NONFICTION ISSUE #45

The Thing that Vanishes
Image: “The thing that vanishes,” by Pablo Saborío, acrylic on acrylic glass, 100×150 cm., 2019

Unbecoming Doogie

By Storey Clayton

In retrospect, it seems likely that the school district administrators were bluffing when they recommended that I skip four grades. Oregon District 10 Superintendent Harold Riggan put the offer to my parents: “Storey is testing at an eighth-grade level. We don’t have the resources to challenge him in his current classroom. If you want to place him where he’s performing academically, we can send him to eighth grade.”

I was nine years old, the shortest child of any gender in my fourth-grade class. When we lined up to go to recess, I was at the back, peering up the steady stairstep of sequentially taller peers. I lugged a plastic dinosaur lunchbox to school each day on the bus, containing either a blistered bunless hotdog or a burnt cheese sandwich (the monotony of overcooked food reflecting my sworn preferences and not my mother’s shortcomings) and a thermos of lemonade made from frozen concentrate. I was bored.

In retrospect, my parents were supposed to say “Oh never mind, he’ll make do where he is.” Instead, they said “What would that look like?”

Broadway Middle School is a crumbling amalgam of gray plaster and glass, essentially a long hallway bedecked with lockers and windowed wood doors opening into identical classrooms and, at one end, a wide, high-ceilinged gym. In 1989-90, the school exclusively served 7thand 8th graders. The building is sandwiched in the three blocks between the Necanicum River and the Neawanna Creek in the tourist village of Seaside (1990 census population: 5,359). Its name derives from the town’s main drag, which dead-ends half a mile west, past the Pig ’N Pancake diner, past the bumper cars and arcade, past the taffy stands, in the Turnaround overlooking the mighty Pacific. Broadway’s mascot is the Sharks.

One drizzly dreary morning in December, my lunchbox and I boarded a different bus, which deposited me at Broadway’s doors for a half-day trial visit. The school’s ambassador, a perky cheerleader, greeted me at the entrance to show me around. She flinched only briefly at just how small I was, continuing undaunted to what would be my locker if I matriculated. “Have you used a locker before?” she inquired. I stared up at the beige-gray metal, wondering what the vents at the top were for. I shook my head.

 “Oh, it’s easy. And it’s so fun, better than carrying your books around all day. Here, it has a combination, which is just three numbers and you do it like this…”

 The visit to Broadway was totally overwhelming, a sensory smorgasbord in the land of the giants. But everyone had smiled and extended their hands and the classwork seemed engaging and potentially difficult. My mind tingled at the prospect. When I returned to fourth grade that afternoon, my friends leaned over their desks breathlessly. “How was it? Are you really going to go? I can’t believe you’re going to skip four grades. You’re going to graduate high school when you’re like 14!”

I shrugged and smiled. Then another voice piped up, not just in my head but out loud, from a guy who bullied me sometimes. “You’re never going to make it. I bet you’re back here before the end of the year.”

 Challenge accepted.

That January, just after winter break, I enrolled at Broadway. They were on a trimester system, in contrast with Gearhart Elementary’s quarters, so I was already behind when I was introduced to my classmates in homeroom, English, American history, chemistry, P.E., pre-algebra, typing, and choir. “This is Storey,” each teacher would say. “He’s going to be joining us from Gearhart. I hope everyone makes him feel welcome.”

“How old are you?” the class clown would ask.

 “Nine,” I would mumble.

Amid the gasps, a general murmur would surface. “Doogie,” the consensus would emerge. “You’re just like Doogie Howser.”

Doogie Howser, M.D., starring a young Neil Patrick Harris, debuted on ABC on September 19, 1989, less than four months before my arrival at Broadway. The show’s premise is that Dr. Howser is sixteen, having graduated high school at nine, Princeton at ten, and medical school at fourteen. My family didn’t watch network television as a rule, preferring NPR dramas, documentaries, and the occasional 1970s British comedy. I hadn’t heard of the show before I skipped grades. But it gave a comprehensible context to those around me for my sudden presence at a middle school. By Doogie’s standards of achievement, I was hardly a prodigy. But unlike Doogie, I was real.

+++

My parents were not pushy. They knew I was smart and fostered a love of learning, but their intervention in my education was always driven by my complaints about boredom and not their ambition. It started, earnestly, in second grade in Washington, D.C. when I began calling my teacher (a Ms. Block) “Mrs. Blockhead” because I was convinced I knew more than she did. Correcting teachers is never an endearing trait and my parents transferred me to a private school they couldn’t afford, which in turn recommended an IQ test to measure my capabilities. I’ve never been told the actual score. I quickly exhausted the patience of the private school teacher too and wound up spending a lot of the year homeschooled, mostly through supervised visits to the vast halls of various Smithsonian museums.

