Most people would not think a story based on an itchy knee warrants a retelling, but I am inclined to share it as it continues to gnaw at my psyche and, perhaps by putting words to paper, I can release its hold on me and in short order make sense of the events related to it.
It was the summer after my junior year of high school and I had applied to attend a special program for gifted math and science students three hundred miles from home. I did not brag to my neighborhood friends as I was already seen as a nerd and this venture could only magnify that perception by revealing that I planned to spend six weeks of summer vacation at a major university studying advanced topics in mathematics, physics, computer science and other topics so esoteric that the average junior in college would not be familiar with them.
I anxiously awaited the letter and annoyed my mother daily by bursting through the door, out of breath, inquiring whether the mail had yet arrived. After weeks of such badgering, I finally received the solemn letter and it said I had been accepted – as an alternate; if another candidate were unable to attend, I would be selected. There were other words on the paper, I think, but they immediately melted into an unreadable blur for some odd reason and I was unable to, or uninterested in, reading them.
My heart sank as I put the letter down. My mother comforted me the way mothers always do, but it was ineffectual and I lumbered up the stairs to my bedroom to sulk in the best tradition of disappointed teenagers everywhere. I moped, and sighed and punched pillows and cussed under my breath in such strong terms and did other abominable, unmentionable things to wallow in self-pity.
Later that afternoon, my mother came in to read me the remainder of the letter. It said that they were in the process of trying to get additional funding to increase the number of students from forty-five to sixty and asked if I would be interested if that were the case. I ran to the mailbox around the corner as fast as I could and dropped the hastily completed reply in the slot. I stood there in my anxiety for quite a while. I am not sure whether I was waiting for the mailman to pick up the letter so I could relate to him its import, or whether I was waiting for him to deliver the reply to me forthwith as they always did on the Road Runner cartoons on Saturday morning. Whatever the reason, I finally tired of waiting for either result and walked home kicking a stone with my hands deep into my pockets and my mind settled back deep into the anxiety of anticipation.
Weeks passed and my mother was again annoyed daily, but she did not express it so forcefully this time, probably out of sympathy and perhaps out of fear that the next letter would again be a rejection. It was as if I was awaiting a letter from a long lost love, waiting for her to admit her error and now profess her newly recognized love for me and beckon me to come to her again. And, in a warped, nerdy way it was. The long lost love of math, computers and all things science, to which I had dedicated my long life, had rejected me with that first letter, and now, after my reply expressing my undying desire for her still continued, I awaited the letter to acknowledge that my love was no longer unrequited - and the wait was sheer agony.
Well, as you might have expected, the letter finally did arrive, and my love was requited. I was directed to report to Carnegie-Mellon University at the specified date and time for a “fun-filled learning experience”. Such a term was an oxymoron to my neighborhood friends, even those who did well in school, even the friends I considered nerds (it takes one to know one).
As an aside, it did take a while for me to learn of my acceptance, even after the letter, which my mother left for me to open, lay in my trembling hands. I had tasted the bitterness of rejection once and was not interested in reliving that cataclysmic assault to my heart so I placed the letter on the table and stared at it for awhile – a long while.
My mother tired of waiting, went to the kitchen to check on dinner, and returned irked that the envelope remained sealed. “You will never know what the answer is unless you open it”, she blurted out in a bothered tone of voice. I think I heard her, I must have heard her to relay the comment here, but it did not change my stance, I did not reply and I did not move my eyes from the task of staring at the letter. All the possibilities ran through my head and the associated consequences to my future education and job opportunities followed briskly on their heels. My intellectual analysis was abruptly broken when my mother, to whom I attribute the bulk of my analytical abilities, picked up the envelope and, feeling its heft, offered an observation, “its awful heavy for a rejection. There must be a half a dozen pages in here; a rejection should be no more than one or two pages.” I am surprised that she was not burned from the prestidigious manner that the letter disappeared from her hand. The contents in fact revealed that the funds had come through and I was indeed going to be spending the summer in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.
