Near our house in ____________ is a high school. Around 3:00 p.m. every afternoon, I see students walk by our front window, on their way home from school.
About three weeks ago, I saw a couple of young men walk by the house, obviously friends, talking among themselves and enjoying their camaraderie. I'd guess their ages to be around sixteen or seventeen.
With the hot temperatures we've had over the past several weeks, a number of men in the area have gone without their shirts, including the two young men. Over their shoulders, they wear knapsacks, filled with (I imagine) their school books and other supplies. Their backs are covered, but their torsos are bare, the first hints of chest and abdominal muscular development evident.
As they walk casually along the sidewalk, confidently displaying their fledgling masculinity, I can't help but be reminded of my own high school days, and how different I was from them all those years ago.
See, I was teased a lot in high school--had been since I was in grade six or seven. Other students picked up on my effeminacy, labeling me a fem or a fairy or a fag, before I knew what I was myself. By the time I got to high school, I had no ego whatsoever. I felt lower than low, unworthy of positive attention from anyone, even my parents. I hated myself, mentally, physically, in every way. The last thing I would ever have done was go without my shirt walking home from high school. I had no confidence in myself to do that. The less people noticed me, the better.
I had a friend in high school by the name of Rob. We were quite the couple. He hated himself because he was overweight, and I hated myself because everyone thought I was gay. Together, we bonded, but, for many reasons, we were not good for each other. Neither one of us built up the other's ego, or made the other feel better about himself. Neither one of us had the ability to do that because we didn't like ourselves enough, and we didn't have the tools to do it. We were the exact opposite of the two shirtless, young men.
When I saw these two young men on the sidewalk recently, I felt a pang of misery for who I was back in high school, for who I wish I'd been, for the school experience I wish I'd had. I can't imagine what it's like to be young, attractive, straight, and bare-chested, walking home from school, feeling good about yourself--or, if not consciously feeling good about yourself (which I imagine must be the case when you're courageous enough to walk in public with your shirt off), at least not feeling badly about yourself. I can't imagine what it must feel like to be free of your shirt and free of your hang-ups about yourself--in other words, to feel like a real human being, with value and self-worth.
I've seen the same two young men walk past the house on two additional occasions since the first time, again with their shirts off and their knapsacks on, and I'm curiously drawn to them, not because I'm attracted to them--which I know is wrong--but because I wasn't them when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. Because I believe my school experience would have been so different had I been fortunate enough to be them. How different would my twenties have been had I been them way back then--my thirties, and my forties.
I feel I missed out on something big all those years ago because I was so different from them, because I was treated so differently from how I imagine they are treated now. Even if they are gay (which I doubt they are), I'm hopeful that being gay now is different from being gay then--less of an issue, less of a reason for other people to tease you, to make you feel badly about yourself, to change the course of the rest of your life, really (although I'm sure this isn't the case at all).
And now, I'm nearly fifty. My body is not as young or as beautiful as theirs are now. It never will be. I will never have their experience of life shirtless. I will never know what it's like to grow up straight, to feel good about myself at twenty, at thirty, at forty. And even if I feel good about myself at fifty, which I do, I'll never have a part of myself that I wish beyond all reason I'd had.
I mourn for the young kid I was back in the late 1970s, who was a product of what other people thought of him, which was not positive or life affirming. Whenever I see the two shirtless, young men walk down the sidewalk, I think of what I missed out on, and what I'll never have, no matter how much I've worked on liking myself over the years.
I'm so envious of them, and what they symbolize, and how they look, and who they are, and what their lives must be like, and what lies ahead for them, it hurts. My youth is gone, and I know I have something now that is precious and that they won't have for many years to come--age and wisdom and perspective, and all the other good things that come with growing older.
But, honestly, I might give up all of that to be young and beautiful and self-assured and shirtless and straight, with my entire life ahead of me--even if only for a moment. What would that feel like? I can only imagine.