M is for Mom and Mars

newstargazing

When I was a toddler living in East Fort Myers, my mom bought me a Fisher-Price red plastic telescope. She showed me how to insert rectangular slides with images of the moon and planets through the viewfinder.  The telescope couldn’t show me the real night sky, just the printed images, but sometimes the two of us would sit and watch the moon with our naked eyes from an outdoor picnic bench, while neighbors shouted obscenities at each other from open apartment windows.

After my two brothers were born, we moved to a house across the river in North Fort Myers, and I started school. By fifth grade I had been wearing thick-rimmed glasses for a few years and had been picked on regularly, even by close friends. I sometimes wished I was a robot, even imagined what it would be like to be a perfectly programmed machine and not a weak, pale little boy with freckles and a bowl haircut. Faking sick was my reprieve, which became a daily occurrence.

Each morning I would plead with my mother to let me stay home, but somehow she always knew whether I was really sick or not just by looking at me. Most of the time she would refuse to consider my feigned stomach pains. Even if I had contracted a real sickness that didn’t meet her expectations of severity, she’d shove me out the door.

“It’s just a cold,” she’d say. “You don’t have a fever. Your dad and I go to work whether we’re sick or dying.”

Somehow, despite bullies who would throw my glasses in the trash when I wasn’t looking, or taunt and threaten, little pig-tailed girls who called me ugly, I managed to do well in classes and do my homework at my mother’s prodding.

By the time middle school came to an end, the bullying had become white noise: At times the isolation was overwhelmingly difficult, but I had grown accustomed to it. My family had moved to another house, a few miles away in the Gulf-archipelago city of Cape Coral. I had transformed our back sun porch into a bedroom, which had a door that opened to a concrete patio. This was where I set up my slick black refracting telescope, which my parents had gotten me for a birthday present. Unlike the Fisher-Price toy, this telescope allowed me to bring the full moon into intense focus, the intricate patterns of the dark gray mare and light gray terrae regions. I could see the fuzzy rings of Saturn, which was not so much a planet as a blurred white smudge. When I wasn’t looking through the viewfinder at some night object or other, I’d be splayed atop the roof, letting myself, the bruises and swell in my throat from choked-back tears, fade as I became lost in all the constellations.

On my first day of high school gym an upperclassman boy punched me in the testicles and walked away. I came home and begged my mom to let me drop out and begin a homeschooling program. I hated school. I’d put up with too much and enough was enough. But my begging didn’t work.

“No,” she said. And that was the end of it.

High school was the same as middle and elementary schools. I learned to better insulate myself with friends, but even so, jeers and attacks happened, and my passivity offered no defense except a veneer of depression. Only the night, ghostly light from suns that had died many years before it reached my eyes, gave me solace. It reminded me of my temporality and that nothing could last forever, beauty nor suffering.

I endured high school as an uninterested outsider, writing poetry or song lyrics instead of paying attention in class. I had accepted my role as an anomaly of the system, someone who didn’t understand the world and who wasn’t understood by the world in return. I’d mostly given up when in my junior year I discovered the school had begun offering a science fiction cinema and literature course, which I eagerly added to my schedule. Still, even the idea of taking a science fiction course seemed to me like little reparation. My excitement was stifled by harassment between classes in the outdoor halls of my school.

Mr. Riddle taught the science fiction course. He was a short man with thick glasses, wiry red hair that spooled from his head, though he was also balding. Mr. Riddle ran the AV club, and was an unabashed sci-fi nerd. With his laserdisc player he showed us Fahrenheit 451, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Gattaca, Day of the Triffids, The Thing, West World, Star Wars: A New Hope, like he was a boy at show-and-tell who couldn’t hide his excitement over a favorite toy. He made us read I, Robot, “The Cold Equations,” 2001: A Space Odyssey, and other classic sci-fi literature, often overlapping the reading and viewing selections. Mr. Riddle used to work at a hardware store, he told us, where he was once held at gunpoint. The threat of death drove him to finally pursue his true aspiration, teaching.

I thought, finally, here was someone like me. True, I hadn’t had a gun shoved in my face, but for most of my life I had been motivated by fear. I, too, hid some private trauma behind a pair of glasses. And Mr. Riddle’s classroom, dark except the dim glow of a monochrome decades-old film, was just like the night sky from my rooftop, or the viewfinder of my telescope. I could lose myself.

The-Martian-Chronicles

It was this classroom in which I first saw, and read, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Here was Mars, the way Bradbury — another thick-lensed nerd — had imagined it: childlike, free of all the cynicism of adulthood and all the aches and pains of growing up, a sandy new horizon to build upon with hope and human imagination. That brief hour after lunch with Mr. Riddle and Bradbury’s wondrous red planet frontier helped me understand, you have to hold onto your dreams, against all odds, at gunpoint. You can’t quit.

My mom wouldn’t let me quit. If she had, I would have never taken Mr. Riddle’s class. I would have maybe never discovered Bradbury, a man that changed the way I thought about not only what fiction could do, but changed the way I thought about the world. Bradbury believed childhood and innocence were precious things, to be protected and cherished. I know my mom thought that, too. Otherwise she wouldn’t have forced me to endure the sadness of growing up so that, under threat of losing myself entirely, I could find and hold tight to my imagination.

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