Forty for Forty – #22. It Gets Better

In the original ‘Back to the Future‘, a teen travels back 30 years – from 1985 to 1955; a time when people listened to weird music and dressed real strange. If they were to remake that movie now (and bite my tongue because you know it’s inevitable); anyway – today’s Marty McFly would flash back 30 years to 1982; a time when people listened to weird music and dressed real strange. The bullies would have a field day.

That thought; more than any other – makes me realize just how much sand has sifted through my hourglass. Yeah – the big 4-0 is standing tall above this post – and the 21 I’ve published before it – but because I feel pretty good for a guy my age AND feel more confident in myself than almost any other time in my life, the actual digits barely register. Sure, I carry my own share of insecurities that will likely dodge me ’til my dying day but somewhere along the line I just tuned them out like so much white noise. That’s the little perk that comes with age. When your worldly concerns grow in scale and you realize you are responsible – on a minute by minute basis – for the heath and well-being of two actual living, breathing lives; all foolish self-doubts suddenly lose their hold over you.

But man – it took me a long time to realize that. If I could make the fantasy a reality and take the quantum leap back to the mid-80’s; as I stood between the portal separating Middle School from High School – I’d track myself down, risking all possible havoc to the space-time continuum and just offer up one simple message.

“It Gets Better.”

It Gets Better‘ is an Internet-based project founded by Dan Savage and Terry Miller, a gay couple who were stirred to action after reading story upon story of gay teens committing suicide to avoid the horrible bullying that had plagued their lives.  Savage’s idea was inspired. Of the project he wrote:

“I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.”

I’m not gay. But over the years – as my circle of friends has grown wider and more diverse – I have befriended countless people who are gay. And you know what – it’s NEVER been the focus of the conversation. That’s just the way I’m hard-wired. Since every person on this planet is a unique individual – each one of us different from the next person – I don’t lump people into groups. The only classifications I care about are “friends” and “family” and so often, the lines between those designations blur. My friends are my family and my family – my friends. And among my family and friends, I have countless numbers of people who would say they are “gay” or “straight”; even if that’s not how I define them.

Every single one of them is just who they are… very near and dear to me. That’s the only classification I care about. That’s the other thing that happens to you when you get older. If you don’t get hard and bitter, you get warm and nostalgic. I’m in the latter camp and if there is any treasure I covet above all, it is my friends and family. That’s half the reason I started this Forty for Forty project in the first place. To tell them all a little bit more about me and to let them all know just how much they’ve added to crafting the man I am today.

So, no I’m not gay and I don’t segregate any of my friends and family who may be but I wouldn’t be completely honest if I didn’t admit my mind hasn’t wandered from time to time – imagining what it must have been like to have been in their shoes growing up. See – I was bullied. No, it never killed me and eventually, I burst from my shell and just shrugged it off and let myself be me – but there is a solid chunk of years (let’s call it 7th Grade through 10th) where I worried more about the people who seemingly despised me than those who truly cared.

I had a great core group of friends – with whom I enjoyed all the usual boyhood exploits (from action figures to Star Wars flicks to backyard Whiffle Ball games) but in school; among the more popular kids, I was painfully shy. Coming from modest means, I didn’t have the latest fashions and even if I had the cash to bankroll a new wardrobe, I didn’t have much sense for that anyway (as I clearly proved when I got my own job and began dressing myself in MC Hammer knock-offs. When Chess King was sacked, I never shed a single tear. I needed that!). Those two personal attributes conspired to label me the outcast and it sucked.

Anyone who knows me now probably finds this hard-to-believe. I haven’t really changed that much. The guy I am today was in me all along but I had no confidence to show people the real me. I kept it bottled up. I quietly went from class to class and tried my best to fade into the woodwork. I got decent grades but I never rose my hand in class. I feared being called upon. If we were going desk by desk, reading parts of a passage or solving the next equation on the chalkboard, I would count the number of seats until it got to me, calculate the average time per student and then gaze at the clock in hopes time would elapse before I had to raise my voice. And I was always on the losing end of that – and always had to speak up – and it was always painful. I did not want the spotlight and it wasn’t because I didn’t like speaking out. It’s because I had been ridiculed enough for no good reason aside from just being me – a quiet, shy, nice guy who simply didn’t dress the best – and after enough of that, you develop a shell, install a perimeter and perfect your defense mechanisms. And of course, they almost always break down.

And you never think it’s going to change. Day after day of that kind of pressure just erodes your will. And yes, I will cop to the fact, that from time to time – at some point in my early teens – the thought would surface in my head. “If I were dead, they’d miss me.” I never went down that path – it was always just a fleeting thought that I killed as quickly as it rose. After all, I was a wimp. I hated pain. I was petrified of the ball when playing sports and as anyone who has ever patrolled right field hoping against hope that the ball never comes to them knows only all too well; those bastardly baseballs smell fear and will track you down. So, there’s was never an instant where I thought I’d follow that path but there were plenty of nights where I’d lay my weary head down upon my pillow, feeding that pit in my stomach with those teasing thoughts. And then – I’d come back to reality by reminding myself that if I did happen to expire, I’m the only one who wouldn’t get to see the funeral and hear all the nice things people had to say about me. Extreme narcissism may have saved my life. 🙂

