You can survive growing up different in a small town, but you have to find your tribe. This was something I didn’t know until I was grown up. It would have changed everything about my junior high school years.
Instead I did it all alone. At home, even when my mom implored me to share why I dreaded school so much, at my most honest moment, I could only say, “The kids all call me fag.” What I would say now is, “I’m gay and the kids are hateful about it.”
But the reason I couldn’t say it the honest way was because I had already picked up on the fact that being gay was undesirable at home and at school. Everywhere. When I told my mom what the kids were saying, she said, “Well, you aren’t, are you?”
I knew the answer she wanted and I said it. “Of course not.”
I’m sure I looked at the floor when I said it because I’ve never been comfortable lying.
In sixth grade I ditched school by hiding in the pines halfway down our driveway on the way to the bus. I would stay in the woods all day and come out when the bus returned to drop off the neighbor kids. Instead my brother-in-law spotted me sneaking across the lawn to another part of the farm and he and my mom slowly hounded me through the woods, cutting me off eventually like prey, and they drove me into school.
I was absent from school so often, eventually my mom and the principal had an understanding: he would drive out and pick me up himself. She used to threaten that social services would take me away from her for being an unfit mother. I had played sick so much the last year or two, she knew all my tricks, even the one about putting soap in my eye to pretend I had an infection.
In the car ride with my principal, he’d ask me if I didn’t like learning. I could only fixate on the fear of being teased and ridiculed; learning was somehow secondary to feeling safe.
So by seventh grade I knew I had no more passes left. The principal of the junior high was a different person altogether; not only did she not have Dr. Blanton’s worry-creased brow and pitying southern drawl, she was too busy herding the monsters that are middle schoolers to make car trips for one kid who refused to get on the bus.
If I were to survive seventh grade, I would have to be as invisible as possible, avoiding anyone who might hurt me. That meant not going into the cafeteria, where I feared that the gathered masses would introduce me to a replay of what I experienced each morning when we assembled in the gym after getting off the buses and before homeroom. Every day as I walked along the bleachers, a silence would fall among just enough of my peers that I noticed it. It was followed by whispers and snickers. Sometimes one word would rise above the murmurs: “Queer.”
I couldn’t avoid morning assembly, but I had found a way to dodge the repeat airing of it at lunchtime. As we left Mrs. Bardwell’s class each day to head to the cafeteria, I would let myself fall to the back of the line. When we rounded the first corner, I ducked into the bathroom and waited until the halls grew silent again. Then I pushed through the outside door and squat-walked along the side of the building to the windows of our class room. I always made sure one was unlocked before we went to lunch. I would push it open and climb in, waiting in the silent comfort of the classroom where only moments before I had dreaded being called on by the teacher. If I was called on, it meant hearing the giggles, the ones that meant at least two people were sharing the joke about me. The same joke about me that brought the chatter of morning assembly to a halt.
So I kept my head down in class, avoided raising my hand even when I knew the answer. If I could make myself invisible, I could avoid the pain of being ridiculed.
In the half hour that I spent alone in the classroom, I felt at peace and I wished it could go on and on forever. Hearing the lunch bell brought a knot of pain to my stomach because I knew my sanctuary time was up. So in reverse I repeated the steps that had brought me there: shimmied out the window, slithered along the side of the building, pushed back into the hall, ducked into the bathroom, fell back into line as my classmates dashed past.
I hid in the bathroom in fourth period. The kids in that class seemed especially hard around the edges. And despite the attempts of a few sympathetic family members to convince me that most of it was in my head, I knew that I wasn’t imagining how much contempt my classmates had for me.
It was confirmed one Monday morning when the whispering about me didn’t end with morning assembly, but followed me down the hall to my locker, which it normally did not, since the other kids started thinking about homework to be turned in and finding their buddies before classes. This day the whispering was still going on after first and second and third period. Finally I found out why.
Someone had dedicated a song to me the night before on the local radio station. It was Aerosmith’s Dude Looks Like A Lady. At fourteen I was plump, wore my hair in a luxuriant brunette mullet, and had porcelain skin that I would kill for now. Maybe I did look more like a girl than a boy, but I knew the song was about more than that. Someone in my class wanted to put it out there so their friends could hear it and laugh in appreciation. The joke about what a fag I was should be shared with the world outside of school.
Now I realize a different kind of kid would put a pithy, Rupaul-inspired spin on the whole situation. They would decide their foe had instead made them famous. Maybe what I needed more than anything was more fearless drag queens on TV. I think my whole generation would have benefited.
I can almost relive the rise in my blood pressure that happened when I was told about the song on the radio. It wasn’t anger. It was fear. Whether it was genetic or just a learned response, by this age I was strictly a flight strategist. Fighting was not my norm. So I hid the rest of the day in the bathrooms, roaming from one to another only when classes were in session. I ducked as I went past each door so I wouldn’t be spotted.
I luckily didn’t learn to loathe myself because of how I was treated, but it did make me loathe society for many years. It took a long time to learn how to move through the world with an open mind toward others. One thing that I am always thankful for is that I have a lot of compassion for underdogs, for people who are misrepresented or even ignored. It is part of why I care so much about how our society treats people based on ethnicity, cultural and religious origin, gender, sexuality, age, size, income. I know how feeling unsafe turns everyday life into a precarious obstacle course. How it twists you up inside.
If I could parent myself through the whole thing now, I would make sure it turned out differently. No one should be made to feel like hiding is the option, like being invisible is preferable to finding your light and place. And perhaps I could have gotten to myself at the perfect moment when my future empathy would be assured, but before I learned to be quite as cynical as I became. Probably I would even leave that alone, because I grew out of it eventually.
The one thing I know I would do to help myself is that I wouldn’t try to convince myself not to worry about what was happening to me. Every grown up tried to take that course, from my parents to the shrinks they sent me to. “Don’t worry about what other people think of you.”
That would be the saddest coffee mug quote in the world and it didn’t do much to comfort me.
What I would say is, “You’re right to let this bother you so much. You want to be liked and instead you feel loathed.” Then I would explain that having the whole world love you is impossible and not even the goal. You just need a small but meaningful tribe.
It starts with taking the time to notice the other kids being picked on. I know I wasn’t alone. There were kids who were teased because their clothes were ragged. There were kids who were tripped and knocked down because they had a speech impediment. I would tell my fourteen year old self to give the other beaten up and spit on kids a smile when I got to assembly in the morning. Eventually, I would say, you can choose to sit next to one of them and ask them their name. Then you might find them in the cafeteria and sit with them.
Friends matter because there is safety in numbers. A group that is made up of people who have been shaped by rejection may be the strongest, because they value what it means to find inclusion after feeling adrift and alone. If the world had more tribes made of people who were vastly different except that they shared only the desire to protect and encourage each other to personal happiness, we would perhaps divide ourselves less by race and creed and more by the contents of our hearts. It would have saved me a lot of pain in junior high and it would certainly heal so much of what ails the world today.