The next year, we moved abruptly to the rural windswept north coast of Oregon, living rent-free in my grandparents’ beach house. My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Kerwin, embraced me as a project, assigning extra work, from long division to Animal Farm. She added four-syllable challenge words to my spelling tests and saw it as her mission to keep me engaged while integrated with peers. I suggested we learn about elections during social studies and hold a class vote for president. I won in a landslide, then lobbied the administration for homework. I was thriving.

 In fourth grade, Mr. Nelson had no intention of being so accommodating. He had a sarcastic sense of humor and shrugged that I should be grateful I found the assigned curriculum easy to breeze through.  I went to my parents, who went to the school principal. Principal Jim White, boggled in his first sit-down with them, testified that he’d seen me playing soccer and basketball with the other children. “I had no idea Storey was smart,” he explained. “He has friends!”

 Later that fall, they struck a compromise wherein I would spend most of the day at a back table taking tests over material from each grade level in sequence, which the school would then score and evaluate. When I was done with the day’s tests, I was free to crawl up the ladder to the unbelievably cool lofted classroom “treehouse” Mr. Nelson had built as a reward for free-reading time, to pore over advanced literature or textbooks. I still had lunch, recess, and P.E. with my peers. I rode the bus home to a woodsy yard full of ducks and chickens, a room full of baseball cards and atlases, hanging on to something like a normal childhood.

One afternoon, Mr. Nelson obsequiously peered up the ladder and asked if I wouldn’t mind helping him out by teaching the low math group. This became part of my daily routine. In the treehouse, I designed an unnecessarily intricate boardgame based on The Phantom Tollbooth. At the table in the back, I tested out of seventh grade. Superintendent Riggan’s exasperated offer came a few weeks later.

Early on at Broadway, I missed my friends. I hadn’t seen too much of them at Gearhart that fall, but it was nice to be able to look someone in the eye without them stooping. I’d made exactly two friends at Broadway, Matt and Mark. They were twin seventh graders who basically split the size of one normal seventh grader between them, leaving them almost precisely my height. In a self-defeating comical twist, our favorite free-time activity was basketball.

 I wrote my old class a weekly newsletter about my new school, which I titled The Broadway Flash. It was just a sheet of notebook paper on which I scribbled observations about what was different in middle school, what loomed for them three or four years ahead. I was told Mr. Nelson read it aloud every Monday morning to my former classmates, then added his own quips about my photographic memory and ESP (I have neither). In return letters, my friends said they hoped I wouldn’t forget them now, that I would still play Little League that coming summer. I understood that many of them were smart enough to have skipped a few grades themselves, wondering about the slow pace and low expectations of American education.

The first couple months at Broadway, I was largely ogled and then ignored. As Doogie, I was a novelty, a mascot, an object of fun or amusement or even wonder. Girls thought I was adorable, almost a baby to coo at, while guys didn’t really process me as a guy, since I posed no threat. The most resentment I experienced at first was at the hands of the previously most intelligent in the school, the proud nerds who everyone had regarded with begrudging respect in the classroom. The most capable of them all, a bespectacled redhead named Per, bested me in the school Geography Bee and rubbed his triumph in my face. I’d been knocked out by answering “Great Britain” instead of “United Kingdom,” a decision that still smarts three decades later. He taunted that everyone knew the difference. I cried.

Then, I made the honor roll with a 3.85, for a trimester I’d come into late. The award was publicized, the short list of us posted in the halls and shouted in an all-school assembly. I was handed a laminated orange card offering me special privileges, like hall passes and extra dessert at lunch.

Everything changed.

Guys who’d once tolerated or ignored me were now menacing. Insults flew, then threats, then fists. P.E. quickly became unbearable. I would dash like a scared rabbit between classes, darting through the melee mass of hallway bodies like a tiny fish in a reef. I discovered what the vents atop the lockers were for. I stopped using my locker, unable to bear thirty vulnerable seconds with my back turned. I stopped using the bathroom. I started sitting in the back of classes, wary and watchful. I became fidgety, restless, harrowed.

My worst tormentors were kids who’d been held back a grade, making them both even larger and especially resentful of my academic success. One of them, Rick, had been held back two full years, making him sixteen to my now ten. The guy was a lanky behemoth, a bit of a social outcast for his mental incapacity, and angry as hell. As an adult, I can now recognize the signs of his status as being abused at home, but such nuances were lost to me when I was running from him in a crowded hallway or watching him smack his fist into his open palm across the cafeteria.

