I actually caught a hint of it the summer before 7th grade, when two of my best friends that lived right down the street returned from a year in California. They came back far more grown up, talking about their experiences with booze, girls, and sneaking cigarettes in their garage every chance they got. In fact, everyone smoked just about everything in California, they told me.
“I even smoked a dead bee once!” one of them bragged to me.
Obviously, their partying lifestyle wasn’t as sophisticated as I gave them credit for at the time, but to me, it all sounded so grown-up.
I even got my first real kiss that summer, from an older girl who had a mouth full of braces and was willing to do something called “Frenching.” It was all carefully pre-negotiated through a series of notes and third-party phone calls. I quickly found out that romance and a mouth full of sharp metal don’t always mix, and the experience was not unlike sticking my tongue in a working fan.
I got on a big school bus for the first time (I had walked to school every day before that) with a lineup of scrappy looking 7th and 8th graders, and we headed way off to the other side of town. The Michael J. Whalen Middle School was a rough place in a rougher neighborhood, and it all looked incredibly unnerving and intimidating to me.
The other kids were seemingly cast out of a 1970s gang movie like the Warriors, wearing lots of cutoff jean jackets and corduroys, smoking cigarettes, and equipped with a stunning array of curse words and sexual vernacular. I’m sure the whole thing was comically small time, but to my innocent perception, it was like being in the center of Times Square after midnight for the first time.
I managed to survive the first few days without making eye contact with anyone and even reunited with a few familiar faces from my old school, as well as new classmates. Maybe this place wasn't so bad?
But my trepidation was soon confirmed one day after school let out. I was waiting for the bus with a new friend, who was well-known because he had a bunch of trouble-making older brothers. A high school guy who knew his brothers rolled by on a ten-speed bicycle and stopped to say hi. I was standing back while they talked, waiting politely in case my invitation ever came to actually talk to a high schooler, which I thought would earn me cool points for life.
The guy on the bike was white. The only reason I mention that as I was waiting, I noticed three guys charging down a hill behind him, who were all black. That wasn't noteworthy, either, in this inner city school, except that they were dressed in all-black jeans, black sweatshirts, and even black sneakers. As they got closer, I saw that one even had a black do-rag - the first time I'd ever seen one. They were really charging down the hill, and when they hit the bottom, they seemed to pick up speed in our direction. I looked around but there was no mistaking it – they were running right at us.
Before I could even issue a warning about the kamikaze squadron in all-black, they were on the high school kid on the bicycle, slamming him to the pavement and reigning down a flurry of punches and kicks. I remember the look in his eyes, not of pain but of glazed-over confusion as his brain struggled to process what was happening, all the while getting pummeled. It was that look that was the most horrifying to me, like a fish's eyes after it's been hooked and pulled onto the boat.
The three guys had the kid up against a school bus now, and we're really working him over, as he covered up and tried to deflect the vicious blows. I also remember the looks of intense hatred on their faces and the speed of it all. The whole beating couldn’t have taken more than 15 seconds, but it seemed like it was in slow motion. I also remember the sound his head made thumping against the metal of the school bus’ wheel well.
Finally, the kid had been knocked around enough, and the three guys paused as he scrambled away. Shaken, he picked up his eyeglasses of the ground, collected his bike, and starting to ride away. When he started to talk shit to them, the three guys gave chase, and for a moment there I thought they were going to catch him.
Pedal! Pedal! Faster! I almost yelled, as one sprinter nearly caught up and reached for his bike seat. But he clicked the bike into gear and pulled away easily, now opening mocking them. The guys disappeared into the crowd. It was over.
“What the hell just happened?” I asked my friend, but he just shrugged. “We should get on the bus.”
One day, there was a fight or something going on out front, so all of the inmates - I mean classmates - and I ran to the open window, where we shouted and yelled to the perpetrators below. There I was, still yelling at the top of my lungs without realizing that I was the now the only one. All of the other kids had retreated back to their desks when the school's principal heard the racket and came into the room.