I’ve covered this ground before but finally – somewhere between my Junior and Senior years of High School, I burst from the shell kicking and screaming and never looked back. Among my close-knit group of friends, I always had the courage to say what I felt and I lived to make them laugh. My problem was bringing that act to a bigger stage. Towards the end of my Junior Year, I began working at Papa Gino’s – which employed a nice cross-section of kids from the High School. We all came from different social strata but once you start working together with people, those class lines dissolve. You see each other more than some of the other kids in school and since most of us had a newly minted license to drive – it became a Friday night ritual to head out for late night Chinese or a movie after the shift. And for me – with my newfound confidence collaborating with this growing group of caring compadres – the chips started to fall nicely in place. Sometimes, all it takes is a little positive reinforcement.

I mentioned this a number of times on these pages but it bares repeating. I credit my High School friend Jay with my resurrection. There’s no way he could have ever known it either – certainly not at the time. I don’t think Jay noticed anything different and it’s not like he did anything Herculean or superhuman. He just wanted to hang with me – and the two of us cracked each other up – and in turn, we had a growing group of friends shared among us – and those last two years in school became true glory years. As far as he was concerned, I was always like that. And at the time, it didn’t really register. It wasn’t until I got some mileage between then and now that I could look back and pinpoint the moment I let myself be me.

Jay was an outgoing guy – well liked among our peers. He had a wicked sense of humor and a little bit of class clown in him; and he was the sensitive type too. The irony to all of this is that way back when Jay first came to town, he and I clashed. One day in 7th Grade, I was trying to get a book in the library. He grabbed it from me. I tried to take it back and he punched me in the face; giving me my first and only black eye. I refused to divulge who did it when the teachers pressed me for a name for fear of worse retribution. That was just one more lesson learned – stay away from that guy.

But life has a cool sense of irony. Years later, I began hanging with Jay. He’s a funny guy and I took to that. Then my true personality surfaced. As I started getting a few laughs, the next thing I knew, time had flown and I was having fun. Confidence kicked in and from the remainder of that Junior Year throughout all of my Senior semesters, I was the real me once and for all. And I enjoyed every last minute of those final, fleeting days. Then when I got to college, I really flourished – and the only victims left in my story are the rest of you subject to my weekly posts and daily Status Updates.

That’s why I believe, “It Gets Better.

Now, I’m not naive. My concerns pale in comparison to the extremes of bullying. A lot of my issues were created in my mind. I clammed up because people said mean things to me. There are others out there on the business end of violence or just dealing with the ever-present threat of brutality and that is a whole different treacherous landscape to traverse; one that would break anybody. And nobody should ever have to walk that path. Not alone. Not ever!!!

I am the father to two young children; one of whom was very early on diagnosed on the Autistic Spectrum. Colin has made enormous strides since then and he is universally liked in his school but I remind myself that it is early yet. He’s still in elementary school where for the most part, everyone is friends with everyone else. While he has made some major strides in his social-emotional development; standing leagues beyond where he started from and simply rocketing through the stratosphere of where I thought he’d be at this point; I think he’ll always harbor a sensitivity… a shyness in certain situations. And he’ll always have his quirks. And that’s what I love about him.

And that’s what fuels my worst fears. See, aside from me being a quiet guy with the wrong brand of sneakers, I was pretty much the textbook definition of “normal” and yet – that’s all that was needed to attract the sharks. Dip the needle a little further to the left and sometimes that’s blood in the water. I hope against hope that my fears are baseless. That we are turning the page and charting a brave new world where bullying gets pushed to extinction. But, I remind myself – we of the evolved brain can so often be our own worst enemy; knocking each other down just because there’s nothing better to do.

I could handle myself. I kept quiet never saying a word to my parents as a kid and I made it through and honestly, where I stand now, my life’s been beautiful. No complaints. I have a pretty cool present that wouldn’t be half as rich were it not for all of my life’s experiences. I needed the good times and the bad to make me the man I am today and if I met me on the street, I’d say “Hello”. I think I’m a decent sort, cut from the right cloth, and have a good head on my shoulders. Bullying never killed me – likely made me stronger – but should never have been encountered. Not by me. Not by anyone!!! It doesn’t do the body good. It can kill the spirit.

But it gets better. It really does. I promise!!!

But wouldn’t it be better if we never had to comfort anyone with those words ever again.

Comments now closed (6)

  • Love it Ed! Bullying can be spirit-breaking to some kids and as a parent it hurts to see or hear your kids being treated that way!

  • Great piece and I think more people (including myself) experienced this when growing up. Like you said it stinks going through it but like you said it makes you stronger and as time goes by you learn to be sure in yourself and who you are.

  • Nice piece Ed. I think a lot of us went through some of that same stuff in middle and high school. I certainly did. Luckily we all came out the other side okay, but as you point out, not everyone does. “It Gets Better” sounds like a great cause. We don’t have time machines but we do have experience to pass along. The hope is when we do it is heard for the better.

    Also, they already did make that 80’s movie; it is called Hot Tub Time Machine!