I got a call from Butthead the other day. He saw my mom in the old home town and asked for my cell number. Thirty-five years have passed since we last spoke, the time when we crossed the stage as Sylacauga High School graduates. Diplomas in hand, we had been duly processed and certified “ready to take on the world” by the City Board of Education.
If you have some mileage on you, the name “Butthead” probably evokes the image of a cartoon character from the 80’s who had an equally stupid friend named Beavis. My friend’s real name was Ronnie, even though he went through all of junior high and high school with the nickname. I can never remember him referred to as anything else. I’m pretty sure the teachers even called him Butthead.
The moniker stuck so completely that when he telephoned after all those years he said “Hey, this is Ronnie, a.k.a. Butthead.”
How does a kid end-up with such a lousy nickname?
I’m glad you asked.
It all started back in the seventh grade at East Highland Middle School. Like most junior high schools, E.H.M.S. was a transition between the innocence of elementary school and the challenges of high school. A more unstable mix of kids at different levels of mental and physical development could not have existed. Tender-hearted children who still got tucked into bed at night walked the same halls as half-grown men who had failed a grade or two and were counting the days until their 16th birthday so they could drop-out.
You learned important things in 7th grade, some of which set the tone and tenor of your outlook on life. Most of the hard lessons were in gym class. Taking a public shower for the first time in a big open room with 30 other naked boys was the first challenge. From that you learned that in spite of what had been taught in civics class, all men were not created equal.
If a kid could sort of fly under the radar and make it through East Highland without the need for therapy in adulthood, it was a remarkable thing.
Butthead wasn’t so lucky.
It happened in the aforementioned gym class. We sometimes had “health studies” on rare occasions when the weather was too bad to go outside. Most of the time it was nothing more than forced indoor confinement, but eventually the appointed day came for “the talk.”
You know which talk. That talk. The one best delivered by your parents. The one you should never get from a frustrated former tennis-pro-turned-gym-teacher in a room full of adolescent boys.
Gym teacher had diagrams to accompany the lecture. Not being much of a teacher or disciplinarian, the presentation was met with hoots and catcalls, along with an ample supply of crudeness.
Unfortunately, poor Ronnie asked a legitimate question about anatomy.
Gym teacher tenderly responded with “Ronnie, if you’d take your head out of your butt for a minute and pay attention, I think you’d see what I’m talking about.”
The room exploded with juvenile laughter, and somebody in the peanut gallery said “Ah ha ha ha! Ronnie’s a butt-head.”
And from that point on he simply was. It stuck to him like white on rice.
Now don’t think this story is tragic. A boy named Sue got mean over his misfortune, but Butthead was always a smiling, happy-go-lucky-guy. In fact he was a triple threat: a good student, fullback on the football team, and a gifted artist. By the time we reached graduation he was voted by classmates as “Most Artistic” in our Senior Class.
Some people go through life angry and bitter about things from their childhood. Others shrug it off and move forward.
I enjoyed a few telephone minutes with my old friend. He’s a grandfather now, like me, and we both see the years slipping away with the same sense of urgency. We ended the conversation with a promise to get together soon to reminisce about the old days and catch-up on all the years that have passed since.
All I could say was “I’m really looking forward to it Ronnie.”
And I meant it.