Summer was normally a mixed bag for me; it, of course, meant freedom from the mandates of teachers who must’ve owned stock in the company that sold homework, but it also meant more time with my father, frequently helping him lay carpet, carry his toolbox, and other such sundry duties. It also meant sports, and although sports and nerds do not normally mix, I had some aptitude. I did well in organized baseball and street football, but I was in the middle of the age of kids on the street, half older and less gangly, and half younger and less enjoyable to play with. This meant that I was frequently bullied and overpowered and tricked and ignored and left out throughout my dozen or so years in the neighborhood. However, now summer could not come fast enough.
When the day to depart for Nirvana finally came, my mother and my father and I climbed in the family car and began the three hundred or so mile trek across the state. This was the longest continuous stretch of time I spent in direct contact with my father since I was seven and, consequently, stressful. During the previous trips, family vacations to Florida, I slept a large portion of the time, but now I was too anxious to sleep. Unfortunately, my father was the Hindenburg and I was the spark, my mother was the thin layer of material that separated the two and I was most thankful she was there.
As we approached the school, it became clear that the campus was huge; my entire high school campus could fit in the rectangular courtyard that was surrounded by a dozen three story buildings of classrooms and teacher’s offices that made up a slight fraction of the entire campus. We went to the administration building as the letter had indicated and we were directed to a room in one of those buildings. It was a freshman lecture hall and I think it was chosen on purpose to intimidate the teenagers in the audience. There were 868 seats, this is not an estimate - it was confirmed by no less than fourteen of the program’s attendees.
This measurement was actually a topic in the conversation we had later, when the parents went to their meeting with the program administration and we waited to meet the dozen or so counselors that were to be our surrogate parents. There the students fractured into two major factions as we conversed: the math, computer science and physics oriented nerds and the biological science oriented nerds. The math nerds discussed the various ways of calculating the total number of seats in the room we had just left. God only knows what the biology nerds were talking about - there was no signs of life or biological material in the lecture hall - so they must have had very little to talk about relevant to our current experience.
As each group conversed, I looked around the room. There was not one muscular jock to be seen. There was no face caked with make-up, no bleached blonde hairdo (except for Nick), and no designer jeans. There was just a bunch of me’s standing around. Well, not exactly me’s because, as everyone knows, there are a number of different types of nerds.
There are nerds who embrace nerddom, they are the ones that have the pocket protectors and the calculator strap on their belt loop and the tape on the bridge of their glasses, and they mix and match clothes as if they got dressed in the dark. Then there are the nerds who wear their nerdiness like a cloak that they can easily doff and don at will, switching personas depending on those around them not unlike a chameleon in the rainforest – protecting themselves in a variety of surroundings. It is most difficult to notice these nerds unless you speak their language. If you pick a nerd topic that they embrace then, and only then, they will show themselves by blurting out technobabble that might as well be Greek, and rambling on at such a pace to make one fear that their lips would burst into flames.
Finally, there are the nerds who are aware that they are nerds and are proud to be nerds when it is convenient, but desperately wish to hide this persona when it proves inconvenient. I fall into this category. These nerds shun the standard nerd paraphernalia purposely because, even though they enjoy being a nerd, they wish to hide, but they are missing something, some skill, some genetic material that the cloaked nerds possess. Of course, we have our calculators, but they are in our pants pocket. We purposely do not use a pocket protector (I couldn’t use one even if I wanted as I had no button down, pocket shirts that I could wear to school on a regular basis, only pocket t-shirts and I was not that much of a nerd!) and, if we break the bridge of our glasses we would rather be blind in public than to repair them it such an obvious way.
