Friendly Confines

On the first day of school in 1984, I planned to wear my usual summer clothes: red shorts and a T-shirt that clashed. I hadn’t yet learned that maroon, orange and purple didn’t complement red. The day before school, however, I started to have second thoughts on the whole shorts-wearing business. I always worried about breaking the rules.

“Do you think I can wear shorts to school?” I asked my parents.

“Oh, I would think,” Mom said, accenting “think.”

“Matthew, it’s 98 degrees outside,” Dad said. “They have to.”

I had asked a silly question. My family had moved from the familiarity of Goshen, Indiana, to Austin, Texas, which might as well have been Mexico City to a boy who had grown up all his life surrounded by Mennonites in a Midwest town of about 20,000 people. My dad had completed his 10thyear as a professor of teacher education at Goshen (Ind.) College and had earned a sabbatical. We planned to spend the 1984-85 school year in the capital of Texas, an enigmatic, undiscovered new frontier for my entire family: my mother Joann, my father John, my 16-year-old brother Kent, me, and my faithful sidekick Gertrude, a gerbil with unconditional love and understanding for a boy about to enter a strange new land, Texas, and another universe, the seventh grade. No one in our family was supposed to enjoy Dad’s sabbatical. It stood as a temporary side trip, a year that we’d all look back on with disgust and then chalk up to a learning experience.

I had spent part the months prior to my move worried about leaving Goshen. Out of nervousness, I had pulled out my hair in the back of the classroom, creating a miniature monk’s tonsure on the top of my head. Three years after batting .652 in little league baseball, my average had plummeted to .083, clearly a sign of an off-the-field distraction of moving 1,276 miles away, and not a sign of athletic futility. So the least the Austin Independent School District could do was let me be comfortable in the Texas humidity on the first day of school. Heck, even Kent’s Mennonite high school in Goshen allowed students to wear shorts during hot weather. I put my red shorts on with confidence.

When I arrived at Lamar Junior High for the first day – just a half day – I didn’t see anyone else wearing shorts. In a school of 900 students, I was the only one who dared to show bare legs. A blue-eyed blonde eighth-grade bully let me know right away that I was a nerdy outcast.

“You know, you’re not supposed to have shorts,” he said. “They’ll expel you for that.” I believed him. I was going to be expelled on my very first day, a disgrace to my family and the entire state of Indiana, and probably Texas too. People whispered and pointed at me in the halls. I tried to avoid the authorities.

“Son, did anyone tell you about our dress code?” the vice principal asked me when I walked by – half naked in his eyes – down the hall. “It’s a city-wide policy. We don’t wear shorts.”

“Yeah, I heard,” I said, trying to flash a little innocent smile. I didn’t win him over with my charm. No one could win him over. While the school principal, a 6-foot-tall man who had eaten his fair share of chicken-fried steaks, roamed the halls smiling and shaking hands like a politician, the vice principal played the part of the classic heavy. He was short and slender with hair mowed close to his head. He wore synthetic-fabric suits and marched down the halls with a snarl. Standing next to him, I forgot that I had ever been scared of pit bulls, lions or any other ferocious animals.

“Well, go home and tell your parents and come back tomorrow with some pants on,” he said sternly.

Even as the new kid, I had a shot at blending in with the crowd at a big school. But as the new kid wearing shorts, I blended in only with the other outcasts, like the kids wearing orthodontic headgear. My first impression consisted of short shorts and bare skinny legs, a fashion statement that would have been well received if worn by a girl, but not a short, spindly Mennonite exchange student. I spent the rest of the day keeping my legs scrunched up under my desk as much as possible.

Mom dropped me off at school early the next day. She had to go apply for jobs and I was going to eat breakfast at school. I walked through those double doors, took an immediate right, gingerly opened another door, peeked into the cafeteria for the first time, and met the stares and odd glances of the 20 kids eating breakfast. In Goshen, friends had always found me in school, around the neighborhood, or in Sunday school. I had never sat down and made a friend before. I re-entered the hall and thought about sprinting as fast as I could to catch up to Mom. Instead, I stood in the doorway and bawled, my biggest cry since I was six, when Mom dropped me off for my first day of first grade.

One person saw me crying: the vice principal. He hurried me into his office. I sat down in a chair, presumably reserved for interrogations and threats, and started to spring a heavier leak.

“Son, what’s wrong,” he asked.

“I (sniff), I (sniff), (whimper), (small tragic yelping noise), I don’t know anybody. I don’t have any friends.”

“It’s the first day.”


“You’ll make friends,” he said.

“I’m from Indiana and I don’t know anybody.”

“Son, there’s time,” he said.

“But now I’m going to go out to the hall with puffy eyes and everybody is going to know I was crying.”

He sat behind his desk and pointed to a picture on the wall of a rose.

