I've seen him many times before, walking past our house, at about ten o'clock in the morning, then, an hour or so later, walking back. He's young, sixteen or seventeen, and probably attends Samuel Robertson Technical High School a short distance up 104 from where we live. He's attractive, about five ten, with brown, longish, wavy hair, and a cute, innocent-looking face, five o'clock shadow already visible. He's attired in the style of clothes most young men wear these days, nothing different about him there, and he has a heavily weighted knapsack on his back, but he's so different from all the other young male students who walk past.
Most of them travel in packs, two or more, and they often talk loudly, their unreserved laughter filling the quiet street. To look at them, they are confident, even cocky, emboldened perhaps by their numbers, coming across as though the world is theirs. Maybe it is. As they stroll by, their self-assuredness evident in their gait, they remind me of the young men I went to high school with in the late '70s. They're tall, athletic, and handsome. A few haven't fully matured into their adult looks yet, but they soon will, and you know the opposite sex will surely take note. They are the type I avoided when I attended school because I'd learned how cruel and insensitive they were, how they liked to bully the other boys who weren't like them. Even now, I shudder when I see them, the impulse to cross to the other side of the street to avoid them running up my spine. I have to remind myself I'm not their age anymore, they're not my classmates, and I don't have to be scared.
I walked past him again today, the young man who's not like the others, as I returned from the mailboxes following my long, brisk walk. Even from a distance, as we approached each other, I knew it was him. His head was down--he never looks up--and he walked hurriedly, his steps short and quick, like he's trying to get away from something. He has the appearance and the carriage of someone who's picked on at school, who's spirit has been beaten down, maybe even at home too, prompting me to wonder what his home life is like. I wonder, if his parents show him respect, reinforce how important he is to them, tell him they love him, would he still walk hunched over, avoid looking into other people's faces, try to make himself invisible?
I recognize him. I know who he is. I understand him. He's me, thirty-plus years ago, and, whenever I see him, I want to stop him. I want to tell him to stop what he's doing to himself, to stop believing what other people say about him, because they don't know him at all. Because all the repeated teasing, and taunting, and bullying chip away at the very essence of who he is. And, if he buys into all that crap, he'll hate himself for years to come, and he'll spend the rest of his life trying to get out of that dark hole.
I see it in him. I see how he knows what other people, the kids at school, maybe his parents, think of him, heard what they've said about him--how he's taken it in and accepted it, when there's no reason on earth why he should feel badly about himself, why he shouldn't hold his head up when he walks by, just like his male peers, why he shouldn't feel as confident as they do. In other words, there's no reason why he shouldn't love himself.
What I see in him is so different from what he probably sees in himself. I see a sweet, vulnerable, sensitive young man, just growing into his good looks, trying to figure out what life is about and how he fits into it. I see a young man who's probably smart and clever and talented, all of the attributes marginalized in high school, wondering why he has so few friends, what he did to be so lonely, and why he can't be like everyone else. At his age, do any of us really get how valuable we are? Do we have any concept of the special life force within us Do we understand how deserving we are of love, our own first, and other people's? I just don't want him to waste as much time as I did, feeling isolated and worthless, hating myself.
Is the young man gay? I don't know. Maybe. I can't tell for sure. He's different in some way from his peers, that much I know, just like some of the kids I went to school with. But he's not fat, he's not goofy looking, he doesn't dress funny; he doesn't appear poor, geeky, or studious. In other words, he doesn't exhibit any of the obvious physical reasons why anyone would pick on him (not that any of these are acceptable excuses). So maybe he is gay. So what? I've been told it's different in the public school system for young gay males now. That students today are more tolerant of the ways in which young gay males are different--their lack of ability in sports, their interest in "girls" courses, their feminine habits and mannerisms.
It's probably too late. Had someone stopped me when I was sixteen years old and told me I should love myself because I'm worth it, I'd have thought they were out of their flipping minds, and I wouldn't have believed a word they said. Because, by then, I'd taken enough shit that I wasn't open to any conflicting information. The fertile soil that had once been my brain, at one time ripe to accept new ideas and try them on, had been covered over with cement by then. I was shut off to every bit of serious advice, every rare compliment, every kind word directed at me, because I didn't believe I deserved them, because I thought people had ulterior motives for saying them. All I synthesized was how useless I was, how worthless, how unacceptable, as much as I tried to avoid these messages. My guess is, the young man is there already. And he lacks the maturity, the perspective, and the courage to see through the muck, to know his self-worth, and to reject what's been said to him time and again.
If only there was something I could do. If only I could save him from all of the pain, and the wasted years, and the long, arduous journey ahead. If only.