Helper Guy

One of the fun and very developmentally significant things that youths do is try on various personas towards developing an adult one (or several) they can call their own. Some of this is not pretty, and becomes one of those things that drive a lot of adults to distraction in dealing particularly with teenagers. But this sort of “scientific method” of theorem (persona), experiment (attempting to be or play that persona), and observation of results (seeing how others react to you), is such a critical developmental tool. Most kids (with notable exceptions of course) feel that they don’t have the gravitas and chutzpah to even consider being fully and comfortably themselves, if they even really know yet who that is. And in our patriarchal society, where kids are securely ranked at the bottom of the pecking order, most adults are comfortable with that fact.

Our son Eric, very into imagination play as a young kid, played a plethora of wild characters, including vampire, warlord, space alien, android, wizard, and deity, just to name a few. Later as an adolescent he tried on a number of personas more within the scope of the kind of people I would encounter in my daily life (since I am yet to be abducted by aliens), including Rogerian therapist (based on the work of psychologist Carl Rogers), neurotic perfectionist, aloof snob, driven zealot, agitated shepherd, uber geek, and persecuted victim.

One of the first of these more conventional-adult-world personas he adopted, maybe around age 10, was something that he and I came to call “Helper Guy”. It was notable at the time, because it was so different than a more predominating persona (at least in his home environment dealing with a perceived uppity kid sister and parents pushing early bedtime and school attendance) that was sort of Groucho Marx blended with master inquisitor. Eric could talk a blue streak of intelligible but obtuse diatribes, including verbally taunting his younger sister to the point that, lacking his verbal rapier, she would slug him. When I look back on the video tapes we made of the kids from that age (that we sent back to my mom across the country so she could track their development) you can clearly see this dynamic, and I still cringe.

Not sure exactly how it got started, but my recollection is that one day at home, Eric put on a pair of those black plastic glasses with the fake nose (that he got as a party favor at some friend’s birthday), came up to me and looked at me calmly, inquisitively without a word, very unusual for him at the time, with a look as if to say “so how are you really doing today?”

My first reaction was that I had to laugh. This character I was confronted with was so different than neurotic Groucho Master Inquisitor. Despite my possibly dismissive laugh, he persisted with the look, staying “in character”. I felt it was appropriate to maybe call out this persona so I said something to the effect of, “So you are Helper Guy!” He thought about it a second or two and then nodded and smiled. Groucho the Inquisitor had left the building, at least temporarily.

I wish my memory was more precise and granular in regards to moments like this, now more than a decade in the past, rather than my right-brained penchant for sort of composting all the rotting memory bits together into an emotionally charged gestalt which is more persistent in my mind. I recall during this first encounter with Helper Guy, deciding to share with him stressors du jour, and him responding by patting me on the shoulder and saying something to the effect of, “It’ll be okay”.

Obviously, some personas only make a single cameo appearance, but the glasses and nose reappeared occasionally over the weeks ahead. Helper Guy would get me a soda from the refrigerator or even get his sister a Popsicle from the bin in the freezer she could not reach. Helper Guy was there to be of assistance to others (in small ways only perhaps), but requests like “can you clean up the mess in Eric’s room?” were after experimentation, found to be out of scope.

Helper Guy made appearances I recall for several years, but was eventually phased out (as Eric became a serious pre-teen) as perhaps too naïve, or that derogatory term “childish”. Leaving school at age fourteen, and after a year of “Deschooling” and sloughing off most of the anxiety ridden personas associated with his school experience (and based on coercive parental efforts on behalf of his participation in that institution), Eric often exhibited a persona you might call “Rogerian therapist as beleaguered shepherd”. He had developed several circles of friends, including the best of his former school buddies, and based on hearing him on the phone in his room, he was patiently listening to his friends’ troubles, sometimes for an hour at a time, but with a more knowing listener’s ear than Helper Guy.

Now a young adult, Eric has an array of personas on display in the appropriate context. The one I particularly enjoy is his “soulful iconoclast”. Not much of helper guy in it, other than the willingness to listen part, but a real willingness to thoughtfully challenge the conventional wisdom of the culture.

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