Dang Kid! You Got A Permit For Them Pistols?


The first weight gainer shake I drank was thick and lumpy; it’d been poorly stirred so that the powder didn’t dissolve but instead changed into several gooey globules that floated in the light brown water like marshmallows in hot cocoa.  I was 14 and I weighed about 95 lbs.  There was nothing I wanted more than to have a normal body weight and to have muscles.  Muscles were my dream.  I fantasized about going from Bill Bixby to Lou Ferrigno overnight, shocking the kids at school with my new uber-body.  It seemed hopeless, though.  As much as I wanted to go to a gym or – even better – to have my own set of weights to lift in the house, I was too nervous to ask my father about it (“What do you want weights for?” he’d probably say.  “You won’t be able to lift them.”)  Without any other options, I found a big encyclopedia in the basement and I’d lay on my bedroom floor and bench press it.  Sometimes, when I really wanted to exert myself, I’d up the weight by balancing another book on top.  It was embarrassing, though.  Kids at school would say, “I’m benching 250.  What are you benching?” and I’d have to reply, “A big ass encyclopedia and Atlas Shrugged.”

That was nearly twenty years ago.  I still don’t have any muscles and I’m still woefully underweight.  A couple of months ago I got out of the shower and, before I dressed, I caught sight of myself in the mirror.  I looked bad.  My arms were thinner than they’d ever been and I could see all of the bones in my chest.  I tilted my head to the side and I really looked like an image of death.  The easy analogy would be to say that I looked like a skeleton, but I didn’t – I looked like a dying person.  It was scary.

The first thing I decided was that I had to change my diet.  No more throat drops and cigarettes for dinner; I had to make the switch to food.  The second thing was that I had to join the gym.  This reality frightened me more than the starving child I saw staring back at me in the mirror.

I have a lot of hobbies, but I’ve never really been into the whole public humiliation thing.  This is how I thought a trip to the gym would end up.  “They’re all gonna laugh at you!” my inner voice shouted.  But I’d learned that I wasn’t going to get muscles by lifting books, and as much as I’d LOVE to have Soloflex shipped out to Korea, that wasn’t going to happen.  I swallowed my pride, hoping it had some calories, and took out a membership at the Orange Fitness across the street from me.

The first month was a complete wash.  Using my lack of sneakers and workout clothes as an excuse, I avoided the gym like girls I want to date avoid my texts.  Time has a way of making us feel guilty, though, and eventually I dragged myself into the gym, where K-pop was blasting and there was a spit bucket strategically placed by the water cooler, so the Koreans could hock up some phlegm in the middle of their workout routines.  I had a card from when I’d signed up over a month ago and I slid it through the card-swipe thing.  Then I just stood there.

The Korean woman working behind the desk came over to me.  I tried to explain that this was my first time…where was the locker room?  She looked into the computer.  “One month!” she said, and repeated it a few times.  “I know I know,” I said.  “Very busy.  Extremely busy.”  She showed me to the locker room, where I ditched all the stuff I brought but didn’t need – bottle of water, towel to wipe off machines, mask to hide my identity.  I put on the shirt they gave me and off I went, praying to God that the Koreans would just leave me alone.

That would be impossible, obviously.  From the second I picked up a dumbbell, it seemed like everyone wanted to either help or watch me.  I could only imagine what was going through their heads: “He lifts so little”; “He has no idea what he’s doing”; “I wonder how large his penis is.  I look forward to checking that in the shower later.”  One guy took it upon himself to show me how to use every machine in the place.  He’d stick the pin in at a certain amount of weight and then, when I couldn’t life it, he’d shrug and make it lighter.

“First time?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, barely able to make eye contact.  Maybe I should’ve lied and said, “No way man!  I’m a veteran at this game!  This is how we do in America.  USA!  USA!”

Instead I let him guide me for about twenty minutes, and when he left it got worse because a woman came over and took over his role as my physical trainer.  It’s one thing to have a well-built man watching you work out; having a skinny 35-year-old woman is a whole new level of embarrassment.  Whereas the man just wanted me to lift stuff, the woman was more concerned with form.  She kept scolding me for not having my back straight enough or for bending my wrists when I pushed up on the handle bars of the machines.

It didn’t take long for her to ask me the question I was waiting for her to ask – “First time?”

Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  In total, my first trip to Orange Fitness lasted about an hour.  Walking home, the sense of embarrassment was overshadowed by a surprisingly strong sense of pride.  I had gone to the gym.  I did it.  True, I still couldn’t lift a wet loaf of Italian bread and I looked like Gandhi on Slimfast, but I’d finally taken that first step in the right direction.  I lit my cigarette with a sense of accomplishment.  The next day I went back, happy to think that if anyone asked me if this was my first visit, this time I could say no.



Are Those Reeboks On Your Feet, Or Are You Just A Big Fat Liar?


Several years ago, when I got my first job in the public school system, I found myself talking about music with, of all people, the school’s sign language interpreter.  “You know what I still think is a great album?” she said.  “Tapestry.  It’s been…what…thirty years or whatever…and I still listen to it.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Tapestry is classic.  Great, great album.”

“Oh?” she said, sounding surprised.  “Do you have Tapestry?”

“Absolutely,” I responded in a heartbeat.  “Love Tapestry.  That’s an essential album to have.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I wondered why I had just said them.  The truth was, I really didn’t own Tapestry, nor had I ever actually heard it in its entirety.  How did it benefit me to lie about this particular thing?  What did I stand to gain by telling the sign language interpreter, of all people, that I had a Carole King record?

Soon after, we were at a teachers’ meeting, small talking with a group of real teachers, and she said, “I like Mr. Panara – he has good taste.  He’s a fan of Tapestry.”

Since the vast majority of the teachers were middle aged women, this made them beam with enthusiasm.  “Really!  Such a young man, and he likes Tapestry!  We’re so happy to have you at this school!  What’s your favorite song?”

“Um, It’s Too Late Baby Now It’s Too Late?” I mumbled, naming one of the two songs I was pretty sure appeared on Tapestry.   At that point, it became clear that my trivial lie was beginning to snowball.  I had no choice but to go to the CD Warehouse that weekend and begrudgingly ask the guy, “Hey, do you have a used copy of Tapestry?”  Luckily they did, and I was no longer a liar.

I was an authentic Carole King fan.

Sometimes I’ll do stupid things like this to myself.  I’ll lie about something completely meaningless.  Recently, it happened again.  I had just joined Orange Fitness.  It was the first time in my 33 years on Earth that I had ever signed up for a gym, and I was frantic to find excuses not to go.  When I opened my membership, the woman noticed my Converse sneakers and pointed down at them.  “No,” she said, trying her best to speak English, “gym shoes…gym shoes!”  So there it was.  I couldn’t go to the gym because I didn’t have a pair of trainers.  I told this to a female acquaintance I’ve been talking to.

“Yeah, I signed up for the gym,” I told her, “but I can’t go yet because I don’t have the right sneakers.  I’ll go to the mall soon and get a pair.”

This wasn’t a complete lie, seeing that I did in fact go to the mall and look for trainers.  But there were a million different sneakers, hundreds of brands it seemed, and I was too overwhelmed to buy anything.  Plus, I didn’t really want to go to the gym.  The overabundance of choices and my laziness combined to sink my shoe buying mission like that chick from Rabbit Run accidentally sunk her baby.

A solid three weeks passed before my female friend asked again.  “So,” she said during an online chat, “did you get those sneakers?”

Maybe I didn’t want to sound incompetent or something.  “Yeah, picked up a pair this weekend,” I told her.

“Great!  What kind?”

I froze.  Luckily my friend Derek was also online.  I explained to him the situation.  “Say you got a pair of cheap Reeboks,” he said, and that’s exactly what I told her.  I didn’t think much of it.  Why would she mention it again?

Of course, she did.

“Have you put those Reeboks to work?” she asked me in a text one day.  “Why are you neglecting those Reeboks?” she asked a day later.

On a Saturday, I told her I needed to buy new socks.  “Oh!  To go with the Reeboks?” she shot back.

I had clearly screwed myself.  This is a girl I barely knew, and I had started the relationship off with a lie.  And not just any lie, but a pointless, moronic lie about a frivolous thing that wouldn’t have made her like me any more or less if I just told the truth.  What if she came over to my apartment?  I could picture her face, the confusion in her eyes.  “Where are the Reeboks?” she’d surely ask.

“Listen,” I’d have to say.  “Sit down.  I think we need to talk…it’s about the Reeboks…”

Like so many years ago with Tapestry, I was off to the store, on a mission.  This time, though, I found the lie actually worked to my benefit.  Before I was blown away – I didn’t know where to start.  Now I had a specific target.  Reeboks.  I was incredibly focused.  By the time I left, I no longer had any excuse for avoiding the gym.

