A writer friend once challenged me to write my autobiography in 700 words. I’ll always rise to a writing challenge. I began by listing the different cities and towns where I had lived in a lifetime. I have lived in a total of 14 separate cities and towns. That list took up the first 29 words. Then I recounted how many separate moves I had made from one city or town to another – there were 24 of those. For example, I moved back to Birmingham from other places at least five different times. This list does not include the times I moved from place to place within the same city. During my time in Tuscaloosa in the 70s and 80s –finishing high school, going to college, etc. – I moved at least eight times that I can recall.
I sent the 700 words to my friend. He sent a chastising email back, chiding me for a “cop-out.” He felt I had dealt with superficial things as a way of avoiding writing about myself.
I stood my ground. I feel that the moves are a large part of what defines me. I was born in a military hospital but my father was discharged from the Army when I was six weeks old so I am not a military brat. However, Dad’s work transferred us a lot and I ended up attending ten different schools from grades 1-12. That gave me a lot of experience in being the “new kid.”
In a recent post for “Professional Southerner,” I realized how many times I use the word “community.” In fact, I even used that word in the title of that essay. One of the impacts of being the new kid is that you are always looking for your community – the place where you fit in and belong. And when you move around as much as I did, once you think you may have found it, it is taken away and you have to start over again, build up your shell, and carry on. A miracle of the whole experience is that, despite the moves, I always managed to keep my grades up. That was tough.
I have a deformity of my left hand. It is relatively minor but it is there nevertheless. I am missing a little finger and my middle and ring fingers were fused together at birth. The fingers were surgically separated when I was very young but they are still noticeably misshapen to an observant eye. Some people never even notice and others spot it immediately. I am very good at not drawing unnecessary attention to the issue; I’ve had a lifetime of practice.
If you are no longer the new kid, classmates get used to the irregularity and don’t even think about it. If you are constantly the new kid, classmates are constantly discovering, staring, and whispering for the first time. Over time, I developed an aggressive way of dealing with the stares and comments. “I see you’re looking at my hand,” I would say boldly. “Let me show you what’s wrong with it.” Then I’d whip out the hand, explain the defect, and carry on. Some seemed uncomfortable or put off by my candor but most, I think, were grateful to have the mystery solved. I realize that my aggressive response was a defense that I built up to cover my discomfort at always being newly discovered.
I am shy. I am able to cover it pretty well and my current college students chortle in disbelief when I say it, but it’s true. Walking up to a group of total strangers and inserting myself into their consciousness is not something with which I am comfortable. Over the years, when I plead shyness, someone inevitably says, “Well, you’ve moved around so much. Surely you’ve conquered it by now.” I haven’t conquered it, but I have a lifetime of experience that helps me to build up defenses that hide it better, I guess.
As a boy, there was often an impulse to redefine myself when I moved. I would analyze what had worked and what had not worked so well at the old place and try to adjust accordingly for the new place. I’d change my “style,” my attitude, and sometimes my clothes and hair, and take it for a test drive. Probably the redefinition worked most quickly and successfully at my favorite of all of the schools I attended – Shades Valley High in metro Birmingham (in its original location between Homewood and Mountain Brook for those who remember). I immediately felt at home and like I fit. I first seriously pursued theatre at Valley, took my first real curtain call at Valley, and had a close and diverse circle of friends — none of whom, incidentally, I am still in contact with. That’s a collateral effect of constantly moving: One tends to lose touch.
I only attended Shades Valley for four months and we moved again. At the new schools in Jackson, Mississippi – I had to attend two schools because one did not offer all of the classes I was taking at Valley – I auditioned for shows but, as the “new kid,” nobody knew who I was and I was never cast. So I started to redefine again.
Jackson in 1971 was where I first encountered the unfortunate policy of busing to achieve racial integration in the schools. Regardless of your political point of view about what was right or wrong about busing as a solution to a real problem that needed to be fixed, it was incredibly uncomfortable for those of us who actually participated in it. My parents offered to send me to a private school in Jackson but I felt that if you weren’t part of the alleged solution, you were part of the problem and I felt some sort of 16-year-old’s drive to be a part of the solution, no matter how inconvenient and painful it was.
Lunch is always the very worst time of day for the new kid. All of the affiliations are established already and you have to step carefully to avoid stepping on toes or putting yourself in an even more awkward situation. I remember on a first day at lunch in Nashville in 1968 a girl plopped down and informed me that I was “new.” I told her she was right. She asked me where I was from and I told her Birmingham. “Oh,” she said, “a southerner … how do you like living up north now?” I patiently informed her that I wasn’t “up north” but in Nashville.
On the first day at lunch in Jackson in 1971, another girl plopped down across the table from me. Again, I was informed that I was “new.” I introduced myself. She did likewise and asked where I was from. “Birmingham,” I said. “Oh,” she sneered, “another Yankee.” I assured her that I was not a Yankee but from Birmingham, Alabama, and she asked me a few uncomfortable questions about my politics (I was 16, mind you), and then informed me that “nowadays” everybody who wasn’t from Mississippi was a “Yankee.” I did make friends at the schools in Jackson but that girl wasn’t one of them.
Eventually, Dad took a job in Tuscaloosa and we were there for the last part of my junior year and my entire senior year in high school. I found friends, fit in, became an editor of Tuscaloosa High School’s literary magazine, and went through all of the activities one associates with a high school senior’s year. Still, I went through senior year as one of the “new kids” and never quite felt like I was totally a part of the picture in the way that my classmates, most of whom had gone through school together, might be. The yearbook came out and my name was misspelled. It was just a typo and those things happen but it felt a little bit like a repercussion of being perpetually the “new kid.”
My brother is twelve years younger than me and the family had pretty much settled in Tuscaloosa by the time he entered school and I went to college. It’s interesting to observe how we had the same wonderful parents but such different childhoods. On a couple of occasions over the past few years, Mother has felt the need to apologize to me for all of the moves and upheaval of my growing up years.
I appreciate that she has said it, but I don’t feel anybody is owed an apology for this. Yes, it was difficult at times, but I’m sure it made me tougher, more flexible, more tolerant, and more of a survivor when the pressure starts to build.
We all do what we must do. I don’t know for sure how much my growing up years contributed to my decision to pursue a career in theatre. I have noticed, though, that many actors have a transient or “military brat” childhood. Whatever the reasons, I worked in professional theatre after graduate school and, in doing so, I extended the vagabond lifestyle for another couple of decades.
Now I have lived in the same place with the same job for twelve years. But I still get mighty restless.
(The image is an untitled portrait by Patrick Grogan, 1999),