Look, it’s been another long year, and my temptation this month is to quote blocks of funny passages from Gordon Korman’s 1981 comic middle-grade novel, I Want to Go Home, and just leave them here without analyzing my childhood or my feeelings.
Humor can be a balm, an escape—all that delightful, uplifting crap. But what I realized on picking up I Want to Go Home again was that my own humor also became a channel for anger. Whether that served me well remains to be seen.
I read I Want to Go Home many, many times starting in either fourth or fifth grade. In the story, Rudy Miller is sent to Camp Algonkian on orders of his school’s guidance department in order to learn to socialize better.
He runs up against enthusiastic campers, hearty counselors, a dizzying array of athletic activities, and a clueless camp director who begins all of his speeches by hailing back to his grandfather Elias Warden, founder of Algonkian.
Rudy is disgusted by all of his pink-lunged, wholesome, outdoorsy fellows. He refers to Algonkian as Alcatraz and his counselors as clones. His only friend is geeky, sensitive Mike Webster, who shares his dislike of camp, enthusiasm, and outdoor activities. Together, they hatch various schemes to escape the island, including:
- Building a dam to flood the island;
- Taking off in a boat;
- Attempting to escape during a baseball game on the mainland;
- Fleeing during a dance at a girls’ camp
What puzzles his counselors is the fact that Rudy is really, really good at all the things he disdains. He’s a fabulous soccer player. He trounces a counselor at chess and earns the chance to be camp director for a day. He outruns the competition at a track meet—and keeps sprinting off the field in an attempt to escape.
Rudy excels at everything and likes nothing. And this confuses his fellow campers and counselors, for whom being good at something means that they should damn well like it.
Gordon Korman was Rudy Miller to my fourth- or fifth-grade eyes.
At this point, Korman has now published nearly a hundred novels for children. But when I first started reading his books, he was young—not that much older than me, it seemed. He’d written his first novel, This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall, at age thirteen and sent it in to Scholastic, where it became the first in a string of hits. Macdonald Hall spawned a series starring Bruno and Boots, a pair of jokesters given to pulling stunts at their Canadian private school. (The current prime minister of Canada, who is also not that much older than me, named This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall as his favorite Canadian book. This article on Korman’s career is great, by the way.) Korman kept putting out funny, outrageous novels seemingly effortlessly, each featuring more elaborate plots and schemes than the last. He published five books before he graduated from high school.
Young Gordon Korman seemed to have pulled off an elaborate con — except his scheme was to get the adults to give him adulation and money for writing books in which he thumbed his nose at them. He was, like Rudy Miller, the kid who’d managed to outsmart the grown-ups again and again.
I was a very “good” child when I first read I Want to Go Home. I seemed sunny and undemanding. I won prizes at the science fair. I played piano. I didn’t talk back. My parents were also Christian and fairly conservative. At times I was desperate to appear “good” in every form that that word takes: an all-encompassing good that included purity of the soul, competence, and just general prodigiousness.
At other times, my act felt like utter and complete bullshit. I maintained a front out of fear: that I wasn’t actually very bright; that people would find out that I didn’t actually like or respect most of the adults with whom I acted so obsequious. And although I didn’t articulate it at the time, I was also convinced that I lived on the thin edge of the wedge. We don’t use the term “visible minority” as often anymore. But sometimes I feel like it’s an apt descriptor of how I felt. I was in the minority, and I was very visible. My acceptance into most spheres seemed to depend on being perceived as helpful or smart. If I wasn’t white, then by gum, I had to be indispensable, untouchably perfect—both.
But of course, the problem with keeping up the veneer was that it made me really fucking angry.
“You’re different. For instance, your counselors treat you like a prisoner. How come?”
“I am a prisoner,” said Rudy. “We all are, only some of us notice it more than others.”
Now I see that I was—and still am to a certain extent—preoccupied with the gap between my feelings about who I am and my successful performance of goodness and competence. I also see that I still have an equal, forceful desire to sabotage all of that. To rebel, yes, or to escape the narrow and impossible role in which I cast myself.
Nice to see that I’ve matured since fourth grade.
At one point, the extremely competent Rudy Miller says:
“Of course, my parents already have a spot reserved for my future Olympic medals. Maybe I’ll get them a moose head to fill the empty space.”
“You’re so good at everything,” said Mike, his voice filled with awe, “and you still hate sports.”
“With a passion,” agreed Rudy emotionlessly.
The gap between parental expectation and my own desires was something I identified with strongly. But what was interesting about I Want to Go Home was—is—that it stated baldly and often that you didn’t have to enjoy something you seemed good at. You didn’t even have to feign liking it.
In fact, the book presented a third option: you could be good and trapped, you could be angry—you could also be funny.
When Rudy becomes camp director for the day, his wit becomes immediately apparent to the rest of the campers:
“Your attention, please. This is your camp director speaking.” There was an enormous cheer from all the campers, as well as stamping of feet and banging on plates. “Tonight,” Rudy went on after the rumpus had died down, “the counselors’ tag championships will take place.”
“After that, the counselors will entertain by singing the ‘Anvil Chorus,” from Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi.”
Rudy makes the counselors run around obstacle courses and play tag in the mud; he puts them through what the campers do and makes no bones about his wish to upend the status quo. He tells everyone he dislikes baseball, running, soccer, crafts. He openly plans to escape. If he doesn’t actually get away, he at least gets away with saying everything on his mind.
Because at least he’s funny.
That’s what I concluded, too—for better or for worse. I read the book and laughed—and I tried to be funny. In trying I often said terrible, vicious things. Sometimes my jokes weren’t productive—they often aren’t useful for Rudy, either. Humor was as much a defense mechanism as it was offensive. I could take vengeance through a cutting remark. I could be angry. But it could also be a way of being honest, of allowing me to say exactly what I felt to almost anyone at any time.
My default is still to make fun when I’m feeling riled. I’ve been doing it a lot, lately.
I maintained my image as a good kid through junior high and high school. Of course, I never tried to steal a boat or run away. But I spoke many of the best and worst things I could think of out loud. Sometimes I think I got away with a lot—sometimes too little.