A Facebook friend of mine recently commented in her status update that she was “amazed by just how long an impression can last. Human nature is interesting…” True that. Two years ago today was my last in-person interview for my manuscript Boy At The Window. Over the course of five years, I’d made a half-dozen trips to New York alone for interviews, not counting trips to visit folks and family in Georgia and Florida, California and other parts of the South, between ’02 and early March ’07. I interviewed people I liked, one person who was once my ultimate crush, and people I thought were mean-spirited and as unlikable as any humans I’ve met since my Mount Vernon days. To a person, they all commented about how much I smiled, or that I “had a great smile,” or I seemed “content and in my own world” during my middle school and high school years.
My smile. My smile? My smile! That’s funny on so many levels that I could write another book about the assumptions that we as Americans make about ourselves and about each other. One of those assumptions is that if someone isn’t walking around kvetching all of the time or looking like life has beaten the living daylights out of them — and they occasionally crack a smile — that things were generally all right. I knew I hid a lot with my face, eyes and mouth while I was in school. But if I took what my former classmates were saying about my smile to its logical conclusion, I’d have to say that I had the acting chops of Edward Norton. Maybe I should give an agent a call!
The character played by Brian Dennehy in the ’85 surprise classic Silverado — ranked by critics as one of the best modern-day Westerns — said, “No tellin’ what Paden’s gonna care about.” He was referring to Kevin Kline’s character, who seemed to walk around with a blank smile on his face. It was a smile of concealment, a smile that was meant to hide emotions and ideas that could get you hurt or even killed. The only time that smile left his face was when it was time to defend others. The reason Cobb could never tell what Paden would or wouldn’t care about was because his smile hid his fear, his love, his sense of self-preservation, his anger, and his sense of right and wrong.
More relevant and immediate to those of you who somehow haven’t seen this instant classic is the movie Finding Forrester. Rob Brown played a teenage character caught between two worlds. One was his world of the South Bronx, gritty and hard, one where options for success are few. Basketball, from the point of view of his friends and older brother (played by Busta Rhymes), was the character’s way out. The other world was a world created by his writing and, inadvertently, by his brain, providing a path for success that no one in his life, including loved ones, could imagine.
Brown’s character did what I actually did twenty-five years ago. He hid his talent, he hid his emotions, he hid his dreams and ideas. If it weren’t for his stumbling into an intervention on the part of Sean Connery’s character — not to mention his older brother in the end — Finding Forrester would be my story prior to ’85. Either way, Brown did the greatest job of holding his face as a permanent blank slate, as if unfazed by an atomic bomb blast. His eyes, though, were always a give away of emotions, from sadness to anger to sarcasm and laughter. He’s a great actor, even if few others in Hollywood or elsewhere recognize it.
My emotional—or rather, emotionless—story is a bit of Kline’s character and a bit of Brown’s character. I obvious did a good job, so good that the brainiacs that I went to school with hardly ever picked up on my facade. I don’t recall smiling that much during the Humanities years. I was deliberate with my facial expressions. I had a sarcastic “No shit!” look when I sniffed naivete or bullshit. I cracked a smile when others were in a cheerful or unhappy mood, either in admiration or to help them smile as well. If anyone had cared to notice, the only times I truly smiled were the times I laughed out loud, or the times I couldn’t help but act goofy, or when something I had heard on radio had momentarily put me in a good mood. Otherwise, the “smile” I had on my face was an almost perpetual facial expression, a smirk really by the time we’d reached eleventh grade.
It was my way of controlling and concealing my emotions. I wanted, needed them under control really. You could say that by the time I was a junior in high school that I’d gotten used to disappointment and the realities of abuse, poverty, an overpopulated family and an unrelenting sense that I didn’t belong to anything or anyone important other than my Christianity—and even that was beginning to wane. Yet I had and I hadn’t. My expectations of others was typically low, to the point where I trusted only a small circle of folks with the tiniest bits of information about my life, my hopes and dreams, my attractions and distractions. And if I expressed these outside of this circle, it’d be like someone had jumped me and knocked me to the ground, the rejection felt so great.
Of all people, it took my late AP American History teacher Harold Meltzer to begin the work of pulling out of me the real me, the fragile, delicate yet tough when and where it mattered me. The me that had given up on 616, Mount Vernon, high school, Humanities, and most of the people I went to school. The me whose hopes, dreams and talents were more expansive than I had ever dared to believe, at least up to that point. He began a conversation that would last for eighteen years, and only ended when Meltzer died in ’03. He began it by asking me, “How you’re doing Donnie?,” and didn’t allow me to get away with a bullshit answer. Meltzer was weird, eccentric, and other things that others suspect but won’t mention. But he was also caring, giving, bitter yet still sweet.
Even when he died at the all too young age of sixty-six, he was less apathetic than many of the people I interviewed for Boy At The Window. Even though I approached the project keeping an open mind about my former classmates, their apathy remains my lasting impression. To be fair, some of my ex-classmates have changed for the better. Many of those are on Facebook, sharing pieces of their lives. Still, it’s a shame to think that in an era of apathy and disinterest, that many of the folks I grew up around skew that scale, making the average kid from the ’80s look like an Obama volunteer by comparison.