In my earliest memory, I’m three and hunched behind a blue exercise mat, masquerading as a stage curtain. My parents have paused dinner preparation for a sneak peek at my latest theatrical original, always here for one night only. I hit play on the boombox, click on the nightlight illuminating the side walls, and saunter from the back of the “curtain.” Then I dance, spinning in circles, mouthing every syllable. I dance blissfully unaware of menacing social conventions and gender norms. I wave my arms louder than the chorus of hushes that will soon haunt my daydreams. I’m a beautiful boy, garrulous and gay.
Then I remember the day the music stopped. The music, the joy and my sense of pride vanished in fourth grade. My mother’s adoring eyes watched me board the school bus, only to be greeted by the narrowing eyes of strangers. First one, then two, hostile pushes off the school bus. I’d hear my words echo back to me unsolicited with an exaggerated lisp. Some teachers intervened while it felt like others shared the same sentiment. As the months went on, my parents paid multiple visits to the school as a patch solution on a sinking ship.
The more I resisted, the more it felt like my body was betraying me. The real me was bursting at the seams. To stay safe, I constructed a mask that often slipped when my natural state returned.
My gesticulating hand movements and lisp, which felt like an untameable beasts, were merely youthful innocence. It felt like every flamboyant outburst was punished, with unpredictable trips that sent me skidding across the playground.
Sometimes I’d cover my ears and transport myself to Sanibel Island in Florida with my parents, building sandcastles that towered to the tip of my forehead. And if the tears reached my lips, I’d pretend they were splashes of ocean water that my sister had directed my way. I had to.
Words have the power to rob a young heart of hope. Grade four was the year I lost a love with myself. Life’s hardest lessons came at me fast, the most important being that in order to stay the safest, I needed to become a chameleon.
I’m a 33-year-old man, and I still remember the bullies names, even their surnames. I checked their Facebook pages last week. I needed to know if they’ve changed. Jeff, Matthew and Andrew have young families now, their children a few calendar years away from the age at which I learned where to hide. I’ve learned to forgive them and ask for the same from those who I took it out on: friends, exes, coworkers, but most brutally myself.
Luckily there’s a power that comes from struggle. It’s the silver lining from days when it seemed like it would never end. The uniqueness of my experience has given me a front-row seat to pain and has built a desire to help lessen it, not just for myself but for others. I just wish I hadn’t wasted thirty years learning that I never should have had to.
Jordan Power is the co-host of Shame On You Podcast, which he founded with his best friend and which is growing rapidly worldwide, with listeners in 53 countries. Having sold out several live shows, the duo will tour North America later this year.