“You see that flower?” I couldn’t miss it. It was a singular, enormous, red rose mounted prominently. “Now, you can look at that flower and say it’s pretty or you can look at it and say it’s ugly, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it’s a flower.”

I stopped crying because I was using all of my energy trying to figure out exactly what that meant. I felt better, though. I stayed in the office to let my eyes dry a little bit, waiting for the bell to signal me to go join the rest of the junior high flowers in the hall.

Other kids did start to notice me. In music class, I felt a knock on my head. I ignored it, figuring that nobody knew me, and somebody must have bumped me. I felt another one. And another. These weren’t little knock-knock jokes on my head. Some abnormally flexible boy was extending his foot into the air and kicking me in the skull. The blows didn’t pack much of a wallop, just an annoying slight sting. I thought it would go away. My Mennonite upbringing taught me to turn the other cheek, but I feared if I turned, then I would get kicked in the front of my head. So I just sat there. After about the seventh kick, I developed a headache and decided to turn around. A young bruiser, laughing with his buddy, saw me looking at him.

“Sorry,” he said. “It was an accident.”

I somehow believed that a stranger had accidentally kicked me in the head seven times. Maybe he had a nervous twitch or something that caused him to extend his foot three feet in the air and pelt strangers on the back of the head. It could happen, I thought, so I let it slide.

Other kids started acknowledging my presence as well. In Texas history, as I sat trying to remember the Alamo before class, one of the popular kids looked my way.

“Where’s the flood?”

“Excuse me?”

“Where’s the flood?” I didn’t understand. It was 98 degrees outside and there was no rain. The flood certainly wasn’t in Austin. Maybe the Rio Grande River was rising or something, and he figured I was up on current events. I stared back at him with a confused look as if I was actually trying with all my brain cells to figure out where the flood was. The kid pointed at my rolled-up jeans. They were too long, and with my growth spurt still three years away, I wasn’t going to grow into them until my sophomore year. I looked around at everybody’s pant legs. Nobody’s Levi’s were rolled up.

I was a walking fashion don’t. I had graduated from bargain-brand Toughskins jeans – a brand that nobody else seemed to wear in grade school – to Lee jeans. But in seventh grade, anything short of Levi’s might as well have been Toughskins. Girls could wear Guess or Calvin Klein, but Levi’s were the only option for boys, who wore their Levi’s with Izod polo shirts with alligators on them. I had some polo shirts, but none had alligators on them. I think maybe mine had a fox or a duck or a chipmunk or something.

My fashion shortcomings matched well with my hair, which looked like a bowl, except when it was long, when it looked like a lopsided bowl. On top of that, I had been called Bucky Beaver sometimes in grade school and I still fit that description. With my braces still a year away, I had the biggest overbite in the school. With my teeth clenched, I could still push my tongue halfway out of my mouth. I looked back at the popular kid. He and his friends, including several cute girls, snickered at me. With my head down, I reached for my pant-legs and started to unroll them. The roll was thick, about five layers deep, and I peeled them down to my shoes. I couldn’t walk well without tripping, but I wasn’t convinced that falling on my face, into a locker, or with a tray full of tater tots, would be any worse than being pointed at and known as The Kid Who Rolls Up His Pants.

I was grateful to go home every day to see someone who didn’t care about my lack of fashion. I could always count on Gertrude. Perched atop a five-foot high rental dresser, she couldn’t see that I rolled up my jeans. She could only see my head, looking into her aquarium and saying hello. She didn’t have much to say in return, but I always felt she was a good listener.

I met Gertrude shortly after her birth to her copulation-crazy parents, Harold and Matilda, who had 63 children altogether. My cousin Mandy owned Harold and Matilda and looked after the gerbil herd. She gave a lot of them away and when the newest litter was born, I had first dibs on one of the new babies. One day, I went over there to play with the fuzzy new crop. I picked up one baby and, just for fun, set her on a little toy plane. She didn’t object. I lifted the plane into the air gently. She seemed unbothered by her role as co-pilot, but we must have hit some turbulence or something because she tumbled out of the makeshift cockpit and landed on the carpet, with most of the impact centered on her right hind foot. That little foot, once a couple of centimeters long, swelled to an inch or so. So when the time came to choose a gerbil, I felt that I owed it to her to show her a better life. I named her Gertrude, took her home, and she seemed as normal and healthy as any club-footed gerbil.

When one of our cars broke down within the first couple of hours on the way to Texas, my parents said we needed to send things back to Goshen to save space.

“Matthew, we have to send back Gertrude,” Dad said.

“No! We can’t leave Gertrude!”

I had already given up my 10-speed bike, my record player and my Weird Al records. Robbing a 12-year-old ofWeird Al In 3-Dis traumatic enough. Taking away his gerbil is just plain cruel.

“Matthew, we don’t have room.”