However, there was a certain ease being in this room; an ease that I had never felt, and I suspect most of the others had not either. We were amongst friends, colleagues, and kindred spirits. We were not chastised for our intellectual prowess, or for our interest in esoteric topics. In fact, we, at least I, came up with the most esoteric topics possible in an attempt to shed the shackles of conformity that we all had experienced for nearly our entire lives. When an esoteric topic was brought up, computer programming, physics, calculus problems or the forgotten name of one of the human cell’s organelles, several other students, who were paying rapt attention, would chime in, not to say that we were weird, but to offer suggestions, ideas and answers. I felt at home like I never thought I
The counselors entered the room and I was surprised at their appearance. They were twenty-something students, or so they said, of the university who volunteered to help monitor us and actually act as teaching assistants for the various courses. But, strangely enough they looked a lot like us. Not only did the majority of them have pimples peppered all over their faces, but I saw the comfort items that made me think that these individuals were going to be more than just teachers and counselors. One wore thick, wide-brimmed glasses, and an Einstein hairdo; another a pocket protector and still two others, one a woman, had electronic calculators dangling at their side as if ready to sling them and fire them like a six gun at any problem they encountered. My heart raced as I saw another pointing at us as he spoke with, I can even now barely contain my glee, a slide rule!! The frightful trip, the continuous din of Jerry Reed’s “Lord Mister Ford” and C.W. McCall’s “Convoy” and The Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira” drilling holes in my hard rock tempered skull and allowing my brains to leak out was worth it; I was finally in the home into which I was meant to be borne.
After some time that seemed like a blissful eternity, the parents rejoined our group and we were all escorted to the dormitories where we would be staying. The parents must have been forewarned, although we weren’t, that the boy’s and girl’s dorm rooms were on the same floor of the same building; two different hallways that entered opposite sides of the main “living room”. There was a large television and several well worn sofas, two or three nicked and stained coffee tables and various lamps. Each hallway entered the room through a heavy metal door with a small square of glass, like an eye, two thirds of the way up, the kind of door with the big metal bar you push to open. What I don’t think the parents were told was that these doors were not locked, ever – fire code reasons – for had they realized the ease with which the teen-aged boys and girls could break the rule of no unsupervised intermingling, I am sure the dorm would have been empty by nightfall.
As it was though, there was some solace to the nervous parents; the counselors lived in the dorm with us. They professed to us, with and without the presence of our parents, on numerous occasions that they patrolled the hallways looking for the normal attempts at male and female bonding that occurs in a co-ed environment. I may be jumping ahead a bit when I tell you that they did not do a good job, or else my knee would not have itched so.
The parents and children were given their room assignments and were dismissed to unpack. I still have the picture that my father took of me sitting on the mattress in front of my partially unpacked and disheveled suitcase contents, my mother with her red, white and blue horizontal striped tank top with her back turned to me framed by the concrete, white-washed wall behind us. The rooms were Spartan and each of the two occupants received the same furniture ration: a small wood framed bed covered with a well-worn mattress; a wood veneer, plastic and particle board desk; and a bookshelf with a light fixture built into it beneath the bottom shelf. Juxtaposing the doorframe on each side was a small concrete walled closet with a hanging bar and a few shelves at various heights. But, whatever the contents, it appeared as if it were heaven to Shawn and me.
Shawn, by the way, was my assigned roommate. He was the tall lanky, didn’t-know-he-was, kind of nerd. He was an affable fellow, but his haircut appeared to have necessitated a bowl in its execution. We exchanged the secret nerd handshake and then resumed watching our mothers unpack our suitcases and carefully folding the socks and underwear and shorts and tank tops and placing them in their assigned drawers as they explained to each of us where each of the articles of clothing was to reside.
Our parents met and talked briefly and exchanged several winks and chuckles, I suspect at our expense, but we did not care. The four of them did not seem comfortable on a college campus and I suspect that this was the first such visit for all of us in the room, but somehow it increased the bond between all of us. The parents were witnessing the future that lay before their children in just over a year. Shawn and I saw the separation that would occur in that same future and, briefly, I felt lonely and slightly homesick, not for now, but for the decades to come. But, in the present, in just a few hours, we would begin to live the dream of every seventeen year old – a life without the arbitrary rules of parents. You know the rules: what to eat, whether to wear a sweater, who to talk to, how to keep our rooms, which clothes to wear, ad infinitum. To be sure there were other rules that would persist, but we imagined the void provided by the absence of our parents would allow us to prove our maturity, our ability to make and live by our own rules, and to establish the pure frivolity and capriciousness of our parental dictates.