When I was inevitably periodically cornered, I fought back as best I could, which was pathetically. I once managed to land a kick in Rick’s groin, to the elation of Matt and Mark, who’d also been his targets at times. After I got pummeled one afternoon on the blacktop by one of the school’s most popular kids, we were both hauled in to the vice principal’s office. “This is too many fights for each of you,” he warned. “If I see either of you in here again for fighting, I’m going to call your parents.” When I lifted my bloodied arms in mute incredulous protest, he repeated. “Either of you.”

I stopped fighting back. It was too big a risk. My parents could never know.

If my parents found out what was happening, they would pull me out of school. And if they pulled me out, I would have failed. I would lose access to the incredible academic challenge that I was, despite everything else, truly enjoying. I had forgotten what it was like to have to work, for things to be hard, for the degree of difficulty to be switched on. I had struggled for that 3.85 and the included B was a whip to keep me struggling harder. The notion that I could lose all this, be dumped back, hat in hand, in fourth grade, for a mere question of physical safety? I couldn’t entertain it.

To achieve this, I became a liar and a sneak. Once effortlessly honest and close to my parents, I started hiding everything from them. I brought extra layers to school to cover my bruises coming home, flinched when my parents would get too close to deter their examination, swore and yelled when they asked me for too many details. “That school is changing you,” my father said sadly one dinner after I’d snapped at him and then hastily apologized, nervous my anger would invite its own scrutiny. “Are you sure everything’s okay?”

“It’s great,” I insisted, aiming for a grin that I’m sure looked more like a maniacal leer. “I’m learning so much.”

+++

In 2014, Neil Patrick Harris was on the cover of Rolling Stone. In the cover interview, Brian Hiatt asked him about his experiences as a parent of then three-year-old twins. “I try to teach them large-picture, complex thought,” Harris is quoted as saying. “I would like to teach them that they could cry and kick and complain about the fact that the other one just took their toy. Or they could find another toy to play with. That’s a choice that they’re making. A lot of things happen to you, but a lot of your choices in life are how you’re choosing to process your circumstance.”

My father was an advocate of this same perspective. He would periodically read in the morning paper about people who put themselves in dangerous situations and declare this frequent article of faith: “There are no victims.” The message stuck, bloomed within me, was applied as I grappled with hiding my reality from the exact person who taught me this. I saw myself as responsible for my own actions, yes, but also my circumstances. For what people did to me. If I felt like a victim, I could choose to feel instead like it was my choice.

+++

When people tell you that you’re a genius, that you’re a prodigy, that you’re capable of things others can’t dream of, it changes you. Especially when they initially tell you that you can’t do something, that there’s a bar too high for you to overcome, a standard by which you will fail and fall back to earth. Once you beat back a couple of those, you start to see yourself as invincible, that the rules don’t apply, that the sky really is the limit. The Millennial generation has been criticized for taking testimony of their specialness and unique capability seriously. But there’s a difference between being told you’re special and living through things that only happen on TV.

The biggest thing that changes is your narrative of the future. Doogie Howser was a medical doctor at 16. Maybe you can be the youngest congressman, senator, president. You start penciling in impossible levels and rates of achievement, then start tracing over them in pen when you continue to excel. External encouragement and awe transform into internal expectation and presumption. Of course you’re going to graduate high school at 14, college at 18, maybe even younger, sooner. Life is short. Make the most of the time you’re given. There’s so much left to do.

I internalized this narrative, night after night, amid worsening nightmares (whose origin long predated the bullying), while balancing memorized facts against anxiety about the unsafe periods of the day to come. The tormenting crystallized into an origin story, which became a martyr complex. Part of achievement everywhere is overcoming adversity. This was just my cross to bear, a survivable price for a glorious future. I read Gandhi and backfilled a pacifist philosophy around my new resolve to not fight back. I read the Bible and saw myself in willing sacrifice of the flesh for a higher calling. I taunted my enemies, real and imagined, shouting insults at my real-life bullies and shouting down the naysayers in my head.

Late spring, six weeks shy of graduation, we had our last all-school assembly of the year. I twitched on the rightmost edge of the bleachers, near the door, vigilant, waiting for conclusive remarks to begin so I could bolt out early and secure myself in the next classroom before the halls grew cluttered. I didn’t realize that Rick was watching. Waiting.

 The principal started thanking the people who organized the assembly. I ran.

 Rick ran too.

 He caught up to me, easily, a third of the way down the hallway. He picked me up, swung me around like helicopter blades overhead, slammed me to the ground, and began kicking. He swore at me, spitting with rage, and I whimpered and tried to shield in place. He picked me up again, opened a nearby locker, and started shoving me in, slamming the metal door repeatedly into my head. Then a teacher pulled him off me.

