Chapter 1: A Series of Unfortunate Humiliations

Thank you for coming to my 50th birthday party.  I’m so grateful that you are all here.  I’m particularly grateful that my kids, Christopher and Rose are here.  Before we start, I have a little confession.  Tonight is not my actual birthday.   I’ve already been 50 for 6 months.  But if it’s good enough for Jesus Christ to celebrate his birthday not on his actual birthday, it’s good enough for me.

You’re probably wondering what you are in for tonight.  Will you squirm in your seat in humiliation on my behalf?  Will you be transported to a state of awe and grace?  Probably a little of both.  If you’re going to be squirming and in awe, why not do it with powerpoint slides?  You will be seeing slides for the first and last sections.  For the rest, yes, you guessed it, you going to get me.

Let’s start our Search for Richard Snyder with the introductory course,  Richard Snyder 101, aka “the formative years, ages 0-18,” aka ….. “A Series of Unfortunate Humiliations.”
I was born 11/11/1960, veteran’s day in Springfield, MA. For those of you weren’t alive in the 1960’s, or have just forgotten them, let me remind you that the post world war II baby boom still had 4 more years to go.  Kennedy had just been elected President.  The Vietnam war had not started and neither had the hippy movement.  There were no computers, but we did have black and white TV, adding machines, pay phones, record players and slide rulers.  Ski boots were leather and they weren’t comfortable.

My earliest memory, aka the first recording humiliation, took place in my parent’s first home in Longmeadow, MA.   I was probably less than 1 years old. I was being fed baby food in a high chair. It was good.  I flipped the bowl off of the tray and my father picked me up and carried me upstairs really quickly.  My father seemed angry and I was scared.  I had no idea what I had done to deserve that treatment. Not only was tossing that bowl going to be fun, my parents were going to cheer my accomplishment.  After all, they had cheered my bowel movements so why not a flying bowl?  Adults can really miss the big picture.

I know the momentous events were happening in the early 60’s, for example, my brother and sister were also born in the early 1960’s but I have almost no memory of them during those preschool years.  You see.  I had my own issues.

One of the big humiliations of preschool was that I was lagging behind other children, physically, mentally, and socially. The family legend is that even at age 5 my language was so hard to understand that my younger sister used to translate for me.  My parents were worried that something was wrong with me and had me evaluated by doctors.  This lagging behind of my development would continue on for awhile… oh… for about 50 years so far…

Every day in preschool, I went to Mount Tom Nursery School. This was a very good school.  To my parents, they were sending me Paradise Island.  To me, I was going to purgatory.

First of all, whenever we went outside to play at Mt Tom Nursery School, there were dragonflies there. To my mind, the body of a dragonfly behind the wings is one giant stinger.  Imagine being stung by a bug with a 5 inch stinger.  I did.  And I still do.  And while we are on fear of animals, let me tell you about the dogs.   Dogs in the 1960’s were not the namby pamby obedience school trained, I can only walk on a leash and if I’m going to run it has to be in a dog park and if I poop it has to go in a plastic bag… dogs that we have today.  1960’s dogs were free.  There were no fences and no leashes.  The dogs ran in packs.  As I would go walking by a house, the dog, often a male German Sheppard, the popular breed of the day, would come running out growling. I would run for my life.  The stay-at-home-mom would emerge onto her front door step and do something so not helpful.  Not even descending one step, she would shout to her dog, “Horst. come back right now !” Dogs in the 1960’s could care less about whatever was being said by mom on the front step.  Being ignored by her dog, she would then start giving advice to me, “Don’t worry he won’t bite.  Just don’t run.  They can smell fear.” I could run or stand still, I would still be bitten and I was.  My mother would parade me to the dog owner’s house to show the results of their uncontrolled dog.  The dog owner using what I now know to be “non-verbal” cues would imply that it was my fault for having been bitten.  The dog, also using “non-verbal” cues would imply that it was proud of its accomplishment.  No remorse was shown by the dog or it’s owner.

And if migraines, dragonflies and dogs weren’t bad enough, there were the other kids.  I was small and weak for my age.  Once, I was walking home with a neighbor, a girl my age.  She was bigger than me and she was mean.  She pushed me into a tree well. That is a tree well.  Why would a tree need such a thing?  Even at age 6, I knew that if word got out to other kids about me being pushed by a girl, I would be humiliated.  My mother, at age 25, did not know this.  She paraded me to the little mean girl’s apartment in order to show the girl’s mother the results of her daughter’s cruelty. The mother, using “non-verbal cues” implied that it was my fault for having been pushed.  The little girl, using “non-verbal cues” implied that she was proud of her accomplishment.  No remorse was shown by the mother or her daughter.