I felt someone grab the back of my collar and pull me back from the window, and looked up to see the red-faced principal, who half-dragged me down to the office.
Well, I must have looked horrified, because they took pity on me and just gave me few weeks detention – not a suspension.
But they also had me sit down with a school counselor and run through a battery of questions, which I assume they did with most of the kids that got in trouble. But the counselor also had me wear a little stress test device – a tiny round piece of plastic on my hand that would change color when I was angry, anxious, or stressed. I thought it was ridiculous that I was basically being forced to wear a mood ring,
but it was better than being suspended.
I had to report back what the color was at most times. I wrote down that it showed the color black most of the time, which raised the counselor's eyebrow when I turned it in.
“Is black good?” I asked.
"Actually, it's the highest level of stress it can register.”
I don't recall much else about my 7th-grade year, except for hanging out with the same questionable crowd. Back then, everyone had to adopt some sort of identity, like a skateboarder, a geek, an athlete, a street punk, a metal head, etc. Lucky for me, the bee-smoking brothers I knew from my neighborhood were metal heads, so I went through a short phase wearing a jeans jacket with band patches on the back and a rat-tail haircut, too. The fact that I didn't even like Iron Maiden didn't stop me from trying to fit in, and I even went to my first concert with them, seeing Rat and Billy Squire at the unsavory New Haven Coliseum.
After that, on a family trip to nearby New York City, I was more interested in checking out the girls than the Statue of Liberty. After the photos of that day trip had been developed, I noticed a shadowy alien growth emerging on my upper lip for the first time: peach fuzz.
After school let out for the summer, my mom decided to enroll me in a local private school, Hamden Hall, for 8th grade. She saw my poor grades, the crowd I was hanging out with (and I'm sure my shocking appearance!) and that I was getting in trouble, and wanted to divert me to a better situation.
So one early summer day she told me to put on respectable clothes and drove me to Hamden Hall, where I sat in the office and took an admissions test. It all looked incredibly fancy and formal to me – not my scene at all. If I was still wearing that mood ring thing, I’m sure it would have been beyond black. But in between looking around the office four souvenirs I could steal, I must have done OK on the test because they told me that I would be admitted to Hamden Hall.
My first interaction with my new school mates was late that summer, when I was invited to a pool party for the incoming 8th-graders. I was dropped off at someone's house and left to fend for myself, and I remember that my short shorts, neon half-shirt, high socks with stripes, and Vans were conspicuously out of place among my new well-heeled classmates.
“Where are the rest of the kids?” I asked someone at the party, as only about 40-something kids were there.
“This is all of them,” they explained, as there were only about 50 kids in the entire 8th grade at Hamden Hall, where we had single classes with almost that many students at my old middle school.
But everyone was decent to me, partially because they wrongly assumed I had some street cred since I came from a public school. I even got a compliment on my neon half-shirt.
School started in late August, and my transition wasn't difficult socially (it took me about three days to meet all 50 students), but academically. Apparently, I was the dumb kid. Ok, maybe not dumb per se, but definitely uninspired, as I'd easily coasted through school so far, while most of these kids had only attended top-notch private schools.
My academic slacktavism was made worse by my public school punk antics, although they weren’t as popular among the small classrooms and strict rules of Hamden Hall. I lagged in math and science, where I got Cs or Ds. But I had an affinity for English classes, especially when we had to read great authors and write essays, where I earned B’s or even A’s. I escaped into the new worlds of Lord of the Flies, 1984, To Kill a Mocking Bird, and Catcher in the Rye.
We were each completely different but that was the point, as our goofy, oddball personalities fit together perfectly.
You want to know the cool thing? Thirty years later, I’m still great friends with Adam and Dylan. I can’t be more proud of the exceptional family men, citizens, and human beings they turned out to be. I visit them every chance I get when I’m in California, and the feeling of being accepted into our own tribe is exactly the same. There’s no laughter like laughter with old friends!
