Tuck the Tag into Your Sleeve…

As I mentioned the other day, my new song, “Picture Day,” was largely inspired by a bit of schoolyard bullying I experience in my youth. The biographical details, however, were someone else’s entirely. In fact, the idea for the first verse was lifted entirely from my good friend Tom Powers, who wrote The Greatest Show in the Galaxy: The Discerning Fan’s Guide to Doctor Who with me about ten years ago.

Here are the lyrics to that verse:

Picture day in school,
Clothes you had to borrow.
Tuck the tag into your sleeve.
The shirt goes back tomorrow.

Quite a while back, Tom told me that when he was in grade school, his mother would buy a nice shirt for him to wear when class pictures were taken, but that he had to keep the tag on the shirt because she needed to return it for a refund the next day. That image always stuck with me, and for a while, I had a note on my desk that simply read, “Write song about Tom Powers/picture day.”

The real life details differ from my song in two key ways. The first is that Tom had to tuck the tag into the collar of the shirt rather than the sleeve. The second — and more important — difference is that Tom wasn’t bullied as a result of wearing the shirt. In fact, it occasioned a gesture of kindness on the part of another student. Here’s what Tom has to say about the incident: “My mother always made us tuck in the price tag. One time a grade school classmate offered to remove it for me… I remember sheepishly tucking the tag back in as if I preferred it being part of the shirt (even though it was itching the back of my neck all day) while saying, ‘No, that’s all right.'”

But I loved the image, and I thought it worked perfectly as an inciting incident for the song I wanted to write about being bullied. Of course, it took me a little while to make the connection. I knew I wanted to write the song abut being bullied, and I also knew that I wanted to write the song about picture day. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I realized that the two could be one and the same — that even if the embarrassment that Tom experienced when someone offered to cut the tag off his shirt for him didn’t result from bullying, it was still the kind of “outsider-y” feeling that I felt whenever I ventured down to the schoolyard in grade school.

 

A Longish Preamble to My New Song

Between the ages of ten and thirteen, I went to a Catholic school just beyond the city limits of Philadelphia. You knew you were leaving Philadelphia because you had to cross a bridge that spanned a set of railroad tracks and ended at the top of a steep hill that descended into the wilds of suburbia. The school sat at the top of the hill, right next to the railroad tracks.

The school didn’t have a schoolyard per se. But it did have a church, and the church had a parking lot, and that’s where we were sent to play at lunchtime regardless of weather or time of year.

Worth noting is the fact that the church was a long block away from the school, and that the long block ran parallel to the train tracks. What this means in practical terms is that the church parking lot where we played every day at lunchtime was right next to a set of train tracks. Other than a low dirt hill and some shrubbery, nothing stood between us and the tracks — not to mention the trains that roared by every twenty minutes or so.

Also worth noting is that the church parking lot was built on the same hill that the school and the church were built on. Again, if we’re thinking about this in practical terms — or at least geographical terms — it means that if the parking lot was level (which it was), then there would be a steep drop at one end.

So at one end of the parking lot there was a set of heavily trafficked railroad tracks, and at the other end was a twenty-foot drop. Between these boundaries ran a horde of ten-to-thirteen-year-olds who liked to set things on fire and believed that everything they saw on pro-wrestling was not only real but should be emulated. Amidst all of this, there was one person (me) who just wanted to be left alone to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the latest issue of Doctor Who Monthly.

There was also a lamp.

SchoolyardDiagram-01

It turns out that I didn’t get much reading done, largely because I was trying to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of the church parking lot while also trying to avoid the hordes of preteen boys who wanted to use me as a prop in their efforts at staging the latest wrestling moves they’d seen on television. Also, my interest in reading and a tendency to make references to things like “Scylla and Charybdis” did not endear me to anyone in my age bracket. Or anyone outside of my age bracket, come to think of it.

The upshot of all of this is that I ended up getting pounded quite a bit, and once went home with a concussion when my skull slammed against the blacktop. At the time, I thought everyone hated me. I felt like an outsider, and that made me miserable. The books I read and the TV shows I liked to watch gave me a bit of an escape, but what I really needed was someone to tell me to forget about all of the kids who made me feel like I didn’t belong — to tell me they could all go to hell. To tell me, in essence, to fuck ’em.

And that’s where this song comes in…