Friday, January 02, 2009

A Resolution

Many of you know I was picked on quite fiercely while growing up. For better or worse, it made me the person I am today. Without those years of relentless torture, I would still be flouncy, bouncy...it's the way I was made...but there wouldn't be the gravitas. My legs also probably wouldn't have their quick flight reflex.

I never thought any good could come of those years, I almost didn't survive, but something has sprouted. Through Facebook, I've been contacted by many old friends. Some have been open enough to talk about what happened all those years ago. The first was from Nicole. She was a cheerleader at my high school. We weren't the best of friends, but here is what she wrote to me:

Dear Jesse -
First I have to say that I loved seeing you at our class reunion. I loved how proud of who you are you seemed. I have a question. Was high school hard for you? Here's why I am asking. I am a high school teacher, and I love my students like crazy. I get to teach leadership kids and I am spending a lot of time with them on bullying. I can remember people calling you names - and I never stopped them. I have always been sorry I let people be cruel to you. I watched you laugh them off, but I don't think you really laughed it off.

I want them to be aware enough of the bullying around them that they will not be cruel, but I also want them to be strong enough to tell people to stop when they hear it.

One of my dearest kids graduated a couple years ago. While he was senior class president everyone talked about how he must be gay, but he didn't officially come out until high school was over. Now he is at UNLV and loving it. I am so proud of him, and we talk a lot about how hard it is for him to find someone special to date. I do my best to give advice - since God knows I have dated enough guys - but dating in the "gay world" is so new to me . . . if he was talking to you, what would you tell him? I love this kid like he is my own, and I so want him to be happy . . .

Ok, how sweet is that? (I mean, besides the part about asking me about dating) I'm so humbled. High School, however, was cake--compared to junior high. In high school at least I was able to hide in athletics. More recently, I received a message from my 8th grade best friend. His name is Adam. We attended Fowler Junior High School together where I was beat up nearly every day. Things were so bad at Fowler that my parents had to sell our family's house and move away so I could escape to another school district.

Adam is now married. I never came out to him. In Junior High, I didn't even know I was gay. There were no role models, no representation on TV. There was only that vague threat of AIDS (which I was frequently accused of having). Adam is now a teacher of 8th grade. The same grade we knew one another. He writes:

Jesse,

I think about our Fowler years frequently, and often tell my students stories about those years. I remember the faces but not the names of all those boys who picked on you..

Each year I tell a little bit about you to my students. I tell them that I remember telling my parents at dinner one night about trying to stick up for you. Kids had been chasing you around the Commons, calling you gay and threatening to beat you up. “No he’s not!” I yelled at them.

When I shared that with my parents, my mom asked the question, “What if he was? Would it matter?”

It wasn’t a question I’d considered, wasn’t a possibility I understood. Even so, my answer was instant. “Well, no.”

I share that story with my students because it tells those who would threaten others that I won’t allow it, it tells those who are gay that someone will accept them, and I hope it challenges some to stand up for their friends better than I did.

Rarely in teaching do we see the results of our work. Some time after telling that story during my first year, though, I had a boy come out to me. After that he was open about it with lots of people – asked me to tell the other teachers on our team, told some of the other students (in middle school, of course, that means all the students), and mostly got along fine.

This is a long-winded way of saying I’m sorry I didn’t get it sooner. You should know, though, that at least one kid’s time has been a little easier because of your awful time at Fowler.

I honestly never thought I'd live long enough to say anything positive came out of that hell. I can't believe it, and yet---reading things like this, it was all worth it. I'm so proud of my friends and peers, these new teachers, making it easier; helping someone else feel not so alone as I felt.

May we all find some way to take someone else's lemons and make lemonade...for someone else. That is my wish for this new year 2009. And beyond.

11 comments:

mavrick said...

Hi Jesse,
It is nice to see some good has come from your pain of growing up in school. I just watched you movie A Four Letter Word and loved it. And I just ordered your book I'm looking forward to reading about your adventures in South America. Have a great New Year!

Tony said...

Hey Jesse -

Amen to your New years wish.

Anonymous said...

its all about perspective . . .

at the time it was hell, in retrospect you obviously had an important impact on many of the people around you.

see you soon,

mich

Anonymous said...

I have often found that the impact we have on others comes not from what we say or teach but from how we behave or the role model we set. As a teacher I have has several noes from former students that reflect the impact of my acions and not what I taught!!

Anonymous said...

Junior high (middle school) was hell for me too compared to high school. I was harrassed on a daily basis. I'm a flamboyant person, but I'm tough and have a strong presence because of all of the bullying that I received from that period in my life. My home was vandalized but thankfully it never got that bad that I had to move. My former classmates that I went to school with throughout my k-12 have messaged me too on Facebook. They don't necessarily apologize, but they seem to be aware of how tough people made my life. I never had any gay role models either. I knew I was different ever since I was five and I was the only person I knew that loved Madonna. haha. It's wierd, but I wouldn't change anything about my life because those close minded, small town, ignorant people that I grew up with makes me the outrageous and strong person that I am today.

Thanks,
Chris

Michael said...

There were so many confusing times growing up, and learning that most of my natural inclinations were "wrong" was the biggest part of it. Crushing sometimes, and that was without any bullying to speak of. When I see a kid who owns it, as it sounds like you did in high school, at least, it tears me up. With pride? I think. For you. And now for these kids who, through your friends, will continue to be inspired by you.

Remember that every day that's rough. I will.

Eddie in OKC said...

You've been enlightening, teaching, showing the way, for others all your life. I'm glad you do it still today!

Z said...

I think I was my high school's Jesse! Maybe my memories are more horrible than yours or less. All I'm saying that reading this posting brought all those bad memories back. The funny thing normally I should be crying, when I remember my old days. On the contrary I'm smiling now. I know NOW! I was the normal, they were animals! Thank you for posting this!-:)

Varin said...

I just became a crying mess!

God jesse, what a great friend you had and have, and also, as you say, look at what you have made possible.

i cried for the little boy you were and also for the one i was. i didn't know that you were bullied so heavily (i was also, but i went to a small, private school, were the taunting wasn't as severe). it's interesting b/c you are such a strong person now... but it totally makes sense.

I'm happy that all that being picked on didn't kill your relentless spirit and joy, and i guess neither did it mine, but i sometimes feel like it did - you know? - like if i would have been more self assured, i would have come out way earlier (i was 26 when i was first with someone - boy or girl, and it WAS a boy, thank god!), and not wasted so much time thinking THEY were right and i was wrong. i guess i still wrestle with what all that wasted time meant, and still think of myself as less strong than i'd like to be.

Aaron said...

That's such an awesome story, and I so relate. I try to block my 'Welcome to the Dollhouse' years out of my mind entirely.. Also, hats off for going to your reunion and being your unique self. I throw those invites out, have no connections to that period of my life....

Lwando said...

Reading those facebook messages got me teary eyed. You are such an inspiration, through even when you are suffering. What makes this post so powerful is that we can all relate. We have been called all kinds of names and beaten and now we are stronger. You inspire me Jesse. When reading your blog, I often see a reflection of myself. You have been changing the world, before you even knew it.