Dear BMX bike rider,
I’m sorry for shunning you after you got up in front of everyone and cried at the personal growth workshop our parents sent us to in Philadelphia.
It was a spring weekend in 1986, and I still shake my head at the thought that I spent it the way we did. Maybe you feel the same way. Or maybe not. We were around the same age, fifteen, freshman in high school. I had recently started getting into trouble at home, getting caught drinking and lying to my parents for the first time. They were psychologists, my parents, former hippies from the ’60s (“flower children” has always been my mom’s preferred term) and they were into a lot of this new-agey self-development stuff. I don’t think they ever did EST per se, but they were in a Marriage Encounter group, and they’d been going to these Insight Transformational Seminars. It was cool for them; they felt like they got a lot out of it. But it was really very strongly not my thing. So when, in lieu of a longer punishment, and in the expressed hope that it would help us communicate better as a family, they signed me up for the youth version, Teen Insight, and insisted I attend, it was one of the times I considered running away from home.
I imagine you can relate. You did back then. You were a skate-rat. And, you said, a professionally sponsored BMX “freestyle” rider. You’d brought your bike with you, in fact, and impressed everyone with what were certainly professional-looking stunts-bunny-hopping down steps, doing a handstand off the seat while balancing on one wheel, that sort of thing. You wore your bangs hanging down over your eyes, and a wise-ass sneer, and some very punk-rock shredder gear that I remember thinking was infinitely cooler than the Brine Lacrosse “Chicks With Sticks” t-shirt that I was wearing, one I’d been very proud of up to that point. You know, because of the double entendre. (Come to think of it, that was probably a girls shirt, wasn’t it? Meh. Lame either way. I’ve never played lacrosse in my life.)
It was called “The Awakening Heart Seminar,” for God’s sake. (I can still taste the puke in my mouth.) But there we were, Friday night, sitting on the floor in the beige conference room of some corporate-park hotel outside Philadelphia, where we were encouraged by a man and a woman with voices like easy-listening radio DJs to take part in first-day-of-camp get-to-know-you exercises with 30 or so other teenagers we’d never met before. There were hand-drawn posters and signs on the walls, daily-affirmation-type slogans written in thick colored marker. “If it takes all night, that’ll be all right. If I can get you to smile before I leave.” Fucking Jackson Browne.
I was very surprised to see how receptive many of the other kids were. Some had done the seminar before, I learned, or ones like it. Many of them, apparently, were there not under duress but of their own volition. And an astounding number of them, the large majority, leapt right in with the sharing and the singing and the hugging and expressing. It didn’t take long at all to get them to smile.
We were smiling, too, though, after a while. And laughing. You and me and a small group of what I considered to be much more normal teenagers had taken to making jokes at the ridiculousness of all of this-often at the expense of the leaders and those so willing to participate. I remember the faces but none of the names. There was the lanky guy with the fake front tooth who wore a denim jacket with the cover to the Smiths’ Meat Is Murder album painted on the back. The black guy, who I think was the only black person there, with the peach-fuzz moustache. And two girls, a shorter one with curly dark hair, and a taller one with glasses. The tall girl was sour and sexy like Catherine Keener and I’m sure we all fell in love with her immediately. I did, anyway. We sat at the far edge of the assembly, this crew, and cracked ourselves up in an enjoyably mean-spirited way. Under our breath, of course. But it was surely obvious to everybody what was going on. We didn’t make much of an effort to hide our disdain.
It was a horrible sort of prison. The hours passed as slowly as hours can. There was great pressure to participate, to open up and share our feelings. But the six of us supported each other in holding out. At one point, I was surrounded by a crowd of the other kids, the ones with awakened hearts, who were urging me take part in one of the exercises-talk about my fears, maybe, or make a list of words to describe my parents or something. Someone literally asked me, “Why are you hiding inside this shell?” It was a difficult moment. They’d backed me into a corner, like in a zombie movie, and I remember frantically looking out over their heads, searching for help. When I spotted you and the Smiths jacket guy standing off to the side, snickering and making eyes at me like, “Ha ha-better you than me,” it was exactly the type of sympathy I needed to get through. Thanks.
The leaders expressly asked that we not use drugs or alcohol for the duration of the seminar, as that could interfere with the sensitive personal growth and development processes that were supposed to be taking place. So of course, during the Saturday lunch break, we got a ride with an older kid with a driver’s license and his parents’ BMW to buy a bag of pot and a case of beer in West Philadelphia and had a really fun party that night in one of the girls’ rooms in the hotel. It was like camp, it turned out, even for those of us who didn’t go along with the official program, in that we got very close very quickly.
We were all bleary come Sunday. Goofy and even more obnoxious, probably, for our lack of sleep. Maybe that’s why things got weird. We were back in the conference room, sitting on the floor in our spot in the back, cracking jokes while people took turns standing at a podium, talking about what they’d learned about themselves so far. It was an extremely emotional scene by that point, there was a huge amount of hugging and holding hands and stroking of hair and stuff-amongst the others, I mean. I can understand how it could happen, a fifteen-year-old kid, hung-over, in that strangely charged atmosphere-but still, it came as a major shock to suddenly see you at the front of the room. You’d been sitting right next to me. I hadn’t even noticed you getting up.
You started hesitantly, mumbling words and hiding behind your bangs. But then your shoulders fell and you let out a loud sob, and then you were bawling and shaking, talking about how much you loved your dad but you couldn’t tell him, about how you felt judged. You cried and talked for a long time. The leaders hugged you when you stepped down. A lot of people hugged you. Regardless of how cultish and after-school-special it all was, I think this was maybe a good thing for you.
Needless to say, it was uncomfortable for all of us when you came back to where we were sitting. You looked at us apologetically-you knew the rules. I think one of the girls might have put her hand on your shoulder. But none of us said anything and I think the other guys were probably like me-avoiding eye contact with you.
You didn’t sit with us for long. There was some other activity soon, and for the rest of the day you joined the others, the participators, in more hugging and crying and stroking hair and talking about feelings. We talked about how weird it was, how we had lost you, and so suddenly, with no warning, as soon as you were out of ear-shot. We made fun of you, as I’m sure you were aware. But I doubt that bothered you. You didn’t look sad. You looked relieved. In fact, you were beaming.