By Zach Selwyn
I recently came across this class picture from my elementary school in 1985. Oddly enough, I have a vague memory of taking this photo and trying to express my disappointment with the world at that time. I had no idea back then that the photo seemed to say to my parents that I’d rather be dead at the tender age of 10 than at my school picture day.
I look depressed. I look like I had already lived five lives. I resemble the type of child who would be marked as a potential serial killer in the future. Amazingly, I remember what was going through my head that day. I was dealing with things like my parents recent divorce, the fact that my “spike haircut” would never want to stand up straight like the other kids. I didn’t smile because my two front teeth resembled something that would have made all species of pacific northwestern beavers jealous. I also remember that my mother made me wear the cloud patterned shirt I am wearing in the photo that day. Maybe if I was Prince I could have pulled that look off, but as a sullen, depressed 10-year-old Jewish kid stuck in Tucson Arizona in the 1980’s, the cloud shirt just felt like a desperate plea for attention.
At the time I was rudderless. The girls were not interested in me. I had become somewhat overweight. My baseball ability had dwindled following a broken arm the previous summer and my basketball skills were starting to translate to bench time more than the starting five. To top it off my grandparents had taken my sister and I on a two-week Caribbean cruise a few weeks before where I spent the majority of the trip being bullied in the youth center by a freckly-face kid from Florida named Robbie who insisted on flicking my ears until I cried almost daily. Perhaps the most embarrassing thing about that cruise was when my grandmother came down to the youth center, smacked the kid across the head and said, “Stop flicking my grandson’s ears!”
As you can imagine, it only made him go after me more.
In fifth grade I was forced to go to Hebrew school three times a week with the looming threat of a Bar Mitzvah hanging over my head presenting quite possibly a challenge that I could never live up to. My main interests lie in collecting baseball cards – which is where I spent every penny and has been well documented in my previous works. I was also trying to make my 3-year-old brother a future baseball Hall of Famer – but he wasn’t interested in the slightest. Baseball cards were everything to me and the bottom line was, when my mother came home and saw me lying on the floor alphabetizing the 1982 Atlanta Braves Fleer set, she didn’t exactly think I had any sort of bright future.
My house was less than peaceful, with my sister and mother not getting along and a new presence in the home – my mother’s boyfriend. He was a recovering alcoholic who had moved to Tucson for a fresh start and began working at a $40,000 a month celebrity rehab facility that was frequented by movie stars and rock stars. His saving grace was that he loved music, and played it constantly around the house.. and that he was pretty funny.
He also loved baseball.
My other obsession with skateboarding, which I was not very good at due to a massive fear of falling and breaking my arm a second time. Yet, I wore the clothes and accepted the fact that I was a “poser” to the cooler kids because it made me feel somewhat connected to something. I was also being forced to take piano lessons by my mom although I was technically allowed to quit in sixth grade.
I quit the day I started sixth grade. Again, another regret.
37-years-later, looking back at this photo, I distinctly remember Mrs. Knight’s fifth grade classroom. It was small – with only eight of us – because they had to separate certain students into a fifth/sixth grade combination class. Luckily the two cutest girls were in class with me. Laura Krapa (tough last name, I know…) And Tina Jarem, who I mercilessly teased and occasionally punched because she had absolutely no interest in me.
And then, there were the three other boys in the class.Ryan, Brandon and Bryan. Being the lone Jewish kid, I was constantly mocked with slurs and insults that I learned to turn into comedy – but I was never invited to their Cub Scout meetings or their swim meets. The three boys were all terrific athletes and overachievers had surpassed me in almost every single category in life at the time – from sports to girls to popularity. When you’re 10-years-old, you feel as if you will never grow out of these situations.
One day in the lunchroom, I overheard the boys discussing their three-piece band that they were going to assemble to play the talent show. Being that my obsession with the Beastie Boys had grown to absurdly fanatical following their appearance in the hip hop movie “Krush Groove,” I somehow thought that if I could just be AdRock or Mike D I could climb out of this despair in which I had been wallowing for the majority of 1985-86. It certainly helped my cause to know that the Beastie Boys were actually Jewish… So, I offered up my services as a rapper and at first, they laughed.
“Dude our song is not a rap song” they said.
I said it didn’t matter because I could rap over anything.
Lo and behold, it worked. That night, I wrote eight of the worst hip-hop bars ever assembled and brought it to school to audition for my three classmates. They were blown away and my career as a performer started just as the 5th grade began to come to a close.
The first rush of adrenaline that you get when you walk off of a stage while wearing your coolest T & C Surf Design shirt and Gotcha shorts with a pair of knock off Ray-Ban Wayfarers you had to borrow from your mother, is a feeling that cannot be described. But any person who has ever performed live knows what it is… It’s the moment when you receive that first look from a girl in your class that says, “Oh my God you’re so much more than I thought you were!” In this case, it was Tina Jarem. Still, I was too afraid to be her boyfriend. She moved away that summer.
Music helped me turn my life and outlook around. If you look into the dead eyes of the kid in this photo, you can see how that experience helped turn me into a more positive person. Within a few months I had my first non-camp girlfriend, Amy. We only lasted about a week, but for me that’s all I wanted. It was like a résumé builder. I developed more humor more confidence and as luck would have it even grew a few inches by the next year.
That summer at camp my longtime counselor Mark took me under his wing as his ‘project’ hoping to develop me into a ladies man. Looking back, it seems weird that he would spend 30 minutes doing my hair before Shabbat services on Fridays. I guess he wanted to make sure I looked ‘fresh.’ With gallons of Dep Gel being slathered into my “never wanted to spike up hair” – I was finally able to get it somewhat reaching towards the sky. Only later, when my hair went curly, did I realize that I had always had wavy hair and that a spike haircut doesn’t look too great when you’re 10-years-old and trying to look like Billy Idol.
When sixth grade came to a close, we reformed the band. The baseball cards took a backseat a couple years later when the guitar was picked up and I suddenly discovered all elements of performing.
Today, at 46, looking back at that photograph of that lost child makes me think of my own children today. I can often spot in a family photo my son’s eyes adrift, looking like there’s no reason for him to be there. My daughter occasionally blinks on purpose to ruin a picture too – the way I did many times before as a kid. The only advice I can try to give my children is that it all gets better and that they need to try new things or else nothing will ever change. I never say that they have to stick with those things, but one of them will hopefully catch their attention and change their lives the way that music did for me on that talent show night in Tucson, Arizona.
I’m not sure why I wrote this today other than the fact that I’m getting older and I think you start to look back at moments in your life where things change. As your own parents get older you start to think about how innocent it all was back then and how we all grow up so quickly and what really matters is love, care, kindness and friendship.
I still keep in touch with those guys from the band even though they have all gone onto different pursuits. I’m still releasing music, however, even though not many people listen to it. It’s still therapy. It is hands down the best medicine that there is and it comes out whenever I am lucky enough to perform live with my current band.
My only regret? I wish I still had that cloud shirt so I could wear it on stage…