Well, they, our parents, the enemy of freedom and independence and maturity, finally were forced to bid their offspring adieu. There was no party, no great hurrah, just a slightly nervous sigh that belied the realization that we really were on our own. This meant that we had to pick up our own rooms, wash our own clothes, decide when and what to eat, et al. This was a double edged sword that we had always professed an eagerness to swallow, but now our hand was forced and we worried that we were about to bite off more than we could handle.
The next day we picked which of the concurrently running classes we wanted. The two factions mentioned before easily predicted the cleft of the group, but everyone was forced to take classes outside our comfort zone. Shawn and I took biology and Mandy and Patti, a pair of biologicals, were forced to take at least one computer class. We attended classes and made erudite statements, discussed metaphysics and philosophy, begged for more depth on cellular structure and discussed computer algorithms that solved problems that had no apparent use in the real world but were logically challenging. No one called us teacher’s pets for raising our hands all the time, no one tried to bully us in the hallway between classes, no one laughed at our lack of coolness, no one demanded that we do their homework or else. In fact, we frequently collectively laughed at the jocks and art students and other “normal” people as they crisscrossed campus from time to time as if they were performing in a freak show of sorts for “our kind”.
Over the first week I noticed that, despite the large number of similarities – background, interests, uncoolness, etc. – there was a variety here. There were quiet ones like Patti, loud ones like Nick, strong ones like Shawn, woodsy types like Mandy, those that always raised their hands like me, and those who didn’t, one who wore a bow tie, and another that always had a bow in her hair. The divisive walls between the biological types and the logical types started to crumble and we were reorganized based on more personal issues.
Shawn and I hung out quite a bit, and were joined by Mandy and Patti. We became an inseparable foursome. We were in different classes most of the day, but most of our out of class time was spent together. I am not even sure where I first noticed them, in “my” class or “their” class, but, at least originally, we probably joined up to help one another get through the classes out of our interest area. Patti was quiet and timid and wore the typical girlie girl clothes: plaid skirt, lacy or silky ruffled blouses and black patent leather shoes with a small heel. She was soft spoken and seemed to prefer to stay quiet, until the four of us got together when she would blossom into a truly ebullient personality full ideas and energy and laughs and chortles and guffaws.
Mandy was almost the exact opposite. She was fuller figured, but curvy and, retrospectively very sexy. But, she was also, strong and soft and she would wear clothes best described as outdoorsy. Her clothes did not include, to my knowledge, a dress or skirt, but she was quite attractive in a feminine way in the slacks and shirts she chose. She played softball and basketball and would think nothing of a head first slide into home plate if the situation warranted it. She had cheeks that were perpetually red as if she had wind burn and eyes that burned with an intensity that made you take notice. She easily changed her cloaks to fit those she was with and I felt an exceptional ease and comfort with her that perplexed me. Both women were pretty but it was their intellect that drew Shawn and me to them.
I would like to write words about fireworks and starry-eyed gazes upon this page, but my lack of experience with the opposite sex left me oblivious to those particular teenaged conditions. I suspect that, if the same circumstances were to occur today, then those were the words I would use to explain the connection. But not, at least for me, at that moment in time, not in a romantic way, but in an intellectual way, as if you stumbled across a long lost friend and picked up right were you left off.
Sometimes others would join us but, more frequently than not, the four of us would be found together and despite the different interests and focus of our scientific inclinations we grew to be friends. We laughed and giggled and talked and goofed off together. At night, we actually, on a few occasions found the way up to the roof of the building and took up some lawn chairs and gazed up at the night sky. But, a large portion of our time together was spent studying – after all we were “nerds”. Not necessarily the same subject, but just in a room together, feeding off the energy and intensity of each other and feeling the comfort of not being judged and then, almost as if a collective alarm clock went off in each of our heads, we would get goofy and silly. We were on the same tug of war team and shifted sides together, first on the mature, studying team and then, suddenly, on the immature teen-aged side and then, just as suddenly, we were back.
