Teen experiences growing pains
Hello high school, bye boyhood
Roy’s younger years were rife with chaos and change. As an orphan in depression-era New York City, he bounced around from foster home to foster home until, at the age of 12, he was reclaimed by his birth father, George Sebouhian and his large Armenian family. For much of his life up to that point, Roy had used his faith in God and an ornery, playful disposition to guard himself from the hardships he encountered in an ever-shifting, undependable adult world. These weapons of defense would face their stiffest challenge yet as Roy began a fresh start in a public high school called William Cullen Bryant. The year was 1944.
The school was so big — 3,000 students — I didn’t feel lost. Instead I felt free, unlike the experience I had in the Catholic schools where the teachers knew all the kids and were very watchful of deviant behavior. At Bryant I could race down the stairs as fast as I wanted to. I could even cut class and get away with it. But not all my experiences were pleasant. At Bryant I was in several fights.
One day at lunch in the cafeteria, one of the kids didn’t like the way I was talking and so he hurled himself at me, grabbing me around the chest to pin my arms, but I broke free, and we began to pummel each other with our fists, interrupted by the ringing of the bell for our next class. We both stopped at the signal, picked up our things, and raced for the upstairs. I was completely flustered by the kid’s actions. I hated fights. I didn’t even know him. Suddenly, on the stairs, he was just ahead of me. He turned, holding his hand out as if in friendship. I returned the gesture in kind. That was the ethics of fighting at Bryant. Always one-on-one, no ganging up, no unfair hitting, and usually no grudges.
The first term of my freshman year was probably the most dramatic. I fell torturously in love with a girl who apparently fell for me, too. I never knew why, in fact, I never even thought about why. I just enjoyed the relationship and the reactions of our classmates: “Roy and Joy are having a boy” type of teasing, though we never went out on a date. No car. What do you do? Take a bus for a date, trying, at the same time, to navigate getting there and getting home? The most intimate we got was in the school library. We would sit opposite each other holding up the books we were pretending to read so that we could stare while hugging shoes, which the librarian tried to dissuade us from — but not too seriously.
The class I liked the most was Mr. Recht’s, the science/math teacher. I was at that time a happy show-off type, easily ignoring instructions/directions, especially from teachers. Because I talked a lot when I wasn’t supposed to, and wrote notes to Joy, Mr. Recht, who was a happy humorist, cleverly drawing stick figures to illustrate his notes, invited me to the front of the class and asked me to imitate a frog, which he said was what I looked like when I was talking. Of course, I started laughing when I got to the front of the class and had a hard time trying to be a frog, but I was able to bellow out my cheeks a few times and that was enough for him, me, and the class and it did help me to curtail my need to communicate surreptitiously. It was a great term for fun. I passed everything with the minimum grade of 65. That’s what I had aimed for.
There was one major exception. The term ended in late January. The last day most of the teachers gave us an option to either do nothing or plan something entertaining for the class. I hadn’t planned anything, but a friend of mine brought a poem to class that I thought was hilarious. He asked me to read it because he was too shy. I eagerly raised my hand to volunteer, but the teacher seemed reluctant to even recognize me. However, after no one else volunteered, she invited me to come to the front of the class. She sat down at her desk and turned toward me, and as I was about to start reading, I caught a glimpse of her eyes. They seemed cold, distant, almost smirking. I was jolted but started the reading. Suddenly the poem did not seem funny at all and the lines I had started fell in a dead faint to the floor. I stopped. The class was silent. No one moved. I knew the teacher didn’t like me, but I hadn’t cared. However, at this moment I felt overwhelmed by what seemed to me to be pure frozen disdain. My stomach felt it first and then my whole body. I couldn’t move my mouth. I couldn’t read. And then I heard her say “you may go to your seat.” And the lunch bell rang.
I don’t know what happened, but from that moment my whole life changed. I fled inside myself only to find darkness, strangeness, somewhat like the nightmares of my early childhood, only with no release. Everything frightened me, even my family and friends. I could not bear to be the object of attention, especially in a group. My face would twitch, my whole body would shake. I couldn’t speak except in a quivering whisper. On the way to lunch I felt as though I had been marked, my fear made visible. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t talk, though I forced myself to sit with my friends, I felt were no longer friendly. I understood why. I didn’t like myself either. How could I? From a confident show-off who loved attention, I suddenly realized there was an audience out there, and it mattered that they scorned me, for that audience included me in their midst.
Later that evening I lay in bed unable to sleep until I forced myself to be still and allow thought and feeling to be, and very slowly I began to be aware of something new, different, strange, sharply present. After a while thinking overtook me, and the words began to come and the words were that I was no longer me. I was no longer the boy I had known for so many years. I was no longer what I had been. I was different, strange, but known to myself. A stronger identification than I had known, but one that was new, but not frightening, just there, here, me, like it or not. I asked myself after some time of calm confusion, “am I different? Am I grown up? Is my boyhood over with?” No crash boom of a revolution, just a kind of settling. Yes, boyhood is over, but what is next? Nothing I can see, foretell, expect, visualize, guess. Different. Yes. Calmly different. I then closed my eyes in sleep.
Former State University of New York at Fredonia professor and OBSERVER columnist George Sebouhian was preparing to write his life story when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013. He died three years later, having left behind hundreds of pages of research notes, poems and memoir vignettes. His son, Damian Sebouhian, has taken it upon himself to complete and share his writings through a series of theme-based articles, each of which represents a chapter in the life and times of George Sebouhian, in his own words. (Note: During childhood, his father was known as Roy).
Damian Sebouhian, a former OBSERVER staff writer, is a Dunkirk resident.