When I was fourteen I spent a year being depressed. Most of my life, I’d been a pretty happy kid. But not for the year that stretched from mid-’68 to mid-’69.
Part of it was that for that year, we moved to another state. My dad was on sabbatical, my mother on pregnancy leave, both of them free of local obligations. My school didn’t have a ninth grade, and my parents knew a great school in northwestern Philadelphia that did. So we picked up and moved into a friend’s house in northwestern Philadelphia (that friend being away for the year, also a teacher on sabbatical), leaving behind New Jersey, the home I knew, and all my friends.
Another part of it was that I was, well, fourteen. Adolescence wasn’t treating me well. In my new school I found myself withdrawn, introverted, painfully shy. Everyone else in my class knew each other, had been classmates for years; I was like a foreign object that the host’s immune system wasn’t sure what to do with.
I made no friends, scarcely talked to a soul. Sat through my classes every day, then went home to play my cello and listen to Ravel, Bartok, and Brahms, my only friends through that long winter. Slipped through the halls of my ninth grade year like a wraith, invisible and unnoticed by all. When my family pulled up stakes at the end of the year to move back to Jersey, there was no one to say goodbye to. No one. Nobody would even realize I’d left.
Fast forward four years.
Back in New Jersey I had soon reconnected with old friends and come out of my shell, reemerging into the sunlight like a dormant seed sprouting in the springtime thaw.
A few years in, some friends and I started a project to found our own high school. The only one of us whose parents allowed me to step away from conventional school (i.e., drop out) in order to pursue this project, I became the de facto spokesdude for our alternatively-minded student body. I began speaking before groups, articulating the vision of what we were up to, explaining our unconventional choices.
In 1971, the year of our first actual operation as a school, I was given an opportunity to visit a high school in Philadelphia for a day, to play the cello before a large assembly and then speak to the senior class about our new school, about what we’d done, and how, and why.
Yes, that Philadelphia high school.
Well this should be interesting, I thought. This senior class was my class. I would know who all these people were — but to them, I would be a complete stranger. I doubted I had ever spoken more than two dozen words in total to any one of them, nor them to me.
They would be known to me … but to them, I would be a stranger.
I traveled to Philadelphia, arrived at the school, walked inside and walked through one of the halls where I’d moved invisible for a year —
“Hey, Johnny! What are you doing here? Man, how are you!”
A guy with a big ruddy grin stood in front of me, vigorously shaking my hand. One of my old classmates. “God, it’s good to see you!” he said.
I was temporarily disoriented.
A girl walking by stopped to join. “How’s the cello going?” she said. “How’s your little brother Tim? He must be, like, walking and talking and everything now!”
Apparently, not a stranger after all.
It went like this all day. They all knew me. More, they knew everything about me. I was, to them, an old friend who had moved away just a few years ago.
I may have thought I was invisible throughout all those long ninth grade months … but that was only how I saw myself. It certainly wasn’t how they had seen me. And see me they did.
During that long fourteen-year-old’s year, the Year of Depression, I sometimes wondered how it could be that I felt so miserable, why my life should suddenly be so unhappy. I’m not sure which was worse: being depressed, or not being able to make any sense out of the why of it.
Now, I thought, I had an inkling of the why.
That year of unhappiness was a precious gift, because it showed me something I don’t know that I could have learned any other way — something I imagine could be useful to just about anyone.
Because don’t we all experience those times when we feel invisible? That no one sees, knows, or cares? Times when, as Pi says in Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi:
I was alone and orphaned, in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging above me.
We’ve all had those moments, and whether they last minutes or years they seem nearly unendurable at the time. But here is what I discovered about them:
Whether or not you are feeling it or letting it in, the truth is that you are not alone and orphaned, in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar.
You are seen; you are heard; you are known.
You are not a stranger.