It was during one of these long back and forth sessions we ended up in Mandy and Patti’s room. Our backsides had covered the entire room; the beds, the chairs, the desks, the closets, the floors, the bottoms of upturned trash cans – no seat was left untested. It was exhausting, and I was tired, and so I stretched out on my stomach on the floor and, shortly thereafter, so did Shawn. Mandy and Patti sat cross-legged just a foot or so from our heads with their backs supported by the bed frames on opposite sides of the room. Shawn became tired first, and to the surprise of Patti, closed his book and thrust his body forward and turned on his side, his face towards Mandy and I and laid his head firmly in Patti’s lap. Spurred on by my brother in arms, I repeated his actions and laid my head on Mandy’s thigh. The girls giggled and half-heartedly feigned pushing us away, but I was tired and their efforts soon dissipated and I guess I drifted off to sleep.
For those of you who have made it this far, here is the crux of the story. I was sleeping comfortably and was deep in some happy dream. I do not know how long I was asleep, it did not seem long, but, as it turned out, it was too long indeed. I felt a strange sensation on my leg, in my half-consciousness I brushed several times at my leg figuring it to be a fly that had entered through the open windows. The fly, however, persisted and I was forced to open my eyes. This was difficult and it was even more difficult to focus, but there was a flurry of activity synchronized perfectly with half swallowed giggles and, when I could focus on Patti and Shawn’s faces, I saw on them the mischievous smiles that I frequently bore when teasing my two younger sisters. I was eased somewhat by their admonitions that my snoring had tickled their funny bones.
Content, I drifted back into a light slumber. But soon, the pesky fly was again abuzz on my knee. Irritated I sat bolt upright and inquired about the same fast motions and giggles and impish smiles. Out of the corner of my eye, on the other side of Mandy, opposite where my head had just rested, I spied a bright pink object. I attempted to retrieve it and a wrestling match ensued. I was easily overpowered by the three conspirators and I stopped my attempt. After I settled down, without the prize of knowing what the object was, I found I was unconsciously scratching my knee. I looked down and, there was the barren skin on my right knee – surrounded by the normal thick dark fibers that formerly covered my entire knee. I had been shaved! Not a small area either, a fact that they had tried creatively to convince me of, it was an area bigger than the size of my palm. After that interaction, I needed little of my intellect to figure out that the hidden object was a razor and they relented and showed it to me.
They then related, with more than a few belly laughs and smiles and gestures, the tough decision they had in deciding what part of my body to depilate with the razor, my head (to obvious and they worried I would be mad and they would get in trouble), my arm (the hair was too fine to really appreciate their effort), my face (the hair had barely formed a balding caterpillar on my upper lip), and so the decided on my hairy legs covered with a hair that resembled a dark wheat field, both in color and density. Their intention was to shave them both bare, but I kept shooing them away and waking up, and they informed me that I had spoiled their fun! “Spoiled their fun?!”, I retorted as they no longer tried to contain their happy, friendly laughter. I was never a good sport about being the butt of ridicule, but I did not sense any malevolent feelings, just pure, clean fun. I knew, for the first time in my life that, regardless of which of the four of us lay there with the itchy leg, the laughter from each would have been the same. I reached my arm around Mandy, the culprit and ring leader of the hair stealing event, and pulled her head towards me and gave her a noogie.
I stopped the noogie and left my right arm there and there was no laughter, no unease, no squirming, just a slight shifting of her posture and my arm landed in a natural groove on her shoulders.
My knee itched for weeks after that playful interlude as the hair grew back, but over the next few months, other things that had previously made me itch no longer did, they seemed boring – my high school was boring, my rut had returned and I was put back in the position of neighborhood nerd. My knee would itch from time to time, and sometimes I would catch myself scratching unconsciously at that special area that had been unprotected and vulnerable and raw from the events of that day, that very special day and though the hair all grew back, I still itched.
I would see Shawn after that summer when he attended University of Pittsburgh just down the road from my alma mater Carnegie-Mellon University. I also saw Patti again when I visited her at the Main Campus of Penn State University a year or two later on a road trip home from college. I would also see Mandy again, before college, before I even graduated from high school, before the year was out, before my knee stopped itching, but that is another story…