I was in the sixth grade, eleven years old, and I didn’t understand why I wasn’t cool. I only knew I wasn’t. I liked Ninja Turtles and Batman in a time when everyone else in my class was into MC Hammer, Technotronic, and Public Enemy. I didn’t own any albums. I didn’t try chasing the girls. One of my classmates—a boy—asked me which girl I liked and I said I didn’t like any (which was a lie; I didn’t want that secret getting out and risk being made fun of for it) and he asked me if I was gay.
I didn’t know what “gay” meant. It was always just a term mean kids used when they meant to say you were “stupid.” But I wasn’t stupid in the academic sense. The honor roll was tacked beside the classroom door, just underneath the clock and above the light switches. My name was always on it. I didn’t much like homework because I had to do a lot of it. In fact, I was in a “Challenge Program” which had me and a select few classmates leave each day for two hours to go to a smaller class with smarter kids. We’d learn about robots, space, and the future. We talked about famous inventors. We made planes out of blocks of Styrofoam and cardboard. We drew our own Rube Goldberg-inspired machines that would turn the pages of a book or automatically flush a toilet.
Oh, and we still had to do all the regular school work that we missed while we were off having fun. So between regular schoolwork and the Challenge Program curriculum, I was a seriously busy sixth-grader. In my spare time I would watch my favorite cartoon—Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—and try to reenact their totally radical ninja moves. I even had my parents enroll me in Tae Kwon-do the following year. So with all the stuff I was involved with, I really didn’t have time to try to figure out how to be cool. In fact, I wasn’t even aware of such a concept.
I was the kid who wore matching fleece pants and sweatshirts to class. My favorite one was not surprisingly my Ninja Turtles outfit. The top featured the four turtles standing on top of a flying pizza and making menacing faces with their weapons drawn, ready for combat. The pants were green and had a thick screened print of Raphael’s head just below the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles logo. My parents had ordered the outfit for me from the Sears catalogue and initially the pants were too big but they somehow shrank to my size. I wore this outfit proudly to school, once a week. In fact I only made the switch over to the jeans and T-shirt look when in seventh grade, a new kid thought it was funny to de-pants people who wore sweatpants. He never got me but that didn’t stop me from being afraid of it happening. But more on that later.
It was while I was in sixth grade that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hit the big screen in a live-action movie. It was the second movie I had ever seen in a theater (the first being Ghostbusters II), and it was also my introduction to liking music. The movie featured many of the groups that the cool people in my class liked, after all. So when I finally got the film’s soundtrack and listened to it repeatedly, I thought for sure that I’d have something to talk about with my fellow classmates (who were “too old” to like TMNT, remember).
Turns out I was wrong. Not even bringing my cassette to class for the class dance helped my cool status. There I was, with the only album I owned, begging the DJ (who was just a kid in the class who brought his boom box to school that day) to play “Turtle Power” by Partners in Kryme. He finally did play it and I was in my glory, dancing up a storm and even doing ninja moves. But only one of my friends and I were dancing. Everyone else decided to sit that one out.
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