But I still wasn’t as comfortable with the rest of Hamden Hall, where my grades floundered and I managed to irk my teachers. My mother reenrolled me in Hamden Hall for 9th grade – my freshman year of high school – because mediocre grades at private school were still a better education than public school.
The transition to high school, therefore, was seamless, because it was the exact same 50 kids I’d been with before. Dylan, Adam and I kicked it every single weekend, and did the usual kid stuff of playing sports, video games, listening to our favorite band, Van Halen, and chasing girls (but not being 100% sure what to do if we caught them.)
However, I was still haunted by my deep seeded insecurity, and I didn’t always handle it in ways I’m proud of. A classmate named John – a great student who would probably be referred to as a nerd these days – was organizing a massive binder of paperwork in the hallway between classes. I walked up to him and purposefully knocked it out of his hands, shuffling all of the papers to the floor. I walked away laughing like a jerk, and I could see that John was about to cry. But Dylan came to his rescue and helped him pick up the papers and get them in order again - a lesson I still haven’t forgotten.
The dating scene at Hamden Hall was sadly hilarious because there were only about 20 girls to choose from, like I mentioned, and everyone ended up trying to make out with the same six girls. Looking back now, the girls all had big hair and dressed like Cyndi Lauper, but to us, they looked like supermodels.
We had our little crew that hung out together on weekends, hanging out at movies or downtown New Haven, sometimes raiding a liquor cabinet, and I even enticed one or two of those supermodels to kiss me, although this time it wasn’t like sticking my tongue into a fan.
Around that time, I was more conscious of newspaper headlines and TV news, too. There was this shadowy new disease called AIDS in nearby New York City that had everyone scared. A man named nelson Mandela had been released from prison in South Africa and became President, ending apartheid. Everyone was talking about the movies Footloose, Ghost Busters, and Indiana Jones, and we watched in horror as the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on live TV, killing everyone aboard instantly.
But although my world was still pretty small, three things happened by the end of 9th grade that would change everything.
First, my mom remarried. While this new male authority figure in the house seemed pretty cool at first, he would turn out to be my principal nemesis all throughout high school, and the object of my teenage defiance.
Second, my grades suffered even more, to the point where I was bringing home C’s and D’s. I was smart enough to do the work, just lazy and I refused to follow orders or fully engage in class. I also started acting out in class again, and got punished with a few work details where I had to come in to rake leaves or clean up trash on Saturdays.
So when my mother asked if I wanted to go back to public high school in the fall instead of staying at Hamden Hall. I jumped at the opportunity. I loved my brothers Adam and Dylan, but a class of 50 rich kids in a small school just wasn’t my scene. She agreed that it would be a good idea. After all, I could get bad grades at public school for free instead of her paying big bucks for it!
The other thing, just as significant, happened in the hallways one day after school. A friend - I think it was Mike Press - had a Sony Walkman, and put the headphones over my ears.
“Listen to this, Norm. It’s this new thing.”
I put on the headphones. The sounds of the Beastie Boys’ Paul Revere barraged my senses.
“Now here's a little story I've got to tell
About three bad brothers you know so well
It started way back in history
With Ad-Rock, M.C.A. (and me) Mike D!”
“What the hell is that?!” I asked Mike, wide eyed and grabbing the Walkman from him to listen intently. And listen again. And then fast forward to the next song.
“You wake up late for school man you don't wanna go
You ask you mom "Please?" but she still says "No!"
You missed two classes and no homework
But your teacher preaches class like you're some kind of jerk
You gotta fight, for your right, to party!”
I was hooked. I needed more.
That was the moment I fell in love with rap music, a love affair that would grow stronger as I headed to another new school, Hamden High, to start 10th grade.
And that’s exactly when things got really fun.
Read Where I'm From, Part 1 here.