Lying, as with everything in life, must be done in moderation.  I’m lucky my stupid lies have now helped with my exercise routine and have allowed me to identify the song Lisa Simpson sings in the “Jazzman” episode (it’s on Tapestry), instead of getting me into trouble.  I suppose for better or for worse, where a lie leads, one must follow.


Peer Buddies


The little girl barely raised her eyes when she spoke.  I don’t know what her name was, only that she seemed embarrassed.  She was in the 7th grade, as were all of the girls in the room.  The other girls, with their braces and hoodies and makeup, all nodded along to what she was saying:

“It made me uncomfortable,” the little girl said.  “Especially when I hugged him, and he grinded his body against me.”

Let’s back up a bit, before anybody was grinding anybody.  Way back before Adapted Physical Education got too physical, before Peer Buddies became Hug Buddies, and before our self-contained class of special education students let their hormones overtake all those lessons on how to be “appropriate” in the community.

The Peer Buddy program at Crestdale Middle School was, in theory, a perfectly sweet idea.  The school had one all special ed class – Miss Tee’s class.  There were nine students in that class, and each one of them was assigned two regular ed “peer buddies.”  The regular ed kids were all volunteers, so this was not anything that was forced upon anybody.  They were selected based on their grades.  In other words, these were really good kids.  They wanted to buddy up with a schoolmate with special needs.    For forty-five minutes each day, the Peer Buddies would take their friends to what was called “Adapted PE.”  It was basically just gym class, the only adaptation being that the Peer Buddies were there to help out.

To our kids, the Peer Buddies were AWESOME.  It was the only time during the entire day (apart from lunch) that they were allowed to mix with the other students in the school.  For forty-five minutes our kids could integrate with the “regular” students, talk with them, be their friends, and really become people with personalities and not just a bunch of kids in a disabled class.

They could also, unfortunately, sexually harass all of the female students.

The problem with the Peer Buddy program was in getting the kids to make the distinction between an Adapted PE partner and an actual friend.  When our kids started calling the Peer Buddies their “best friends,” you could see a level of awkwardness set in.  Michael would ask his Peer Buddy what he was doing over the weekend, and there would be hesitancy and blushing in the “I’m busy” response.

The girl Peer Buddies had it worse.  They had to band together and tell their English teacher that the Peer Buddy program wasn’t going very well.  Miss Tee and I were called in.  There was the assembly of girl Peer Buddies, looking like a middle school version of NOW, ready to tell it like it was.  There weren’t angry, though.  Instead they seemed shy and sad, almost guilty for saying what they had to say.

“At the end of class,” one of them said, “the boys all ask us for hugs and kisses.  When we let them hug us, they rub against us.  It’s really uncomfortable.  We don’t want to do the Peer Buddy program anymore.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I was just as uncomfortable and embarrassed as the girls seemed to be.  Miss Tee, though, stepped right up, speaking in her strong voice.  When she spoke like this, it never seemed antagonizing, but instead like she was saying something so clear and obvious it could only be said with blunt force.

“Don’t let them hug you,” she said.  “Why are you letting them do that?  Would you let a boy in your math class do that?”

The girls all shook their heads “no.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Miss Tee went on.  “You have the right to say ‘no’ to them.  Just because they’re special needs kids, you think you have to let them hug you?  They’re boys!  And they ask for kisses and you think that’s okay?  That’s not okay!  Girls, what are you thinking?  You don’t have to quit the Peer Buddy program.  All you have to do is say ‘no.'”

Our boys got a lecture as well, and more lessons on how to be appropriate in the community.  After the meeting, checking up on our students in the Adapted PE class, I started to see the girls stand their ground.  They would shake their heads ‘no’ and speak firmly.  The hugging came to a fast end.

That was the only thing that came to an end, though.  To the students in Miss Tee’s class, the Peer Buddies were still AWESOME.  As the summer crept in and the school year came to a close, our boys learned to respect boundaries, and the 7th grade girls learned to enforce them. The brilliant thing about the Peer Buddy program, it turned out, was that it wasn’t always easy.  It did what an inclusive program is supposed to do. It taught the kids about themselves, and about living with others.  They learned that it isn’t simple kindness that allows us to adapt to one another, but basic honesty instead.

(In Self-Containment: Memories of a Teacher’s Assistant is my ongoing serial about the year I spent as a TA in a self-contained special ed middle school classroom.  The names of the students and teachers I talk about have been changed.  “Peer Buddies” is Part Four.)