When he was born on a beautiful day in April, his parents counted his fingers and toes and couldn't stop looking at him. He was a surprise baby, an impossible baby, who lay curled up in his mother's arms while she marvelled at her son and at the strangeness of the world. Duane's parents had long ago given up on having children, and they were stunned at 39 years of age to find out they were expecting.
Rachel quit her job to look after her son. She traded in her black office-administrator pumps for fuzzy slippers and a bathrobe, and spent the first few weeks adjusting to the way her life had changed. She was thankful that Bill was making good money at his electrician's job and they didn't need both incomes. She wanted to spend time being a mom. The adjustment was more difficult than expected, however, and Rachel was surprised by the difference one tiny human could create.
Her husband, at least, was the same. Cheerful when he came home from work, Bill knew better than to joke about happy housewives. He deeply appreciated Rachel's homemaking skills and was delighted to spend time playing with his baby while she cooked dinner for the two of them. After they ate, if the weather was nice, they'd sit on the back lawn on a blanket with Duane between them and talk until he dozed off. Family would drop in; many of Duane's aunts and uncles had older children, and the experienced parents were a constant source of advice and support.
For his fourth birthday Duane got a Big Wheel and would ride it up and down the sidewalk while his dad worked on the family car, a two-door Mustang they refused to trade for a station wagon. They also owned a van and a trailer. When the summer rolled around, Duane's parents would pack the three of them up and drive to a provincial park for a couple of weeks where they'd fish, ride bikes, and go out in their canoe.
Duane grew up loving nature and the outdoors. For the first few years of his life he spent lots of time out in the family's big, fenced yard sitting under the trees and playing with his toys while his mother puttered around inside the house. His aunts would drop by a couple times a week to visit and would talk to him, and there were neighbour children a little older with whom he sometimes played, but most often it was just Duane and his mom.
Kindergarten was something of a shock for him. After so much time in their quiet house with nothing louder than Sesame Street to deal with, a classroom of twenty loud, active kids was jarring and bewildering. Duane, a naturally quiet child, wasn't sure how to talk to the other kids. He spent much of his time staying close to the teacher, who seemed to like him. She would give him little jobs to do, and by the end of the year he made a couple of friends. He was happy when school ended for the summer and he could go back to his favourite spot in the back yard with his picture books. He had learned to read faster than the other kids, and his mother, pleased by his intelligence, encouraged him.
By the time he arrived at fourth grade, Duane was a straight-A student who was well-liked by his teachers because he loved to read. He was polite and quiet, and he wasn't shy about putting up his hand to answer questions. He could read books aloud to his classmates to give the teacher a break. He was generally kind so the other students liked him.
In fifth grade, things began to change. Two of the bigger, meaner kids began to pick on him. Duane didn't understand why. His mother blamed the beginnings of puberty or occasionally the lax parenting styles she observed around his neighbourhood.
Duane was called “brainer” and other uglier names. Bullies pushed him around, getting endless rounds of giggles from the other kids. He had one close friend in his class, but the others would turn a blind eye when he was being shoved and kicked. Eventually it felt like everyone had forgotten his name. It had become “Duane the Brain” or just “Dork”, and he felt like he was constantly walking around with a rock in his stomach. The teachers never seemed to notice, or worse – they'd try to help. One of them was a big fan of “mediation sessions” where the aggressor and the victim would sit down together to talk it over without any blame being assigned. Duane rolled his eyes and seethed at the stupidity and unfairness of it.
He would bike home from school as fast as he could and retreat into his room to do his homework. He took pride in his ability to catch on more quickly than most kids. He could speed through work which took most of them hours. But he was lonely and his mother didn't seem to notice. He'd always spent time by himself, so she never questioned why he didn't invite people over. When he was twelve, she presented him with a key to the house and announced that she'd taken a job and would be getting home around the same time as his father, which was around seven pm. He would have to make dinner for himself.
One one hand, Duane felt more alone than ever. On the other, he was now free to explore a few things that his parents wouldn't have allowed him to do. He often stopped at the town library on the way home to check out VHS tapes of political documentaries from their video department. He spent a lot of time speed-reading from the stack of questionable library books he kept under a heap of clothes at the bottom of his closet; a safe storage space now that his laundry was his responsibility.
His parents, so much older than his peers' parents, held some archaic ideas about what their son should be exposed to - and he had always resented having his reading material vetted for him. Now he had the space he needed to learn about whatever interested him.
One afternoon in March, he went looking through “adult non-fiction” for a slim hardcover called “Responses to Bullying” and found himself standing in the psychology section. Drawn to the titles on the shelf, he picked two others at random and, over the next couple of afternoons, tore through them. After years of trying to understand what motivated people, here was all of the available human knowledge on the subject! He was hooked.
Duane returned over and over again, reading everything that seemed relevant. He also read books that seemed unrelated but offered insight into human history, general mammalian behaviour and more. By the end of ninth grade, he'd learned to avoid and occasionally outsmart the bullies. He could frame and label their behaviour and he learned to use his body language to unsettle them, so they left him alone.
He had also developed a stomach-fluttering liking for a girl named Candace who had been in his class for years, and for whom he'd always had a fearful respect. She was smart like he was, but she didn't hesitate to use her fists to defend herself, and occasionally he'd been shocked to see that she was the aggressor in the schoolyard.
