I had my first acting lesson when I was eight. It was about jumping rope.
It took place in what passed as a playground at my inner-city primary school, one long block of asphalt that the city had blocked off to traffic. As always, the bell for recess rang, and the 2nd and 3rd graders whose turn it was for recess rushed out onto the street in a mass that, like a cell in mitosis, quickly arranged itself and divided into two, with most of the girls heading to one end and most of the boys to the other.
I wasn’t drawn to the games of stickball, kick the can and stoopball that were played at the boys’ end. I wasn’t good at ball games, that I knew, but it was also the goading and shouting and overall rowdiness that put me off.
I usually stood on the sidewalk halfway down the block, a neutral zone given over to dawdlers and loungers, and watched the girls jumping rope. I could stand there for all of recess, following the girls as they slipped into the tunnel of space the rope described as it whirred through the air and then cracked against the asphalt. The pace would inevitably quicken as players were eliminated and the jumps per turn decreased until there were only two girls jumping, one entering as the other left, a duet of graceful competition.
I was envious of their game. I wouldn’t have been able to explain it then, but it must have been the civility of the game that attracted me, the ordered taking of turns, the easy willingness to turn the rope so that the others can jump. There was no outfield of shame in this game.
I had recently started joining in. I’d only ask when there weren’t a lot of girls already playing. I may not have had a keen sense of gender-appropriate play at the time but I was aware, even at that age, of the importance of not burdening others—this must have been a lesson my father taught me—and one more person jumping meant fewer chances for the others to jump. But they always let me play. I was the kind of agreeable and conscientious boy that nice girls tend to be nice to.
That day–the day of the lesson–my teacher asked me to stay after school. For a chat, she said. I sat through the rest of the afternoon anxiously wondering what I could have done wrong to warrant detention. But it turned out she wanted to talk about recess.She told me she’d noticed me playing jump rope with the girls.
“It’s more fun than stoopball,” I said, as if I somehow already knew why she was talking to me.
“It probably is,” she said. “But that’s not the point. It’s a girl’s game. You know that, don’t you?” I nodded. But I I hadn’t really understood, not in the way she meant it. I knew it was a game mostly played by girls. But she meant it in another way. A game that defines its players as girls.
She didn’t say it that way, of course. Instead she told me a story about faces.She said like everyone else in the world I had three. The first was the face I woke up to and saw in the mirror, the one I recognized as me.
Then she asked me what I want to be when I grew up. This was the second face, she said, the face of the person I wanted to be but hadn’t yet become.
She asked me if I could see that the two weren’t always the same. I nodded again.
Then she told about the third face, the one she said other people think they see. She told me how this was different, too, because others usually only saw a part of me or not clearly at all and would fill in the rest with what they assumed I was.
We shuffle through these faces all the time, she said, sometimes we’re the person we believe we are, other times the person we want to be, and then again, at times, the person other people think we are. But sometimes we can get stuck with one of the three. And the worst to be stuck with was the third.
Then she asked me: “Do you want to go through school with the face of the boy who jumps rope with girls?”
I never jumped rope at school again.
It was the first of countless lessons I learned in subterfuge. Lessons I learned so well that they became habit, the sexual equivalent of “tucking in one’s shirttails before an interview,” as Erving Goffman might say. Until I came out in college and started unlearning those lessons.
In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman likens social interaction to a theatrical performance. Like the actor who must convince the audience that the character they see on stage is real, individuals seek to shape and influence the impressions that others form of them, to convince them that the image they project is real. Both marshal a repertory of techniques in their performance to give substance and expressive coherence to the identity they are constructing. Both, Goffman says, make use of stage, scenery, gesture and costume to convey their character.
For the individual’s performance, this set of “expressive equipment”—the “front” as he terms it—includes, of course, the space itself and all that it contains, the shop-floor, for example, or doctor’s office or schoolyard, but also and more importantly the components of the “personal front”: dress, body language, mannerisms, speech, and physical appearance. One might also add the insignia that mark our membership in the metaphorical or lifestyle tribes we identify with. But I’m running ahead of myself.
What is revealed through the constructed impressions employed in social interaction is a selected and limited set of possible behaviors, a mix of the first and second faces my teacher told me about in grade school, an alloy of the actual and assumed selves. In the front region of performance, traits of characters and aspects of identity that foster the coherence of the desired image are highlighted and those that undermine it are concealed. These suppressed behaviors come to light in a backstage region inaccessible to the audience; here, Goffman says, “the performer can relax; he can drop his front, forgo speaking his lines, and step out of character.” Or, one might say, step into a more authentic character.
The hunting lodge and teachers’ lounge, the downstairs kitchen and locker room—these backstage regions, Goffman reminds us, are places of laxity and first names, of profanity and insider’s talk. They may be messy, which is why dinner guests are kept out of the kitchen and client prevented from visiting the undertaker’s prep room. But they can also be, and more often than not are, a safe place of camaraderie where the performer can be among his own.
I had no backstage growing up, or at least none that I could share. There was no place to be myself in the company of other boys like myself. Backstage regions are often places of solidarity, even if only on the surface, but I had no such place to get help—no fellow waiter or colleague to give me advice or commiserate with.
There must have been other boys like me. Boys who sensed they were different, though, like me, they may not have known exactly why. Some who may have wanted to jump rope, too.
The absence of this backstage was more of a burden than the performance I gave front stage. Everyone engages in dramaturgy; coolness is an act of theater, too (though successful only if it gives the appearance of being unstudied). I just had a different, if considerably more taxing strategy of self-presentation than my straight peers at school. They pursued a strategy of self-enhancement, frontloading the most likable or admirable aspects of themselves, their winning self, so to speak. I followed one of self-effacement. I removed aspects of myself. My delight in jumping rope was the first of many things to go.
With perhaps one exception in the guise of an unfortunate date at the junior prom, I honestly didn’t pretend to be someone else. I didn’t seek to claim an identity which was inconsistent with what my peers knew of me then or what I could make believable. Instead, I concealed my desire throughout my high school years, relegating it to a solitary, private space only I knew of. I just became less of who I was. Vaguer, more insubstantial. If I hadn’t been smart and somewhat loquacious in class I might have disappeared entirely from high school.
Think of what’s left after you expunge desire from the self you present to others. Think of what conversations then become impossible to have: You have no fantasies or infatuations to confess to friends. No one slips into your dreams at night and disturbs your sleep with an unexpected kiss. No one is ever ‘hot’—not at school, not in the movies, not in a centerfold. The world you present on stage is not only nebulous. It is empty.
Image: Jose Parra “Self Portrait Sewing a Harlequin Hat”