I recently heard on a science-y podcast that teenagers brains aren’t fully developed chemically, and that’s why from the ages of thirteen to eighteen, everything from deciding what shoes to wear, to whether or not your crush likes you back, feel like life or death moments. Apparently, if you do the math, or look under a telescope, or whatever the proper scientific terminology is, you can see that their developing brains function differently when it comes to coping with stress. That said, there are some legitimately wretched things that can cause a kid to be traumatized.
And while my traumatic childhood events can’t possibly be any weirder than the next person’s, I feel compelled to share a few of them with you since you’re all just staring at me like that. Also, maybe eat your snacks before reading. Just saying.
There were some pivotal moments along my path to adulthood that helped shape the epically cool person you see poised before you. Take for instance the time I was eleven years old and was hanging out with my fellow 5th graders after school. Playing on the jungle gym, swinging around like a monkey was one of my favorite things to do as a child. I often imagined flying through the trees like George Of The Jungle, finding my polka-dot-bikini-wearing Ursula and carrying her off into the trees to frolic away the afternoons singing, braiding each other’s hair and rubbing our swimsuit areas together. That was something adults did, right? I had already begun my training in gymnastics and loved being upside down more than right-side-up. As I sat swinging by my knees that late fall afternoon, I paid no particular attention to my stuffy nose. I was a mouth breather, and coming from living in the Colorado mountains as a child, most of the residents of the town I lived in had a runny nose from late November to early May. But in Cali, I soon found out hanging upside down with a stuffy nose spelled imminent disaster.
We were only a few months into the school year and I had already been actively teased by the cutest boy in the class, Elian Carmichael. I wasn’t used to this behavior. Word on the playground was, he liked me and wanted to “go steady”. Side note: apparently by Los Angeles standards, I was a very young ten-year-old. Had I been back in Colorado, I would still be making forts out of found objects like discarded fiberglass insulation and horse shoes. I had no experience in the world of “liking”.
Kids in LA were fancy and I was worried. What did that mean? Did he expect me to do things? Things involving my mouth and things behind sheds? My best friend Izzy assured me, as she had gone steady with him only weeks earlier, it meant he would go easy on me when we played dodgeball. This seemed like a reasonable request. If going steady meant not getting pelted in the head with a hard rubber ball, I was open to considering it. Although as of yet, he hadn’t asked me. For now, the games were afoot and we teased each other every chance we had. The jungle gym was no exception. I remember the black corduroy pants, white button-up shirt and black patent leather shoes I wore to school that day. Hanging upside down, I was a well-dressed acrobat enjoying the feeling the blood rushing to my little gumball of a head. Losing myself in the moment, I didn’t realize all the change from my pockets had fallen out. When I swung back up I quickly bent over to pick it up the scattered pennies.
Elian saw this as an opportunity to jab at me and get my attention. Also, when Elian spoke, everyone seemed to pipe down and listen. Yes, he looked like the 11-year-old version of Tom Cruise. Yes, there was something oddly sexy about his overbite and pigeon-toed running technique. With those qualifications, he could have gone on to become a legacy quarterback (John Elway was pigeon-toed. Go Broncos!) or a movie action hero turned religious fanatic. Instead, the slouch decided to go into medicine and last I heard he was a hack brain surgeon. (I guess we can’t always live up to everyone’s expectations.) But there on that playground, he was king and when he hollered out to me, “Nina, better pick up all your loose change!” (reading back this statement, it really does lack a lot of the sass I remember so vividly) everyone stopped to listen, awaiting my response to the King’s snark.
Not wanting him to get the upper hand, I began to respond with what I can only guess would have been a whip-smart retort, something to the effect of, “Oh yeah, all my pennies are just sitting on the ground!” (I was not a cruel child, so insults did not come easily to me.) But before I made it past the “m” in “my”, the Matrix had been entered, time stood still, and I had instilled the fear of dragons onto the schoolyard.*
*I find this next part is best described in scientific terms to fully express the gravity of the situation. It was the perfect storm of stuffiness meets closed mouth pronunciation. Forcing the reverse air flow from the back of my throat up through my sinus passages, the sheer momentum of my “Mmmmm” took with it a gust of wind that ushered a giant snot filled air bubble to protrude from my left nostril, ballooning out like the under-chin sack of a mating Florida Pig Frog.
I also think a pictorial of the incident might serve us nicely here.
Before the incident:
During the incident:
In a flash came the collective recoiling of all the children surrounding us, as though their faces needed to be shielded from a planet-ending laser beam, the image of my snot bubble was going to be emblazoned on every single child’s memory from here until the day they could no longer remember to change their own underwear.
The viscous bubble inflated outwards growing in size to that of a homemade pierogi. And with the realization of what was blowing up millimeters from my face, I immediately stopped speaking and watched it instantaneously deflate and recoil back into my sinus cavity. My uninvited visitor was the equivalent of a toilet rat running back up into his hole, away from the repulsed onlookers. A synchronistic moan of “OHHHHH!” ushered out of the children’s mouths as they all turned away, covering their eyes and mouths. Years before the advent of gross viral videos, that playground served as a real-life youtube abomination. I could call it mytube. But it seems a little on the nose.
After that, the pure and utter mortification set in and after I let out a legit 10 year-old-girl scream, I ran off to the darkest corner of the playground to sob the immaculate and primitive sob of a traumatized child. How could I ever recover from this? How would anyone ever talk to me again, let along King Elian? It looked as though I was destined to be getting hit in the head with balls for the rest of the year.
Bent over in the type of hysterics that leave a child unable to breathe or complete a sentence, I looked up to see three of my girlfriends running to my side. Izzy, Lola and Eve all surrounded me patting my back and telling me things like, “It’s ok, it’s not that big of a deal. No one even noticed.”
After the incident:
To which I responded, “I (gasp) can’t (gasp) be (gasp) lieve (gasp) that happened (gasp gasp gasp).”
“They are stupid boys. Who needs them? Wanna go play hopscotch?” Izzi asked in as calm a tone as she could muster. While still getting over her own disgust, she managed to find a way to comfort my bruised heart.
I eventually recovered from that incident, but do wonder if it’s something the other kids remembered as vividly as I still do. Maybe snot bubbles don’t carry as much weight as I once thought they did? I secretly would like to locate someone from that day and see if he or she remembers the traumatic event. Do they retell it at holiday parties, or when their kids have stuffy noses? Do they use the memory as a “heed my warning” kind of anecdote to make sure their kid blow’s her nose? Or in my case, did they use it to gross out casting directors in an audition which then lead to a national commercial which helped to pay for college.*
(*see essay, The Mullet That Paid For College.) Come to think of it, some of my most upsetting childhood experiences helped pay for college.
But of course, not all traumatic events led to financial gain. Some just made for a typical Tuesday.
Look for Part II of, “They’re All Gonna Laugh At You”. Coming at you Monday morning!