When she came to class with a shaved head, Duane decided he wanted to get to know her better. He was pleased when they became lab partners in biology class, and over the next semester his sarcastic, sharp observations about their fellow students had made friends of the pair.
Candace was much wilder than Duane, but he was beginning to rival her in terms of anger and angst. He could see unjust behaviour all over their school, in the way some teachers treated the kids or in the way they spoke to each other. He still hated bullies, and he found that being quick with a cutting remark would often stop them from bothering the younger kids. This new insight and fearlessness didn't make him any friends among the teaching staff, but the other students started eyeing him warily and wondering if he knew some weird form of martial art that made him unafraid to mouth off to the rugby team.
Sometimes, they would skip class. One of their teachers had casually remarked that two kids like Duane and Candace would learn more by spending a day in Toronto than they would by sitting in school for a week. They decided he was right, so they would meet up early in the morning and walk to the GO station to catch a train. Candace knew where to go in the city, and showed Duane the shops which lurked in the low-rent gloom above the mainstream street-level storefronts. They bought CDs by obscure punk bands and Duane got his first pair of big black boots. They went back to the city often during the summer, and Duane got a sense of the wider world waiting for him after high school.
Suddenly the suburbs felt more confining and repressive than ever. His frustration and disgust for school politics (not to mention his parents' beige, sanitized view of the world) made him restless. He had been sporting an odd kind of dreadlock, but one day he got the clippers (a remnant from his days as an air cadet) out of the bathroom closet and gave himself a mohawk. A couple of the girls in English class had been talking about getting temporary hair colour by using drink crystals, but Duane thought that Bingo dabbers would do a better job. He was right.
The looks on his parents' faces moved across the entire emotional spectrum, and so did their shouting. They had tried to ignore the previous coif, but this was, well...over the top! It was too late to do much now that most of his hair was in the compost bin. Duane presented his report card with a grin while they were still processing his new look. He was on the honour roll, again, with an average in the low nineties.
His home life grew even more strained. His mother seemed to feel guilty for going back to work. She thought her Duane was acting out to get attention. She began watching him more closely, restricting his freedom and worrying that he was getting into drugs. The increased vigilance made Duane angrier and more rebellious, so he checked a book on body modification out from the library and began to decorate himself. His parents despaired, incapable of understanding why their otherwise smart child would become so strange. His father, at least, chose to see Duane's fashion choices as a phase. He continued to take him out in public and work on the family cars with him, and treated him more or less the same as before. They made a deal that he'd have help with his education as long as he didn't get any career-limiting tattoos or truly disfiguring piercings.
Duane was unable to articulate his opinions in a way his mother could understand, and their relationship suffered more. She viewed their well-groomed, safe, clean suburban neighbourhood as the ideal place to raise a good kid. Duane saw it as a conformity factory that reinforced and encouraged addictive behaviour patterns and consumerist values. He kept his grades high to prove a point to the teachers and his family and because it was easy to do, but he counted the weeks until he could leave and escape to anywhere else.
With yet another crazy hairstyle and a wardrobe of grey, Duane found it hard to get a part-time job. In the summer of 1998, his mother hit her breaking point when he added a nipple piercing to his collection, which already included a tongue stud and multiple holes in his ears and nose. She threw him out of the house. Duane took up residence in the garage, sleeping in the back of the van and occasionally going to work with his Dad. He learned the basics of wiring and working with currents. He endured his co-workers' teasing speculation that an electrical shock was responsible for the state of his hair – and won them over by offering to be used as a lightning rod because all the metal he was wearing would surely protect the rest of them in the event of a freak storm. Pun intended. (Of course.)
He was allowed back into the house in the fall, after he showed his mom the university applications he was filling out. He calmly explained that he was moving out soon and she might regret losing what time they had left as a family. They met with the school guidance counsellor, who assured Rachel that her son had excellent academic credentials and would undoubtedly be a successful student psychologist.
Duane escaped the Milborough suburbs on schedule, and spent four years getting his BA Honours degree in Vancouver. The third and fourth years of his program saw him working on a research project counselling and interviewing troubled kids. He had an easy time establishing a rapport with his subjects. The tongue piercing was gone, which he admitted made it easier to speak, but his hair was still on the strange side and he maintained his nose piercing, which lent him some credibility with the similarly-decorated kids in his working group.
The research led him to a career in educational psychology, which appealed to his subversive inner punk. He funnelled his keen understanding of people into curriculum development, and now in addition to publishing papers suggesting improvements to the education system, he works at helping teachers understand how to deal with kids who are gifted, eccentric, neuro-atypical or otherwise incompatible with the standard suburban school system.
He has plans to pursue a doctorate eventually, but he has been bitten by the travel bug. Once or twice a year, he and his girlfriend, Jill, pack a few bags and board a flight to someplace unusual. His mother has started looking forward to opening her email and finding photos of her unusual son eating strange things in exotic locations, although his dad is too squeamish to look. He keeps in touch with Candace, who works as a counsellor at a youth centre in Toronto. They share professional notes and occasionally get together for a night on the town at their favourite haunts, whenever he returns to Ontario to visit.