My 14th Birthday

I turned 14 on May 28, 1980. It came towards the end of my eighth grade at Pacific Union College Elementary School. I’d been staying with friends of the family for the past five months so I could finish the school year with my mates.

In the lead up to my birthday, I said some stupid things to my hosts. When they would inquire about my birthday, I said they better not forget it because I was expecting big presents. I was just joking but it was an awkward thing to say. Still, once I began the gag, I felt locked in to it.

One of my requests — not granted! — was that for my birthday, I ought to be allowed to watch as much TV as I wanted for 24 hours. I honestly thought I would enjoy watching TV for 24 hours straight. TV was the coolest thing I could imagine. Unable to attach normally to others, I attached to things like the radio and TV and fantasies of grandiosity.

I didn’t grow up with a TV, but when I moved in with my hosts in January of 1980, they had a color TV, and I could watch an hour a night. I loved it. I was fascinated. And I could fit in better with the other kids at school because I could talk about what was going on.

Australian Seventh-Day Adventism was a much more conservative and restrictive variety than the Californian one where people were more likely to own TVs and to listen to pop music (sins according to much of Australian Adventism). Now that I was away from home, I got to enjoy more of life. The fun stuff, it seemed to me, was forbidden by my parents and yet enjoyed by most of those around me.

My birthday coincided with a class field trip to the beach and various boys threatened to dunk me for all the obnoxious things I said and did. I grew frightened. When we got to the beach, I quickly changed, discarding my underwear and just going with some loose-fitting shorts, and ran off from the crowd, afraid I was going to get drowned. I hated having my head held underwater. I had some near drowning experiences in early childhood and was still traumatized.

Eventually, my best friend Andy came to rescue me. He said no one would hold my head under water. I calmed down and then I started acting silly and playing with my shorts in front of the girls. “Are you wearing underwear?” he asked me later. “Yes,” I lied. “It didn’t look like it,” he said.

I was close with my male host but felt embarrassed at the prospect of him coming along to the field trip and I asked that he stay home. I hurt him.

I think back on my 14th birthday and I feel bad. When the day of my birthday came, I was all over the map emotionally, vibrating from frightened to giddy. I was careless with the feelings of others. I was the recipient of much love, attention and gifts that day but I went to bed feeling awkward. I hadn’t been gracious. I’d been off-key with my attempts at humor. I inadvertently hurt someone I loved because I didn’t want the possible awkwardness of including him in the festivities, fearing my classmates wouldn’t think him cool.

A couple of weeks later, I graduated from eighth grade and never lived at Pacific Union College again (except for two-month summer stays during high school). Now when I go back to PUC to visit, I never find any of my former classmates. We’ve all moved on. But my awkward feelings, clumsy dealings with others, and off-key jokes hang on to me like the San Francisco fog.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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