“But I’ll carry her on my lap the whole way.”

After we sent a trailer-load of stuff back home with some friends, I sat in the backseat with my arms tightly wrapped around an aquarium, which housed Gertrude, who stayed on my lap for the next 1,000-plus, humidity-filled August miles.

Because of the emotions I invested in her early medical trauma and because I carried her to Texas on my lap, I loved that little critter. During the first month of school, she was by far my best friend. Of course, I kept that to myself. Wearing unfaded, rolled-up jeans assured that I would never be one of the popular kids. Admitting to someone that my best friend in Texas was a gerbil probably would leave me less popular than El Paso.

What I liked best about Gertrude was that she kept my secrets safe. Only she knew what was going on in my room. I wasn’t doing anything scandalous. I was being my normal self, which meant playing Nerf basketball, listening to the radio and making top 20 countdowns of my favorite songs, activities that would not attract instant friends in this new land.

I had received an 11-by-17-inch sketchpad three years earlier as a gift. I had never really drawn any pictures that lived up to the artistic potential that the giant orange pad held for me. Instead, I drew three-sided rectangles, otherwise known as brackets. With Gertrude hovering over me on the dresser, I lay down on the bed stomach first and drew 128 three-sided rectangles, good enough to fit 256 teams, or all of the colleges I could think of. I boughtThe Sporting Newscollege basketball preview every year so I had every single team’s name at my fingertips, though I had most of them memorized.

In my tournament, any team that I could think of was invited, including Goshen College. In real life, the Goshen College Maple Leafs were lucky to win five games a year. In my tournaments, Goshen could not only play Houston, Indiana, and Georgetown, we could beat them on any given day, or at least on days when I scored 50 points.

“Smith passes to Edwards. Skip pass over to Ulrich. Back to Smith, who drives the lane and slam-dunks over Michael Jordan! And Goshen goes to the Final Four!” Gertrude kept my secret safe. No one had to know that a 4-11 12-year-old could dunk. I could also post up, make pretty behind-the-back passes and drain the outside shot. For games involving Goshen, I played the whole game out, giving a play-by-play commentary of my every jumper, fade-away, steal, block and dunk. With my best gerbil by my side, or at least on the dresser, I turned up KLBJ top 40 radio and led Goshen College to the national championship every day after school.

“We now go down to Howard Cosell.”

“Thank you very much. This is Howard Cosell, here with MVP Matt Smith. Smitty (Howard always called me Smitty), how did you get so good?”

“Howie (I always called him Howie), it’s years of practicing in my room. I owe it all to Gertrude.” Then Howard would interview Gertrude who would sniff proudly and chew a toilet paper roll for a national television audience.

Though I didn’t tell this to Gertrude, I was a little embarrassed that my ratio of gerbil friends to human ones was 1:0, and knew that I had to make friends quickly. I targeted my bus ride to school as my moment.

I had never done anything but walk to school, since I lived three doors down from Parkside Elementary School in Goshen. I didn’t know proper bus behavior. Were there assigned seats? Did the bus stop for me or did I have to flag it down with a gesture? Did I have to tip the driver? I didn’t know any of these things. The bus is like the school cafeteria on wheels: if you’re a new kid, you look scared as you scope out the available seats. When the bus pulled up, there were a few seats open next to girls, but I didn’t have enough confidence to take one of those, so I chose the one available seat next to a boy and actually had the nerve to introduce myself.

“I’m Matt Smith. I moved here from Indiana.”

“Hi. Jonathan.” Jonathan and I talked for the next 10 minutes. He was from Austin, liked Star Trek and didn’t seem to have a lot of friends. He was a little taller than me, with brown hair parted over toward the right. He seemed like a possible friend. I didn’t have any classes with Jonathan so I said goodbye to him in the hall. The day before, Jeff, the boy who sat in front of me in homeroom, had talked to me and seemed like friend potential. He walked into homeroom, and smiled at me.

“Hey, Matt,” he said when he saw me. He asked me if I liked Pink Floyd. Thanks to my non-Mennonite friend Ian back in Goshen, I knew who Pink Floyd was.

“Have you seenThe Wall?” he asked.


“Oh, man, you havegotto see that.” We talked about music and his purple belt in tae-kwon-do. We found out that we had math together for the rest of the year, in addition to homeroom. I walked out of school that day knowing that Jeff was a friend. Then I hopped on the bus, where Jonathan was saving me a seat. Then I went home, talked to Gertrude for a while, turned on the radio and drew up some new brackets.

About the Author

Matthew Kauffman Smith

Matthew Kauffman Smith is a graduate of Goshen College ('94). He has an MA in writing from Portland State University. “Friendly Confines” is excerpted from his MA thesis, “Mainstreamed: A Year Abroad in Texas.” He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two daughters and attends Portland Mennonite Church.