Saturday, October 6, 2012

If Your Colors Were Like My Dreams

My mother likes email. It's almost a condition.

Seriously. It appears that she spends several hours each and every day carefully curating her collection of incoming e-mail. Mom crafts mailing lists of people with similar interests and sends out a daily dispatch of information that people might like to know. I even have my own category: of interest to you.

So the other day in my daily dispatch I received this petition.
My son Ryan has been a Boy Scout since he was 6 years old, and now, a few days before his 18th birthday, he has fulfilled all the requirements to be an Eagle Scout. But because Ryan recently came out to his friends and family as gay, leaders from our local Boy Scout troop say they won't approve Ryan's Eagle award.
None of this is surprising as the Boy Scouts have reaffirmed their anti-gay policies over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. Preventing Ryan from becoming an Eagle Scout is consistent with their stated policy. It shouldn't come as a surprise to both Ryan and his mother that this has happened.

This blog post, however, isn't really about the Boy Scouts or Ryan Andersen. The email from my mother transported me back to Zellers Elementary School

In either fifth or sixth grade music class we had to research a band we liked and give a presentation about that band. Classmates picked the popular bands of the time. Unbeknownst to me, it was important to pick the right kind of popular bands. Liking certain kinds of music in my school allowed you to fit in with the crowd and be considered likable. I recall presentations about Quiet Riot, Journey, and Def Leppard. That's what the in-crowed liked (or at least pretended to like).

Being a young iconoclast and being totally unlike the other boys, I took the road less traveled. I never picked the things that were popular in school. It was like everyone except me received a popularity decoder ring.

I was enthralled with British and Euro-Pop music in grade school. This was not a "cool kid" approved preference. As you might imagine, I took some flack for my presentation on Boy George in my rather conservative suburban elementary school in Strongsville Ohio. I even took flack from my teachers.

Mr. Smith sporting some short-shorts.
At some point in sixth grade, my classroom teacher Joe Smith and music teacher Eric Richardson, called my parents in for a special conference. They were concerned that I wasn't like the other boys. Too sensitive, they said. When pressed by my parents about what too sensitive means, they explained they were concerned that I might be gay. "When he gets to middle school he will be eaten alive by the other boys."

"Have him join the Boy Scouts," they implored my parents. "It'll toughen him up."

Smart thinking, eh? He might be gay. Change who he is. That'll work. Not once did it occur to these men that I might need to be nurtured and protected. Not once did it occur to them I might need to be equipped with skills at managing bullying. Nope. Just change him. That'll fix the problem.

I wasn't at the meeting. My parents, as I am told, unleashed their own particular brand of wrath upon these teachers. There was always one thing that was clear with my parents: there was always space to be exactly who I was. Getting in the way of my process of self-discovery wasn't a wise thing for an educator to do. My parents ate those sorts of educators alive.

To this day, I think those two men trying to impose a certain way of being a young man upon me was the most heinous and grievous act of violence that educators have ever perpetrated upon me. Rather than support me, encourage me, and protect me in my own process of growth and discovery, they attempted to shame and guilt me into being someone other than who I was.

Of course, they didn't really know who I was. They just had a feeling that whoever I was, wasn't the right kind of boy to be.

They wanted to give me that popularity decoder ring. Be like the other boys. Fit in. Conform.

In a way, Smith and Richardson were right. I was eaten alive in junior high. Those three years were some of the most unpleasant years of my life. I also wouldn't have had it any other way. In the midst of the horror show known as junior high, I found some real educators who nurtured, encouraged, and protected me. I can think of three teachers who helped give me another kind of decoder ring: the kind that eventually helped me discover who I am.

There is nothing more powerful than dreaming and living in the colors of  my own dreams. I needed Smith and Richardson to see me, give me the tools to be me, and create a protected place so I could grow into that man. I didn't need them to tell me who to be.

If they could see me now they'd probably still want me to be someone other than who I am. Rather than eat them alive, I think I might like to put on a top hat and sing this:

1 comment:

  1. Jason, Your mom is cracking me up again.

    Even though your teachers were missing the mark, it's nice they seemed to care enough to not want you to go through hard times. Of course, it's awesome your parents were so supportive of you.

    When I was in elementary school, I know of at least one teacher who joked about an out-of-the-ordinary behavior I tended to exhibit. She and my mom and my mom's best friend (the moms were volunteers at the school) would apparently poke fun of me behind my back.

    My mom told me about this when I was still fairly young. It's sad to know they were making fun of me. I'm sure they assumed the behavior was a silly way to get attention. Looking back, I think it was a precursor to self injury.

    I loved what you wrote about teachers nurturing, encouraging and protecting students. I wish more teachers saw that as part of their role as educators.

    It seemed to me when I was in school that the teachers were always enamored with the popular kids. By the time I reached high school, I was an invisible student.

    When I think about how much pain I was enduring during high school and how mentally/emotionally sick I was, it makes me sad knowing no one cared. No teacher bothered to help me figure out how to make high school a more positive, fun experience.

    People underestimate the power they have to help other people. Sometime the littlest gestures make the biggest impacts.

    Great post. Hopefully it will make people think about what they can do to support the kids in their own life.