I’d mistimed the end of the assembly, as had he. It had ended early. Sixty people, students and teachers, witnessed the attack in an otherwise empty hallway. Most of them marched into the principal’s office to demand justice.

Rick was expelled. The vice principal called my parents.

They pulled me out of school on the spot.

A week later, I awoke early to the sounds of my parents screaming at each other. They were in the kitchen, at the end of a long narrow hallway, shutter-style doors ajar. I posted myself on the ground outside the doors, back to the kitchen, in earshot but invisible, and settled in to eavesdrop on their argument.

They were blaming each other for not seeing the warning signs earlier. How could you let this happen to our son? How could you? What are we going to do with him now? I don’t know, why don’t you fix it, since it’s your fault! The topic of divorce arose. Voice tones and name-calling escalated. Ancient history in their twelve-year relationship was exhumed and weaponized. It took me a while to realize I was quietly sobbing.

I had failed and it was completely clear to me that I was to blame. Had I only started running earlier, so at least no one would have seen what Rick did, so it could be chalked up to one of the many unwitnessed or untattled he-said/he-saids that didn’t warrant school intervention. Had I somehow been able to convince my parents, as I tearfully, bloodily attempted, that it wasn’t that bad and I could stick it out. Had I just been better at not making myself a target, not being bullied. Hadn’t the vice principal said I was doing things to bring it on myself? Calling attention to my situation, making myself vulnerable?

And now it was too late to fix. I would be unceremoniously returned to grade level, confirming the doubters’ smug conviction that Doogie Howser was not real life. In the meantime, my family would dissolve like everyone else’s, I would be shuttled back and forth between increasingly embittered parents. And it was all. My. Fault.

My mother threw a plate across the kitchen and it shattered a few feet from me, shards of porcelain skittering across the linoleum in various directions. A few shards ricocheted out onto the carpeted hallway where I was shaking. In curiosity, I picked one up. It was long and thin, serrated on one edge like a blade. I turned it over and over in my hand. My parents bellowed and shrieked in the background. I stared at the edge, wondering. I began to hyperventilate from persistent crying, my face growing fuzzy, seeing spots materialize between me and the plate shard.

I began dragging the serrated edge across my throat. First slowly, then with more vigor. Finally, with willful intent.

It is fortunate, perhaps, that anatomy was not among the science classes offered to Broadway Middle School eighth graders in the 1989-90 school year. I was nowhere near my windpipe or jugular when my father burst angrily out of the room and discovered me sawing at my own neck. His demeanor instantly transformed, from enflamed to deadly calm. He snatched the shard from my hand and asked what I was doing. I told him I didn’t want to live anymore.

He sat me down for a quiet, sober lecture about the permanence of death. Had I really thought this through? Did I understand the opportunities I was about to throw away? Did I know that suicide could not be undone, that it stays with those left behind forever?

What opportunities, I wondered. What future did I have left? But I didn’t say that. I said that I understood and I was sorry. But I couldn’t imagine the family going through a divorce.

 “We aren’t going to get divorced,” he countered. “Your mother and I are just very upset. We hate seeing you hurt and you got very, very hurt.”

I didn’t know then that my father’s mother, when he was just nineteen, had shot herself in the heart in a Reno hotel room. The counterfactual image of my father rushing out of the kitchen to find his only child dead by suicide at age ten has sometimes been the only thing to keep me from making another serious attempt.

+++

 “There are all kinds of traumatic aspects to a youth of being scrutinized,” Neil Patrick Harris told Horatia Harrod for a 2017 interview in the UK newspaper The Telegraph. He was describing his perspective after the end of Doogie Howser, M.D, which was cancelled after four seasons due to low ratings.“I was, I think, very worried that I would never get to act again. I’ve always wanted to work, and I’ve been very reticent about the fame and the acclaim, because it’s rare that you get genuine, un-agenda-ed acclaim. There’s usually another shoe to drop: ‘This is good … but not as good as the last thing you did,’ or, ‘You’re the toast of the town!’ And then the toast burns.”

I couldn’t picture life after being Doogie Howser. I felt like my life had peaked, well before my eleventh birthday.

