Roz

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Roz. For me, the name evokes images of a past-prime babe. The girl who peaked in her teens. Now hanging out at a bar. Boozy, desperate. Trying to recapture the glory of her youth. Not yet old, but getting there, and definitely worn out. That’s the image I see, anyway. We all have name biases. You hear a name, and you make assumptions. A sincere apology to any reader named Roz. I don’t know anyone named Roz right now, but I knew one in high school. She was a babe; part of the beautiful crowd. I have no idea when she peaked, but the last time I saw her, she was drunk, very drunk. Maybe that’s where this all comes from.

The only Roz in my life now is our cat. Roz isn’t a name I would choose for a cat. Too abrupt, too short. It’s hard to call for a pet with a one syllable name. It always turns into two syllables and then it sounds stupid. Raah-aahz. It’s the name she was given at the shelter. Susan, suggested changing it to Oola. That’s a random word from the Clash’s “Revolution Rock, ” a household favorite. My son, Eli, and I loved that as a name, but my Sophie, pitched a fit. So much disruption in Roz’s life. Rescued from the streets in the dead of winter. Her two kittens didn’t survive. Months in a shelter. The least we could do was let her keep her name. A good argument. Roz it is. “Raah-aahz, come inside, we’re going to bed.”

* * *

When I think of myself in high school, I cringe. Scrawny, obnoxious, unserious. Bullied because I deserved it. A class clown, sort of, but not actually funny. Sarcastic, with a quick, biting wit. It’s best kept in check. My sarcasm can be tempered and used in fun, but I didn’t learn that until I was an adult. As a runty, pot-smoking teen, mouthing off to everyone didn’t play well. I was young for my grade, immature. An October birthday, a year behind most of the other kids. I spent my entire grade-school years playing academic catch-up. Never figuring out what was going on until everyone else moved on to the next topic. By high school, I’d settled in with a like-minded group of counter-culture burnouts. We quoted Monty Python, discussed Lord of the Rings, and talked about how uncool the popular kids were. We got stoned every afternoon.

I’m a bright guy, not brilliant, but somewhat smart, and certainly capable. But this wasn’t obvious in high school. My friends, even the stoners, were all near the top of the class. Me? Much closer to the bottom. My grades were mostly C’s, with a few B’s in the classes I liked. My homework was uninspired. I did as little work as I could. It’s remarkable that I went to college. A below-average student, mediocre SAT scores, zero initiative. Ironically, that lack of initiative is what got me to college. Since all of my friends applied, I did too. My parents expected me to go, so I went. I applied to the same five schools as my brother. He did the research; I tagged along.

When I look back, I’d have to call myself a loser. I once mentioned this to my therapist, and she jumped all over me. “Why so much judgment? Why so hard on yourself?”

I say: “Well, why not?” I’ve spent my adult life trying to become someone different from the high school me. Like a snake, I continually shed my skin, my past, seeking to become the person I want to be. I’m not there, but I’m getting closer.

I see a clear distinction between self-improvement and remaking oneself. A remake seems contrived. The original person is still there, and the new persona is a mask, an act. And while I understand the difference, I can’t be sure which category is mine. Am I actually becoming a better person, or is this just a sham?

Roz, the person, was not part of my high school crowd. She was a cheerleader. Pretty and popular. Part of the crew my friends and I tore down. She probably wouldn’t even have known who I was if we hadn’t both been classified as remedial readers. Ten of us assigned to a special education class three days a week for reading instruction. Special Education, abbreviated as Sp. Ed., and further shortened by kids everywhere into the insult Sped – my class was popularly known as “Sped Reading.” I find it hard to believe that out of 900 students, I was tagged as one of the ten worst readers in the school. Reading was my hobby. I read daily for fun. My comprehension was outstanding. I can still remember passages from books I read as a teen. Probably I was slow. Perhaps I was savoring, actually enjoying the prose – I don’t remember. But Roz and I spent a year crammed in a tiny room with eight other Speds, reading short essays as quickly as we could and then taking comprehension tests.

It was stigmatizing, being a Sped, but I enjoyed the class anyway. Fifty minutes of reading three days a week. Sure, there were tests, tests every day, but there weren’t grades. This class was based on effort, not achievement. And having Roz in the room removed much of the stigma. No one considered her a loser, or a Sped. She brought the whole class up a notch.

There’s a Gandhi quote about self-improvement. Sort of a road map to becoming a better person:

Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.

This is one of Susan’s favorite quotes. It’s how she lives her life. I would like to say the same is true for me, but I pick up the process in the middle: at “Your words become your actions.” My thoughts are left behind. Struggling to catch up with the image I present to the world. In myself, I still see that obnoxious, sarcastic loser. The Sped. I worry that my self-improvement is unreal, a disguise. Susan tells me that others don’t see these traits in me. My therapist tells me that everyone feels the same way I do. But I’m certain these lingering thoughts hold me back. Keep me from peace.

A few weeks after graduating from high school, my friends and I went to see the Fourth of July fireworks in nearby Washington, D.C. A million people sprawled over miles of federal property. We made a day of it, watching bands, drinking beer, hanging out. Just before the fireworks started, Roz stumbled by with her cheerleader friends. They were wasted, trashed. Typically, they wouldn’t have bothered to acknowledged our presence, would have walked right by us. But school was out, we were on neutral ground, and Roz and I had just spent a year together. Something was now different. The fireworks started and Roz sat down in my lap. And she stayed there for the duration of the fireworks.

I found it awkward – and uncomfortable. Tall and thin, Roz was somewhat boney. It kind of hurt. She couldn’t have been comfortable either. The two of us sat there and endured a silent discomfort together for twenty or thirty minutes. After the fireworks ended, Roz and her friends got up and left. Barely said a word to us. Just stumbled away. My last encounter with Roz the person. Sort of sweet, sort of weird.

