red lifeboat tied to a blue and white motorboat

Craig and the Life Boat

These Living Eulogies are not about me. They are about the people whose names appear in the headline. But sometimes, to understand exactly who these people are and how amazing they were to me (and perhaps to you), you’ve got to understand some personal context.

Craig Tuminaro is one such person.

I’d known Craig through much of elementary school by the time I became friends with him. I’m not sure exactly when he came to the school district, but I don’t think it was in kindergarten. Whatever the case, Craig and I were friendly though not friends when middle school began.

I’ve talked about it before in my social media, written about it on my website, and Lord knows I’ve spent many, many hours in counseling because of the damage that happened during my sixth-grade year. Our middle school was the end of a funnel into which the kids from about five or six elementary schools poured. Those elementary schools were made up of kids from fairly different economic backgrounds.

Mine was the white-collar, rich-kid school, and, thus, the friends I’d known growing up with very similar to that and very similar to me.

I didn’t know then and I don’t know now exactly what happened on that one day in sixth grade. I asked then, and I’ve asked since the advent of Facebook, and no one either can or will tell me what my transgression was that was so huge that all my friends — the kids I’d grown up with, went to birthday parties for, played on baseball teams alongside and in whose homes I had sleepovers — decided en masse and in total that they didn’t want to hang out with me anymore.

I went from being fairly comfortable in my own life, with a solid group of friends whom I had grown up with and shared all the things and secrets boys share, to being an instantaneous outcast, not just in the small pond of kids with whom I went to elementary school but in this huge ocean of unfamiliar faces of kids who came from very different backgrounds from me.

It was hell.

It has taken me many, many years to come to grips with the damage done by that experience, which turned into physical and emotional bullying. Coupled with several other childhood experiences that I did a very good job of avoiding while in counseling, I am not the most trusting person when it comes to relationships, and the current loneliness I feel is a byproduct that I’m actively working to change.

Like I said, I’ve spent many years in the offices of a variety of counselors touching on this sixth-grade experience and the damage it did. What I realized today, as I strive to think of things in general in my life more positively, is that I have never talked in those sessions — or any other place, actually — about Craig and how much worse things would have been without him.

Craig and I were a lot alike in many ways. We grew up in the same hometown. We both had an older sister as a sibling and a stable two-parent home. We both wore glasses and leaned toward the nerdy side. As I said, Craig and I were friendly in elementary school, but I wouldn’t call us friends.

And I don’t really know how that changed in sixth grade. What I do know is that there was a day when everything was cool and the mornings before the first bell rang were spent at the same table with the same friends I’d grown up with, talking like boys do or playing paper-triangle football or talking about last night’s Yankees game — and the next day I was no longer welcomed at that table.

And so I sat across what transformed into the lunch room at a different hour of the day, by myself, sitting on a desk and swinging my legs and watching the various goings-on that marked pre-school-day life. I remember wishing … begging … for the bell to ring so we could all just head to class and I wouldn’t have to be so goddamn alone, sitting by myself while everyone else had their friends.

Then, one day, I wasn’t sitting by myself. Craig was there.

I wish I remembered how it happened, when it happen or why it happened. I don’t. Some things are lost to years and fading memories. But I do know that it mattered. Craig wasn’t just extending one of those life rings you throw from a boat when someone is drowning. He invited me into his lifeboat. He wasn’t just someone to pass the time with before the bell rang, a safety vest in those wild, wild minutes before the formal school day began.

He quickly became a friend.

And soon, he was my first best friend since my original best friend decided to be part of the crowd that ostracized me. We started hanging out before school, at lunch, after school and on weekends. Our morning twosome was joined by another kid — a kid named Nick who came from a different neighborhood and a different elementary school that was in the blue-collar part of our district. Side story: Nick’s family would go on in our high school years to win what then was the largest New York State Lottery at that time.

Sixth grade can be a really odd time, and for Craig and I, it definitely was. We were straddling this world between being a kid and being hormonal teenagers. There would be these afternoons where we would go to his house and pretend we were part of Voltron — the lions, not the stupid cars — and run around his massive yard that included a farm with goats and chickens, holding sticks we lit on a campfire as our Flaming Sword. If ya know, ya know.

And then we’d spend time talking about girls of interest to us. For me, there was Meredith. For Craig, there was Catherine. Soon, these two girls became part of the at-school morning routine. No longer were we hanging out in that lonely section of the would-be lunchroom. We were hanging out with these actual girls by their actual lockers and flirting as shamelessly and poorly as only sixth graders can.

I don’t remember who suggested it, but the idea came up that the four of us should see a movie some weekend. Craig and I most definitely considered it a double date. But we all sold it to our parents as a group outing among friends, and after conversations among them, they agreed. So there we were, one Saturday afternoon, at a movie theater in Brewster, NY, seeing the movie Gung Ho, me next to Meredith who was next to Catherine who was next to Craig.

This isn’t to say that sixth grade wasn’t hell. It was. Very much so. The bullying continued and the taunting and teasing that went along with it was merciless. I could talk about that stuff with Craig. He listened. He understood. He had been on the outside of friend groups too.

And then we would play Voltron or watch cartoons or talk about girls or go outside and try to avoid this one particularly ornery goat he had.

Without Craig, I’m pretty sure I would have drowned in sixth grade and, as sad as it is to say, not here to write this Living Eulogy for him. It’s crazy to think that a sixth-grader would think about suicide. I’m sad to say I did more than think about it.

But I am here, all these years later, and I’m doing well — better, actually. Maybe even good.

But Craig isn’t in my life, and it’s my fault.

It wasn’t too many years after we became friends that Craig moved to Virginia. His dad got a work transfer, and suddenly, my best friend — another best friend — was gone. I visited him once in Virginia, and we had a good time, but I was coming down with what turned out to be the flu. By the time I got home, I had a big fever.

That’s not why Craig and I lost touch. We just … did. Life went on. For me and for him.

For me, Nick — our eventual lottery-winning friend from the other side of the tracks — was a bridge into a whole new world for me. I realized that I actually got along much better with those kids than I would have with the kids who came from my hometown. They were more real, less materialistic, and they accepted the fact that I was geeky and kind of nerdy. Those kids — Keith, Tim, Jack, Jason, Carlo, Jeremy, Mike et al — became the friends who would carry me into high school, the kids who would be my new sports teammates and my new sleepover homes and new people with whom to talk about girls and sports and such.

It turns out, Craig is gay. It also turns out that, as ashamed as I am to say this, there was a time in my adulthood in which I wasn’t very tolerant of that. I can say “That’s how I was raised” and try to blame my parents or blame society, but I own it. It was me. That’s who I was. People who I considered friends at one time saw that side of me, saw that I wasn’t exactly accepting of who they were born as and rightly decided I wasn’t a very good person to invest time in.

So any attempt to reconnect with Craig via social media was harmed by that. I am sorry about that. Deeply, truly, personally and fully.

So yes … I have spent a lot of time talking about the friends who left me that sixth-grade year, but I haven’t spent any time talking about the friend who found me and who, in doing so, saved my life in a very real way. Craig was a good, good friend at a time when I sorely needed that. He extended a hand when everyone else was pulling theirs away.

Craig cared.

And so that’s why, today, I raise a glass to Craig, and I offer three cheers for the kid who helped me into his lifeboat and without whom I wouldn’t be here today.

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