books, someone lacking the proper definitions of the emotions he’s slowly slipping into as he grows older, someone incapable of recognizing them as anything other than an expected sensation of “growing up.”

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