+++

 The next year, I skipped four more grades and went to college. Community college, but still. I attended a couple hours of fifth grade in the morning for largely social purposes, then my father would shuttle me up to a 12-credit schedule at CCC: Writing 121, French 101, and History of Western Civilization. College credits were promised, as was an environment where the students would be too mature to bully me. I was pushed to my absolute academic limit while generally bemusing my fellow students: hopeless D-students, GED-holding iconoclasts, unemployed clerical workers, and aspiring welders. But the administration made my father accompany me between classes in a move that compromised his ability to work. We asked for lenience and the offer of college credits was quietly withdrawn. We moved on.

 After failed attempts to find a suitable high school or college situation, I settled down to homeschooling, largely spent volunteering and reading at the local public library. By the summer I was 12, I desperately wanted to regularly see children my own age, so I was enrolled in the local Catholic school in seventh grade, at my age-level. I was taller than many of my peers, having undergone a growth spurt, but still faced extreme bullying. By the time I told my father about the drawings three boys in my class were routinely making of gunning me down in the playground, he was ready to withdraw me again. We moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, largely so I could attend an elite 6-12 private academy there on a scholarship. I started in eighth grade, trying not to think about the fact that I’d waited four years to repeat the grade.

 I proceeded unfettered through a normal age-level education. I excelled in high school, but I wasn’t even valedictorian. Weeks before graduation, I told my friends I didn’t believe it was actually going to happen. I was sure some calamity would prevent me from earning the diploma and heading for college. But it was all in my head. I’d earned a full scholarship plus stipend to Brandeis University, where I would enter the phase of education that most smart students start facing in fifth or sixth grade: making a game of putting in the absolute minimum effort one can get away with and still skating by. My junior year, I deliberately failed a class to prove to myself how much I’d changed. Reading my academic probation letter, I felt Doogie dying inside me.

+++

 Google real Doogie Howser and you will uncover articles about Masoud Karkehabadi, six months my junior, who also started community college in the 1990-91 school year. He graduated in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree from UC Irvine and planned to attend medical school. “I will be the real Doogie Howser,” he said in an interview that year with the Orange County Register. “They say I’m a genius, but I just consider myself to be special – a smart person, not a genius.”

 I remember being jealous when I heard about him, that he’d been able to make grade-skipping work in a way I hadn’t. But a 2010 article reveals that sixteen years later, he still hadn’t made it to med school, much less earned a single graduate degree. According to the follow-up article, titled “Remember the kid who graduated UCI at 13?,” he’d spent much of that time working at Best Buy and Verizon. His grades at UCI hadn’t been sufficient to secure a med school placement and he faced bizarre setbacks when both his father and the head of a charity where he served as a celebrity spokesperson were charged with fraud for unrelated incidents.

 “I’d probably tell myself to learn about the world a lot quicker than I did. I was focused a lot on science,” he said in the 2010 interview, when asked how he’d address his 13-year-old self. “There are a lot of obstacles in the way. You have to find ways around them… The only way to find ways around them is to know how the world works.”

But no pre-teen understands how the world works, no matter how many grades they skip. They don’t teach that in school.

+++

 It is challenging to ascribe particular blame for my pockmarked educational journey to any one person, to spot the villain in my story. My therapist is fond of encouraging me to envision “responsibility pies,” carving out portions for various causes and catalysts in an effort to avoid me shouldering all the blame myself. There’s a wedge for my parents, to be sure, though it’s mostly filled with naïveté and hope. A big chunk for Rick and the gang, though it’s overflowing with the obvious pain of their own abuse. Principal White and Superintendent Riggan have some slivers, tasting of ignorance and myopia. Perhaps the biggest serving I’d save for the vice principal of Broadway, whose name I’ve somehow scrubbed from my memory, blocked to protect myself. Underneath this pie, leeching into the tin, is a rock-hard seething anger I can’t seem to shake.

In the Rolling Stone cover story, Neil relates a conversation that Doogie Howser, M.D. showrunner Steven Bochco had with him before they began shooting. “Mr. Bochco sat me and my parents down. I vividly remember he said, ‘This is a lot of work, and a big deal. And with the good will come a lot of the bad, and you need to brace yourselves for what it means.’ It was a surfing metaphor. ‘This is going to be a great wave. It will inevitably crash, and the question will be whether you have the desire to paddle back out, get knocked over by a bunch of waves on your way, and wait for the next set.’ Which was very sage advice.”

 No one ever had that conversation with me.

Storey Clayton

Storey Clayton is a current MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at West Virginia University. He’s worked as a youth counselor, debate coach, strategic analyst, development director, rideshare driver, and poker player. In the past year, his nonfiction has appeared or been accepted in over a dozen literary journals, including Typehouse Literary Magazine, Barely South Review, The Bookends Review, Here Comes Everyone, and North Dakota Quarterly. You can learn more about Storey at his personal website, The Blue Pyramid.

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