That Gandhi quote – I’m doing well with most of it. My beliefs, my actions, and my values seem to be on track. My habits – my knee-jerk reactions to stimuli – they need work. Lots of work. I’m quick to anger, and defensive when criticized. My destiny? Who can say? It’s too big to consider. I believe the sentences in the quote are out of order. Beliefs are easy, habits are hard. And thoughts – they’re uncontrollable. My thoughts and habits are why I’m in therapy. These derail me. Transport me back to high school. The stoner, the Sped, obnoxious clown, still judgmental – of others and myself.

And Roz the cat? She been with us for a few years. I’m unsatisfied with that relationship. She seems to like me, but she doesn’t trust me. At times she’s almost loving, sitting a few feet away on our couch. Just out of reach, but relaxed and at peace. But usually she’s wary of me. She keeps her distance. I suspect she was once bullied by someone who reminds her of me. Before she was a homeless stray. Bullied in the life she fled. The past I want her to forget.

This story is published in Fragments, a memoir

Photo by Dimitri Bong on Unsplash

22 thoughts on “Roz

  1. I love this, Jeff. How brilliantly put together.
    The typically unthoughtful, stupid and brutal way that ‘Special Education’ Reading is stripped away by educators to become ‘Sp.ed Reading’ (whereas, surely it would work better as Spe.ed reading?! – at least given the extra class some credence, coolness and cover… let alone actually becoming a class name that made sense!!)

    Ah, and Roz’s sweet bony ass as the fireworks explode!
    Good memories xo

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a very seventies concept. Treat the symptom not the cause. There was clearly a learning deficiency (and still is—I cannot to this day read a passage aloud without losing my place). Still, it did nothing to disrupt my enjoyment of reading.

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    • Thank you. This is an old essay written at a time when my ocd was rampant. I found it easy to link together disparate concepts because of the way my brain worked. It left behind some good stories but I don’t miss it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Right? Not so far off base in the description. When I published my book there was a bit of a gasp from some people in my high school. I’m guessing someone sent this Roz’s way… and she said “Jeff who?”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Intriguing read! I wonder how many of us still unconsciously struggle to overcome who we were in high school. I think I probably do to some extent too. I wonder how correct or misguided that is? I’ve certainly never thought of you as a loser. I am still socially awkward sometimes though.

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    • I don’t see this today with my kids but I think the class stratification in HS in the 70s left many kids feeling like losers. In truth I had several very close friends and a happy home. Of course there was the poorly understood Tourette syndrome and ocd to deal with. I’m a lot more accepting of the person I was now than when I wrote that.

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  3. When I read the title I was worried that something happened to your cat. Then as I read, I remembered reading this one before. It is a good piece. I read it last night right after I read an article featuring my best friend from high school, who I have lost touch with. I knew on a high level she had her own business now but learned from the article how she started her new award-winning business, that she is also an executive for another business and a professor at a university, with her stylized home being featured in magazines. She was quoted in the article, “You can do it all, you just can’t do it all every day.” Because of course, she is a wife and mother as well. I am very happy for her, but boy, did I have the loser feeling last night. It is interesting to see how we start at the same place with some of our peers and how different the roads we travel can be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow. No kidding. Those high achievers really set me off. I posted this because someone wants to excerpt something from the story and wanted something to link to. We all make our mark in our own little way. Remember to * someone * your life is gold. That’s what I always tell myself anyway. A kid from my HS class just became the ceo of TikTok

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great read, Jeff. Some day I may have to get your book. I think, for many of us, high school days were not so great. For me, I had to sit with the remembered pain and agony of being a teenage nerd for many years. Just about the time I think I have either forgotten (ha), learned from, moved on, or come to grips with the experience, I realize that some aspects of those days still haunt me. When people ask me if I would ever want to teach adolescents I tell them I didn’t like or relate to adolescents when I was one and don’t want to teach them now.
    I wonder if the Roz’s of those years feel the same way.
    A lot of though provoking stuff in a concise and interesting piece.

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    • I have an ex-girlfriend who was a Roz. She struggles with depression, anxiety and friendships like the rest of us. I think by the time we’re fully adults, other traits besides good looks dictate our inner turmoil. At least half of my book is posted on my blog at this point, but it would be a struggle to find the stories. Plus, I put hours and hours of thought into the order of the stories. I think that makes a big difference. Recently a blogger sent me a message saying he was reading my book, but from the end to the beginning. That really irked me. In another week or two, I think things will have settled down at work for me to check on the status of ordering your book. But then I have to read it. I’ve read a total of two books since March. I just can’t get into them right now. I’m really starting to worry about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m with you on the reading struggle right now, although mine has been going on since before the pandemic. That’s why I didn’t just click the Kindle order on your book, LOL. I just read all the free peek pages. I’m lucky to keep up with reading blog posts and trying to write an occasional post. After reading your pages, I drug out my Kindle and charged it, though. Probably been dead for awhile. Got on Overdrive and checked out “A Gentleman in Moscow.” Thought I might relate to a guy locked in a room. Whenever I do read your book I will be sure to read it in order – or not tell you if I don’t 🙂

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  6. You never know. That fireworks evening might be emblazoned in Rob’s memory, too. I once had someone remind me of an event from high school that I thought wouldn’t have been able to pick the 15 year old me out of a line up (or a yearbook).

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  7. Great post, Jeff! I have a running friend named Roz, but I am sure she was not the cheerleader from your high school. Wouldn’t it be funny if she was, though? Not funny ha-ha. She was born in England. That Gandhi quote is one of my favorites too. I am trying to use it to talk to my youngest son, who is in a funk right now.

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