IF YOU'D LIKE a story about how I won my basketball letter and achieved fame, love, and fortune, don't read this. I don't know what I achieved in the six months I'm going to tell about. I achieved something, all right, but I think it may take me the rest of my life to find out what.
I never won any letters for anything. When I was a little kid, I really liked touch football, the strategy of it, but being short for my age I was always a bit slow even though I was good at evasive tactics. And then when we got into high school, it all got so organized. Going out for teams and wearing uniforms and all that stuff. And people talk about it all the time. Sports are neat to do, but dull to talk about. Anyhow there won't be much about sports in this.
I am talking into a tape recorder and then typing it. I tried to just write it, but it came out all stuffy and clotted-up with words, so let's see how it goes this way. My name is Owen Thomas Griffiths. I was seventeen in November. I am still fairly short for my age-"5 7". I guess I will be short for my age when I'm forty-five, so what's the difference? It bothered me a lot when I was twelve or thirteen, but I was much shorter then compared to other kids, a genuine shrimp. At fifteen I grew six inches in eight months and felt really awful while I was doing it; my knees used to feel like the Bamboo Splinter Torture, but when it was over I was such a giant compared to what I had been that I never could really regret not going on any higher. I am average compact build and have dirty gray eyes and a lot of hair. The hair is curly, and whether I wear it short or long it sticks out all over my head. I fight it with a hairbrush every morning, and lose. I like my hair. It has a lot of willpower. However, this story is not about my hair, either.
I am always the youngest person in my class. And the youngest person in my family, being the only child. They let me into school early because I was such a bright little jerk. I have always been bright for my age. Who knows, at forty-five I may still be bright for my age. That is partly what this thing I'm telling, this story, is about. About being a bright little jerk.
It's OK, you know, up to about the sixth grade. Nobody really cares, least of all yourself. The teachers are mostly pretty nice to you, because you're easy to teach. Some of them love you for it, and give you neat books for extra reading. Some of them resent it, but they're too busy with the Behavior Problem types to have time to really make you feel lousy for being ahead of the others in math and reading. And there's always a few other kids, usually girls, who are as smart as you are, or smarter, and you and they write the class skits, and make lists for the teacher, and so on. And besides, for all the talk about how cruel little kids are, they haven't got a patch on older people for cruelty. Little kids are just dumb, the smart ones and the slow ones. They do dumb things. They say what they think. They haven't learned enough yet to say what they don't really think. That comes later, when kids begin to turn into people and find out that they are alone.
I think what you mostly do when you find you really are alone is to panic. You rush to the opposite extreme and pack yourself into groups-clubs, teams, societies, types. You suddenly start dressing exactly like the others. It's a way of being invisible. The way you sew the patches on the holes in your blue jeans becomes incredibly important. If you do it wrong you're not with it. You have to be with it. That's a peculiar phrase, you know? With it. With what? With them. With the others. All together. Safety in numbers. I'm not me. I'm a basketball letter. I'm a popular kid. I'm my friends' friend. I'm a black leather growth on a Honda. I'm a member. I'm a teen-ager. You can't see me, all you can see is us. We're safe.
And if We see You standing alone by yourself, if you're lucky we'll ignore you. If you're not lucky, we might throw rocks. Because we don't like people standing there with the wrong kind of patches on their blue jeans reminding us that we're each alone and none of us is safe.
I tried. I really did. I tried so hard it makes me sick to think about it. I did my jeans patches exactly like Bill Ebold who did everything right. I talked about baseball scores. I worked for the school paper for one term, because that was the one group that I could figure out how to get into. But none of it worked. I don't know why. Sometimes I wonder if introverts have a peculiar smell, which only extraverts are aware of.
Some kids really don't have much Me at all. They truly are part of the group. But a lot of them just act-pretend-the way I tried to. Their heart isn't really in the groups, but still they get along, they get by. I wish I could. I honestly wish I could be a good hypocrite. It doesn't hurt anybody, and it sure makes life easier. But I never could fool anybody. They knew I wasn't interested in what interested them, and they despised me for it, and I despised them for despising me. But then I also despised the few kids who didn't try to go along. In ninth grade there was this tall kid who never brushed his teeth and wore a white sports coat to school, who wanted to make friends with me. I should have been delighted; I mean, nobody had ever wanted to make friends with me before. But he kept saying things like what a drip this person was and what a dolt that one was, and although I agreed with him I didn't want to talk about it all the time, and so I despised him for being a snob. And then I despised myself for despising everybody else. Oh, it's a really neat situation to be in. You know what I mean, if you've been there.
Since I was trying hard not to be different, I didn't want to be a straight-A type; but that problem was always solved for me by gym. I wasn't any worse at gym than a lot of fellows, but I got D's because I cut it all the time because I couldn't take Mr. Thorpe. "If you can take your minds off Keats and Shelley for a while, Griffiths, you might at least stand around and watch how basketball is played." It was always Keats and Shelley-I heard him use exactly the same line to at least two other fellows. He said it with real hatred, hissing: Keatsssnssshelley, ssssss. It was stupid applied to me, since math and science is where I am good, but that hatred got me so curious I went back and read Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" in the freshman lit text. They didn't give us any Shelley, but I looked up his collected works at the city library, and later on I bought it secondhand. So it was Mr. Thorpe teaching basketball who put me on to "Prometheus Unbound." I should be grateful. But it still didn't make third period with Mr. Thorpe any easier.
But- this is important-I never talked back. I never said anything. I could have said, "Look, Mr. Thorpe, I don't want to take my mind off Keats and Shelley, or sines and cosines, so you just go ahead and bounce your little bouncyball, OK?" Some of the kids could do that. Back in elementary school once I heard a little black seventh-grade girl tell off our math teacher, "You just get your hands off my paper, if you don't like it the way I done it, you can just stuff it!" It was pure fight-the teacher hadn't done anything to deserve it, he was just trying to teach the kid some math-but still, it was pure fight, it was courage, and I admired it. I still do. But I can't do it. I haven't got it. I don't get into fights.
I stand there and take it, till I can run. And then I run.
Sometimes I not only stand there and take it, I even smile at them and say I'm sorry.
When I feel that smile coming onto my face, I wish I could take my face off and stamp on it.
Copyright © 1976 by Ursula K. Le Guin
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