My family is prone to embarrassment in glorious and impossible ways. I'm not talking about the crushing, public humiliations of a nasty divorce or a DUI or an out-of-control gambling addiction that results in bankruptcy and foreclosures, but the comic opportunities for embarrassment that present themselves on a daily basis and that most people are able to avoid. My mother has mooned an Easter procession in England and an entire upscale French restaurant in Chicago, both accidentally (she is adept at this, the mooning thing). She also wrote, distracted and flustered, on a disciplinary referral in her first year of teaching, "Student asked repeatedly to spit out cum," when she meant to write "gum". My father has fainted in a Subway sandwich shop and at a driving range, the second time requiring stitches from the fall, and my sister and I have managed to expose our asses AND faint in public on multiple occasions, thankfully not at the same time...yet. Come to think of it, our public embarrassments seem to revolve around either faintings or moonings.
My first brush with this family proclivity occurred when I was in sixth grade. We had just moved to a small town in Central Texas and I was having my first experience as The New Kid. Students in this town attended one of two middle schools and there weren't a great number of new kids in any given year. I was a novelty and attracted the attention of everyone simply because I was a fresh face in a social landscape that had remained largely unchanged since kindergarten. It was the second day of school and our teacher, Mr. Catlin and nurse, Mrs. Zenner, thought it would be a good idea if Elsie, the token diabetic, demonstrated to the class how she checked her insulin level and gave herself injections. Sixth graders are cruel and I'm sure it seemed a good idea to them to educate us all on Elsie and her condition so we didn't turn her into the Piggy of the sixth grade.
Elsie stood bravely in front of the whole class and began to explain diabetes to us and how it effected her life as we huddled around and looked on with morbid curiosity. She pulled out her small kit of syringes, vials, and blood testing equipment and launched in to her daily routine. She had a small and timid voice and it was obvious she was nervous, perhaps sensing the speed with which sixth graders can become monsters to the unfamiliar.
"First, I have to prick my finger," she said as she pulled out what looked like a small desk stapler. She positioned the lancet over her index finger.
THWACK. A small bead of blood rose to the surface of her finger as she continued.
"Then I have to dab the blood onto the insulin meter." As she said this, the small bead of blood transformed into the LARGEST TORRENT OF GORE I have ever seen flowing from someone's finger.
"Oooh. Sometimes this happens. I need a tissue please," she blushed in her tiny pixy voice.
The gathered crowd pressed closer as Mrs. Zenner and Mr. Catlin explained to us how often Elsie had to prick her finger during the day and rhetorically asked us how much we would like it if we had to do what she had to do on a never-ending basis. I started to feel odd. I imagine I was like most 12 year old boys in that blood and guts didn't really bug me. In fact, I had spent the majority of my childhood enthralled by war movies and Indiana Jones movies and all manner of other things in which people met with untimely and gruesome deaths. Moreover, through years of soccer and bike riding and general rambunctiousness I had experienced many cuts and scrapes and busted teeth and was often more impressed with battle wounds than disgusted. Lightheadedness was not in my experiential context. I pushed closer, ignoring the spreading weirdness in my head.
Now the blood was dripping all over Elsie's diabetes kit, arm, and desk. The room started to narrow and the voices of the other kids sounded like an old recording, tinny and distant. I began to realize what was going on. I was going down. I was torn though. Should I return to my desk at the back of the classroom and appear as though I was shunning Elsie and her diabetes? Should I announce, as the new kid no one knew, that I was going to faint and needed to lay down? Or should I soldier on, flex my legs, and hope like hell that I was able to hold on? I managed to do none of these things. By the time I realized there was no escape, it was too late to make it to my desk.
I came to pressed uncomfortably against the wall with a lump on my head. The crowd that had encircled Elsie and focused all of its sixth grade judgement on her and her bleeding finger was now hovering over me with a bemused look of incredulity. As it was the second day of school and I was the new kid, no one knew my name, not even Mr. Catlin. Mrs. Zenner was gently tapping my cheek to bring me back around and warmly repeating, "New kid. New kid." I was mortified. My eyes finally focused on Elsie peering over the backs of the other students with an expression I can only describe as victory. There was a kid weirder than her. I tried to explain it away by saying that I had not eaten breakfast that morning, but the damage was done.
