I don’t know why I’m thinking of this.
Back when I was in grade school – in the 70s for those of you keeping track – I didn’t fit in with the other kids all that well. I was the sort who was at the top of every class, but didn’t have more than one or two friends at a time. Plenty of I.Q. but not enough social skills.
To give you an example: didn’t matter how many of the other kids watched Star Trek, I was the one sufficiently identified with Spock that the kids sang me a version of Olivia Newton John’s “Let’s Get Physical” retitled “Let’s Get Logical.”
I’m not telling you this to elicit sympathy. Heck, I was a big Spock fan. I knew the kids were teasing me, but it didn’t send me home in tears or anything. I’m just trying to give you some context.
My grade school was K-6, and I started playing Dungeons and Dragons back in first grade. This was before the days of Mazes and Monsters or even the accusations that the books were satanic. My mom saw an article about the new game in our local paper and thought it would be great for her sons. She bought my brother the game for his twelfth birthday (I was six).
With a few exceptions, for a long time I only played with older kids. My brother and his friends. But by fourth grade I started introducing more of my friends to it, and sometime around fourth or fifth grade we were playing informally at lunch times while walking around the schoolyard.
It wasn’t for everybody. One guy from up the block couldn’t get his mind off of baseball long enough to figure out what was going on. Another played for a bit, then dropped out.
It was that latter one that surprised me.
In sixth grade, for a creative writing assignment, he* wrote a “short story” called “The Boy from Gray Elf.” It was a thinly veiled excuse to make fun of me. He made it overt through certain gaming terms – such as the City of Clouds,** which was a location in one of my games – plus direct references to Children of the Atom (including a mention of the title), which was a book I’d recently brought to school.
All our classmates quickly picked up on the joke. It followed me to junior high school where it spread to people I hadn’t even met. I heard references to that story for years.
But I wasn’t mad at the kid who wrote it. Oh don’t get me wrong, I was embarrassed as hell and more than a little upset. But not at him.
I saw it as my fault. It came back to something that had happened a week or two prior. A friend and I were coming back from lunch, gaming until the last possible second, as usual. This meant that I was still in character – a gray elf welcoming my friend’s character to the City of Clouds.
A couple of the other kids overheard me and asked what the City of Clouds was. The idea that it wasn’t obviously a fantasy city didn’t even occur to me. I’m not sure exactly what I was thinking. I think I saw a chance to try to draw some other players into the game.
So I answered in character.
Yeah, I kind of walked into it. Didn’t I?
That incident led directly to “The Boy from Gray Elf” and from there to its legacy.
As I think back on the event, some thirty years later, what I think about is not how it felt to hear the story read aloud there in class. Nor is it about the teasing that followed, or even about the times I heard about it in the years that followed.
I think about the story’s author. I try to imagine him sitting in his living room, having to do an assignment he didn’t want to do. He had to make up a story. And somewhere in trying to do that, he found himself thinking of me and of roleplaying games. He turned his mind to fiction, and he thought of me.
Maybe the resulting story wasn’t what I would have chosen, but that’s still pretty cool.
*Yes, I remember his name. No, I’m not going to use it.