I wish I could tell all kids to fearlessly be who they are and everything will be ok. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. We have a lot of hurdles to climb such as the pressure cookers called Elementary School, Middle School, and High School. By the time you get through there, if you've gotten out unscathed, you are lucky, and must have been by either hiding parts of yourself, or what you have to offer fits so perfectly in the norm, you are accepted. That's so rare. Who doesn't feel weird, ugly, or too fat, too skinny, different or unaccepted at some point? Why can't we look at someone who's different from us and say "hey, that's cool!" and move on? I wish this was the case, but it certainly wasn't for me.
I'm lucky that I haven't been severely physically bullied or ridiculed like others have. The impact of my experiences have, however informed my behavior as an adult to be very consumed with how people think of me to the point that I struggle to be my most authentic self. Cracking a joke on the bus in first grade and having a 5th grader stalk back to your seat, give you an intimidating look, punch you in the face with all of his might so your head smashes against the window and even leaves a crack sticks with me to this day. Being so fearful of retaliation if I told an adult and having a bus driver that did nothing was scary beyond my little 7 year old brain could comprehend. "My home and family are full of such love. Who would do that to me?" "Why wouldn't someone like me?" This is something I thought all through elementary school.
I had friends, but because I wasn't great at sports, there was the chance of me blowing the little league game. Having ways to contribute the world artistically isn't as appreciated as being able to catch a pop fly. I joined the choir in 4th grade and have made singing a big part of my life. There comes a point near adulthood where that becomes cool to people, but not when you're in 8th grade, and your choir director thinks it's a good idea to put 14 year old boys in sparkly silver bow ties and cumberbunds and have them parade through the cafeteria during lunch. It didn't get much better in High School, where the uniform was a blue sparkly tie and matching sparkly vest. Who would want to risk the chance of ridicule wearing that in such a hostile environment as hundreds of adolescents? Me, that's who. Because the opportunity to sing and learn how to get better at it outweighed the laughs and points. But they still hurt. The term "sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me" is a lie. Broken bones will hurt. The hate behind the punch that caused the broken bone stays longer. The words that are said that can't be taken back can hurt you. They can hurt you in the moment, they can stick with you years and years later as you try to make sense of them as an adult.
The fear of rejection and judgement didn't allow me to find someone new to sit with at lunch when my lunch period was different than my friend's. Instead, I waited all day, got fast food after school, didn't eat it there, because I'd be eating alone, but instead ate hidden behind the sign of a subdivision, and hid the evidence so my mom wouldn't wonder why I didn't eat at school. Another time, I got a new shirt and tie for my first high school dance. My mom convinced me to go alone and find friends. I got dressed, and the fear of that social situation was too much, so I just didn't go. The fear of being bullied or judged made me miss out on a lot of potentially fun times.
Being bullied or the fear of being bullied has informed who I am as a person. "He's so nice. Why is he so quiet?" It's because I'm a 30 year old who's afraid of every new encounter. "Are they safe?" "Will they judge me?" "What do they say about me when they aren't around me?" "Why did he unfriend me? I didn't do anything. What DID I do?"
I'm happy to say my love of music hasn't gone away and it's still a part of my life, but I feel the need to downplay it. It's totally acceptable to be a man and obsessed with sports, proudly display your favorite team on your car, but if you post pictures on social media of musicals you've seen you're "a little much." Why are my passions not equal to yours?
Can we please teach our kids to accept others for their differences in every aspect of the word? I think about myself before I knew of bullies, and think about myself just happily doing "my thing." Whether it was singing at the top of my lungs or being completely ridiculous and silly, developing my sense of humor with not a care in the world. You learn to act normal and hide the things that aren't valued, and I just wish we didn't lose the freedom to be who we are, no matter what we bring to the table.
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