The rest of my sixth grade experience did not fair much better. The very next day at lunch, sitting by myself and trying to ignore the hushed whispers and stares of my classmates, I pierced a stubborn packet of taco sauce with my fork and succeeded only in having it spray me directly in the eye. The laughter was deafening. I also got braces that year, tried unsuccessfully to fake my way through a Christmas band concert because I had not practiced my instrument and, for the first time, had to shower in a shared locker room as one of the later bloomers. Oh, and I was The Fainter. Elsie flirted with popularity.
It should come as no surprise then that, when the following year my mom and dad told my sister and me we would be moving to Saudi Arabia, I greeted the move with anticipation. A fresh start! The day I fainted I had made a fantastical wish to move as far away as possible and now it seemed like that wish was coming true. Yes, I was nervous about being the new kid all over again, but I had learned from my first new kid experience and I was reasonably confident that I could negotiate the discomfort and carve a niche for myself that did not involve being one of the pariah. How much worse could it be?
We arrived in Saudi Arabia in the middle of the summer and had a couple of weeks to try to acclimate to the ridiculous heat, harsh sunlight, and utter unlikeness of the new culture we found ourselves in. The American school my sister and I were to attend operated on a trimester system and classes were set to begin in early August. Eighth grade. New beginnings.
I remember walking to school that first day drunk on an exciting mixture of anxiety, hope, and reservation. I coolly made my way into Mrs. Snakenberg's English class and immediately the room went silent. Our small town in Central Texas didn't get many newcomers, but Dhahran, Saudi Arabia was positively starved for fresh blood. My face did nothing to betray the nervousness I was feeling as I made my way to a desk and sat down. I was a cagey veteran at the new kid game and I was not going to wind up in the same position I had found myself in back in Texas. Namely, I was not going to wind up pale, clammy, and prone on the floor.
I took notes and ignored the curious stares of my classmates as Mrs. Snakenberg explained the interdisciplinary project with which we were going to begin the year. We were charged with inventing a product that would benefit us in our daily pursuits and we would be required to complete a portion of the project specific to each of our core classes. In addition, we would be given time at the beginning of each English class to be devoted to the actual construction of whichever product we decided to create. This was already a better start than witnessing the self-mutilation of the class diabetic and I walked home after a catastrophe free first day of school hopeful and excited about my new social potential on the other side of the world.
That evening at home I decided I would invent a headlight system for my skateboard ( I was a skate punk, replete with long, shaggy hair and baggy pants. Sue me.), and I marched off to school the next day, skateboard in hand, geared up for day two of the new me. I settled down in the corner of Mrs. Snakenberg's classroom and began cutting strips of Velcro in an effort to determine the best way to attach two small flashlights to the sides of the skateboard's deck. A couple of other kids strolled in just before the bell, sat down at the table with me, and started to ask me questions about where I was from and what my dad did for the company. This was good. This was normal. I easily fielded their questions, made a few jokes, and felt genuinely comfortable in my new school. I was easing into what I imagined would become a good time. Then Brad, the Canadian kid across from me, poked one of the wheels of my skateboard with the Exact-O Knife he was wielding and asked, "What's that made of?"
I reflexively swatted at his hand, fearful of him cutting the wheel, and wound up making direct and forceful contact on the tip of my middle finger with the tip of the ridiculously sharp knife he was holding. The resulting slice was surgical and deep and began bleeding profusely. Fuck. I gripped my finger and ran out into the hall to a water fountain to survey the damage. The inch long cut on my finger was pulsing blood with my increasing heart-rate and the warm water of the drinking fountain only caused it to bleed more. The sickening feeling of queasy faintness began to creep up on me.
