Bullying, revisited

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the incredible To This Day created by the spoken-word poet Shane Koyczan. I shared the video yesterday and posted a few thoughts, but it hasn’t been out of my mind much since.

For anyone interested in my own personal sob story, let me share a little more about my own experiences with “bullying”.

First of all, I have to say: I’m one of those people who tend to shrug off their ancient bullied youth with Koyczan’s observed “kids can be cruel” dismissals. That’s probably because mine wasn’t all that bad. I was actually decently popular in elementary school, with a seemingly neverending stream of friends coming over to hang out at my place, meeting at the mall for movies, and so on. It wasn’t until I neared the end of junior high that things got weird for me.

There’s no getting around it: once I started to suspect that I was gay, I lost that easy self-confidence that made for a comfortable social life. And once other kids started to sense that something had changed within me, that I was behaving differently, they started to back away also. Friends that I’d known for most of my life disappeared in short order, forgetting the countless years of laughing and playing together, the adventures and vacations together, the hopes and dreams that we shared.

I don’t blame them… not really. I’ll chalk it up to survival instinct. Teenagers may rebel against their parents and talk a good game about how unique and independent they are, but nothing sends most teens running faster than the notion that they’d be associated with someone who was unpopular or different. (At least, that was my experience a hundred years ago… though judging from the experiences of some much-younger people in my life, and the ongoing depictions in media and entertainment, I’m guessing that it hasn’t changed all that much.)

Frankly, things reached their lowest point around the 8th grade… when a couple of friends of mine discovered I was gay. And when I say they discovered, I mean they discovered, through their own experience. No, nothing too significant, but undoubtedly terrifying in retrospect when boyish curiosity gets overshadowed by crippling self-doubt and regret. It’s funny how quickly a person can convince themselves of an alternate reality, isn’t it? Regardless, word spread, and what may have been idle suspicions quickly became accepted fact among the few hundred kids at my high school. I was officially an outcast.

Still, bullying? That’s a stretch. I was ignored, mostly… Called names, especially by some players on the sports teams (soccer and baseball) whose coaches has kindly asked me to be the team manager for, presumably in an attempt to get me back into something resembling a real-world social life. (I’ve often wondered if my parents put the coaches up to it, and the coaches agreed out of pity for the ostracized teenager that I had become.) Publicly embarrassed from time to time, certainly… And even punched in the stomach one single, memorable occasion in gym class.

But I was certainly not harassed on a regular basis, and definitely not physically tormented. I kept quiet, stayed in the back of the classroom, and found myself on a first-name basis with the teachers but never socializing with classmates. And before long, I started building my own community in a Bulletin Board System (BBS), which I must explain to younger readers was a local Internet before there was an Internet. (Ask your parents or your older siblings.)

Despite the relatively benign experience I had, those pre-BBS days of my teens don’t include a lot of happy memories. I longed for the simpler days when I was younger and felt comfortable in my own skin. And I hadn’t yet matured (arguably) into the person who threw big parties at his house every Wednesday night at the age of ripe old age of 21. (Side-note: I wrote that blog linked in the previous sentence FIVE YEARS ago. Wow.)

The cliché about whatever doesn’t kill you making you stronger proved true in this case. I not sure that I would be the person that I am today if it wasn’t for those experiences, and in general I like whom I am today. So I suppose I should be grateful — grateful that it wasn’t worse, and grateful that I came out stronger on the other side. I should be thinking back on those experiences and celebrating them for being so formative. But really, I’d rather just look ahead.

I don’t know if that’s cowardice or prudence… Or maybe some of both.

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