The next stop in the series of humiliation was elementary school.  In 1967, at age 7, I started first grade. Neighborhood teens were being drafted to go to Vietnam.  There were large numbers of long haired people my parents called hippies hanging out in the large parks at events my parents called “be-in’s or love-in’s.”  But mostly I remember going through the red doors of Wolf Swamp Elementary School on my first day.  More humiliations awaited me behind those red doors.  I was still lagging behind didn’t know what was going on most of the time.  But I was saved by the school principle, Mrs. Gilman.  She took interest in me and tutored me in the summer time and taught me to read. Even at that age, I knew that this level of attention and kindness was extraordinary.  She was the first of a long line of mentors.

Wolf Swamp Elementary School is still there. It looks exactly the same as it did in the 1960’s.  It has a School motto, “The strength of the pack is the wolf. The strength of the wolf is the pack.” I was so not in the pack. At recess, the girls would huddle up and play hopscotch and boys would play kickball.  I was never chosen or asked to play kickball… for good reason.  I couldn’t kick the ball.  So I would play on the jungle gym with a couple of other boys who were also kickball rejects.  The teachers were apparently unaware of the School motto and never intervened in the humiliations of recess.  The gym teacher went a step futher and deliberately worked against the school motto.  He nick-named me “Petunia.” Not surprisingly, that name caught fire and was used against me for many years.  I’m sure that gym teacher was a product of his era.  He had probably had a complicated and difficult life.  He may have been abused by a domineering militaristic father.  He was never touched or told that he was loved.   He was not breast fed.  He was innocently doing the best he could.  I hate him.

At Wolf Swamp Elementary, I was not only lagging physically and mentally, I was also lagging socially.  In 4th grade, I decided to take flute lessons. It didn’t occur to me that the flute was a girl instrument and not a wise choice for a boy who was small for his age, unathletic, and nicknamed Petunia.

The next step in the humiliation series, Middle School grades 6-8.  We had a mock presidential election and voted for Nixon, McGovern, or Humphrey.  The students, like the nation, elected Nixon. I voted for him because I liked the way he looked.  I can’t believe I thought Nixon was good looking. Look at slide Yikes !   Maybe it was because I couldn’t see.  I had always passed those annual vision exams but in a 6th grade class, I was asked to read during a film strip presentation.  Film strips were the multimedia powerpoint presentations of the 1970’s. Static images were projected onto a screen by a machine like that. Strange voice over narrations would be played from a tape recorder or record player and a startling dings of a bell on the recording would signal highly honored student in charge of the projector, never me, to advance the film one frame forward. I was asked to read one of those projected slides and I couldn’t make out any words.  Next thing I knew I got my first pair of prescription glasses.

The next step, High School.  In 1974, age 14, 9th grade, I started my freshman year at Longmeadow High School.  Nixon resigned the Presidency that year. Apparently, being voted for for your looks by a middle schooler who couldn’t see could not override being caught for serious crimes. For the adults, this must have been really important, judging from the fact that every single TV station showed the Watergate hearings.  For me, the Watergate hearings were a personal disaster because they pre-empted my only escape from troubles at school, TV.  I couldn’t watch I Dream of Genie, Gilligan’s Island, and Hogan’s Heroes. I loved those shows… Damn Watergate

And yes, I was still lagging behind in High School.  For example, in English class, we read a book whose theme was supposed to have been “autonomy.”  I had absolutely no idea what that meant.  I wrote a book report about it and I still had absolutely no idea what it meant.  Actually, I still don’t know what it means.  I was not only lagging academically and physically, I was also lagging socially.  At age 16, I got a job washing dishes at Friendly’s restaurant. The water for the dish washing was extremely hot.  My mother, still trying to help, gave me rubber dishwashing gloves to wear and I showed up to work one day and put them on.  It never occurred to me that this was not a cool thing to do.  Even the adult employees joined in the sport of making fun of me.

But things started turning around Junior year of high school when, my brain and body finally caught up to the other kids.  I actually started to get good grades. All A’s except for gym class… except that B in gym class, and well… the B in English…. There was that autonomy paper.  My grades were good enough for me to be accepted at Bowdoin Collegean elite liberal arts school in Maine.  In 1978, at age 18, I received a blessing.  I got to leave home.  I got to  leave all those kids who only knew me as small and weak behind and went off to college.

Maybe, just maybe, there wouldn’t be dragonflies, cruel children and Nazi Stormtropper dogs in Maine.   And maybe, there, they would have an appreciation for a sensitive young man who could play the flute.