I collected myself and walked back into the classroom to Mrs. Snakenberg's desk where she was answering a question from another student. Whatever the student had asked, the answer was taking forever and I began to dance nervously from foot to foot as the situation crept closer and closer my nightmare scenario. Finally, the student accepted whatever had been explained to her and Mrs. Snakenberg turned to me. She must have realized something was wrong because her expression changed from a gentle and open smile to poorly concealed alarm.
"Mrs. Snakenberg, I....".
I came to on the floor gazing up at a ring of students eerily reminiscent of the ring that had gathered around me back in Texas. My head hurt and as I sat up I felt something hanging from the mop of sweaty hair on my head. As my classmates chuckled, I realized it was a hot glue gun. I had fallen over backwards and landed directly on top of the Egyptian girl who was sitting Indian style behind me. My dead weight had pinned her upper body across her lap and onto the floor. In some pain, and quite rightly more than a little perturbed, she had forcefully rolled my limp body off her back causing my head to crash into the hot glue gun she was using to construct her project.
As Mrs. Snakenberg set to work cutting a chunk of gluey hair from the back of my head, she ordered a student to go get a glass of water and began to ask me what happened. I was relieved this time to have a gruesome injury to blame for my fainting and I held up my hand sure that the gaping wound on my finger would be more than enough to explain why I was in my current position. I was surprised, therefore, when the displaying of my hideous, gushing stab wound did not produce the squeamishness I expected among the gathered crowd. I looked down at my finger to see what now looked like a completely bloodless paper cut. Shell/core effect had withdrawn all available blood to my vital organs and my hands were now pale, cold, and, to my disappointment, bloodless. No evidence of the carnage existed.
As the other students snickered and made their way back to their projects, I leaned against Mrs. Snakenberg's desk and tried to disappear. It was sixth grade all over again. I was The Fainter. I was sipping on a box of fruit juice the Assistant Principle had stopped in to give me (I had tried again, in an effort to mitigate my embarrassment, to use the old 'I didn't eat breakfast this morning' excuse), when a beautiful blonde-haired classmate with infinite blue oceans for eyes crouched down next to me and put a wet towel on my forehead.
"Are you OK," she asked as she stroked my forehead.
"Um, yeah. I'll be OK. I'm just embarrassed," I responded.
"Oh, don't be embarrassed. I saw the cut when you walked out of the room. It looked really bad. I would have burst into tears. It really must have hurt."
Wait a moment! This was different! In spite of myself, I had managed to parlay my unmanly and highly embarrassing fainting habit into an intimate and tender moment with the hottest girl in the eighth grade. My luck was changing. I could see it now, we would fall madly and deeply in love and my time in Saudi Arabia would be spent in the delirious throes of teenage romance with this gentle and angelic being of God's perfection!
I started to smile and say something else, and then, in keeping with millions of years of evolution and survival instinct, my body decided that the contents of my stomach were no longer important to digest and that the devotion of energy thereto could be better utilized in facilitating my recovery.
I threw up into the trash can next to us.
I heard a chorus of "ewwws" from the rest of the classroom and, through watery eyes, I saw the calm and caring expression of my desert angel transform into a contorted face of disgust as she dry-heaved, dropped the wet towel on my forehead, and retreated back to her project. I was no longer just The Fainter. Now I was The Vomiter too.
The rest of eighth grade was largely forgettable, which, given the standard I had set for myself in sixth grade was probably a good thing. I kept my head down and escaped into soccer, skating, and the knowledge that I would leave Saudi Arabia for boarding school after ninth grade anyway (all western teens were required to do this). Mostly though, I learned to laugh at myself, which I have discovered is an essential component of maturity. Sixth and eighth graders are more than adept at laughing at other people, but it's an older person's ability to laugh at himself that makes him tolerable. Ninth grade was much better. I wasn't the only one who developed a more philosophical outlook on life's embarrassments and the shared burden of knowing that my classmates and I would soon be shipped away from our family's and each other softened the edges and cultivated genuine camaraderie. I'm still in touch with some of the people who saw me faint and vomit on that day.
Still though, it would have been nice to stop at fainting. I could have done without the glue gun and vomit.