I loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I loved the cartoon. I loved the toys. I loved the comic. I loved the movies. I loved those turtles so much that I’m pretty sure I wore out the cassette single my oldest sister bought me of “Turtle Power” by Partnerz in Kryme and can still recite the song from memory. I was a super fan.
The summer I was headed into the fourth grade, my parents decided it was time for a change and we moved. I had spent my entire life in the same neighborhood, going to school with the same TMNT loving kids. Now, I was headed off someplace new, a new neighborhood, a new school, not too terribly far from where I grew up, but it seemed like thousands of miles to an 8-year-old.
With the fall approaching and my 4th grade school year looming ever closer, my mom decided it was time to go back-to-school shopping. My family wasn’t poor, but we definitely weren’t in the most comfortable economic state, at the time. Always excellent at putting up a good face, my parents kept me none the wiser. To make the transition into the new school easier my mother splurged and purchased me the holy grail of backpacks. A black Ninja Turtle backpack with neon green shoulder straps and trim.
It was the greatest backpack. Ever.
I could not wait to show all the new kids this sweet Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles treasure. They were gonna love it! Why, with the success of this new backpack, I’d be rolling in new friends in no time.
In all my 8 years on the planet I had never been more wrong. I entered the first day of fourth grade only to be met with complete disdain and crushing disapproval. What was the gateway for all the grief I was getting? That very backpack. What happened to all the kids who, just a summer before, couldn’t get enough of those crazy mutant turtles? Had my geographic displacement actually moved me into an alternate reality, where Krang and the Shredder had removed all kids’ memories of the awesomeness that was the turtles, only to have it replaced by a love of only sports and none of this “little kid” nonsense that I loved so dearly?
These kids weren’t kids at all. They were monsters. Sports loving, ninja hating monsters. After a few weeks of the constant torment, I decided that I’d had enough. I walked home from school, stormed inside my house and proclaimed to my mother that I was tired of being made fun of, that I wanted nothing to do with this stupid backpack and I wanted a new one. Just a normal everyday backpack, no kid design, nothing that could interfere with blending in. I never wanted to see that backpack again, it was making my life miserable. I simply wanted to disappear into the fourth grade.
A day or two went by and the teasing carried on. I walked home from school, entered my house and threw my backpack into a heap on the floor when I overheard my mom crying. I peered into a crack in the door and saw my mom sitting on her bed talking on the phone with my oldest sister, visibly upset and crying, because she didn’t know what to do. Kids were teasing me, because of my backpack, but they really couldn’t afford to just buy me another one and most likely if they could, my Dad would have shot it down anyway.
I had made my mother cry. I’d never seen my mother cry before and let me tell you, I never wanted to ever again. I had never felt shame in my life until that moment. I ran into the other room, picked up that backpack, dusted it off and vowed in that moment that I would never allow another person to affect me the way those kids had. I was never going to hide my appreciation of something that I loved, just for the hope of being tolerated or from fear of being looked at differently. Pick on me all you want, because no matter what anyone said, nothing would make me feel worse than when I saw how upset my mom was.
I learned at a relatively young age from this experience that I was going to enjoy what I enjoy to the fullest, haters be damned. I’d never be ashamed of what I liked because someone else deemed it nerdy or geeky. I’d be so excited about the things that I enjoy that I could only hope that it would be contagious. The line has blurred in recent years with “geek” culture taking over the mainstream.
I imagine that my revelation probably isn’t that profound for a kid in the fourth grade, now. For me though, that was a defining moment in my life. It’s a moment that I constantly remind myself of, in the hopes of remembering that things weren’t always so easy for us geeks. Now that it’s more socially acceptable to be into all things “geek” we really need to band together and show younger people how great the things we love are, that their interests and passions are nothing to be hidden away for fear of torment, but embraced with an honesty that makes it impossible for others to use them against us. Most of all, we should never be like the people who teased us, instead of making fun of a new fan for just now getting into comics because of the movies and the fact that it’s more culturally acceptable, we should remember what it felt like when we were the outsiders. We have to remember that there was a time when it wasn’t always this great, but we can always make it better.
I wore that backpack for years.
Tune in next time for another installment of “My Golden Age” wherein our hero makes a lifelong friend (and it isn’t Scratch).