Yesterday, I was at the gym.
... Don't worry. This isn't a gym story. This is a story about a boy who needed to hear something important. But it happened at the gym. So that's why I started with the bit about being in the gym. If you were hoping for a gym story... Well, you could call this one if you really wanted to. And if you hate gym stories, you don't have to worry, the ones calling it a gym story are just really desperate for a gym story.
Anyway, I was at the place the story happened which was the gym. And I was working out, as I am usually doing while I'm at the gym. And as happens over the years spent going to the same gym, relationships form and people get to know each other, and groups form and jokes are shared and camaraderie takes place. And it was the same this day.
I was talking with a group of folks who are regularly in during the afternoons on Saturday. Among them was a 14-year-old boy named Bradley (not his real name). He's a great kid. He's been coming to the gym with his parents for the past two or so years. While his parents walk around the track upstairs, he spends his time learning how to lift weights with us big guys. When he first started, he was wiry and awkward. He's still pretty awkward; being a teenager and all. But us big guys, we set him on a good path to maintain a healthy level of fitness.
We were cutting up and laughing. The guys made fun of me for liking hockey. "That's a Canadian sport, isn't it?" one asked. "What are you, part Canadian?"
"Only the part that likes real sports," I replied. "And maple syrup."
"I still don't get why you don't like college football," another asked. "You're in Georgia. SEC is bigger than NFL here."
"What can I say?" I asked. "Southerners like their little league sports. I prefer watching pros."
And so it goes, about the same way every Saturday. The topics change -- what cars are best, what sports are better than other sports, what teams are better than other teams, what shows are better than other shows (but never politics or religion -- something you learn really fast in a gym is to never bring up the two topics most likely to incite violence in a building filled with metal bars and heavy plates). Someone has a divergent interest, everyone else jumps on it, and laughs are had. And invariably, the topic turns to girls.
Husbands laugh about the young singles and their stories about weekend endeavors. Singles laugh at the guys stuck at home with their ball and chain. Whispers are shared about which girls in the gym are hot; warnings are issued by the more experienced about the dangers of dating people from your gym or your job (short version: it doesn't matter how hot the guy or girl is, it's stupid. Unless marriage is assured, don't do it).
One of the guys asked Bradley if he had a girlfriend. If there were dirt on the gym floor, he'd have been kicking it.
"Nah, no girlfriend," he replied.
"Young strapping lad like you? Nonsense," I said, knowing fully well that not only did he not have a girlfriend, he'd have absolutely no clue what to do with one if he did. Because I was him once. But as a grown up looking out for a younger kid, you have to act like it's completely ridiculous that girls don't flock to him. It's the right thing to do.
"I asked a girl out to the spring dance," he said. He then said something that hit me hard. "She called me lame and said, 'That's why you don't have any friends. Because you're weird.'"
The words rang in my head. Those exact words -- I remember hearing them. A lot. He didn't explain why she thought he was weird. He didn't have to. I knew the feeling very, very well.
Then one day, Mike got tired of my bullshit and said those words to me. "That's why you don't have any friends," he said at very high volume. He deserved to say it -- I'd just told him to go fuck himself when he tried to explain why my girlfriend at the time was screwing someone behind my back. I called him every name in the book. So he bailed and joined up with Walter and Jay, while I spent the last few weeks of my high school career alone. Even the furry had more friends than I did.
And now, 17 years later, life is fantastic. I belong to a studio full of amazing people who were all weird, just like me. I get to meet freaks from across the nation who all love anime and comics, just like me. I get to talk to people who read my weird stories about my weird life and relate to it, because just like me, they're weird.
There are thousands -- no, hundreds of thousands -- of us. All weird. All strange. All over, everywhere.
We all went to school and hated everyone because they didn't understand us. We dealt with the bullying and the isolation and the feeling that we were the weird ones. You want to know what's weird? Spending hundreds of dollars on clothes and shoes and purses that everyone else thinks is cool. Spending hours of your life doing things that everyone else is doing because it's cool. Liking the bands that everyone else likes because you're a loser if you don't.
You want to know what's weird? Hiding who you are just to have the company of people you don't even like. That's weird.
I looked him straight in the eye. My normally grinning mouth turned stern. With as serious a tone as I could muster, I said "Listen to me, okay? What I'm about to say is something I want you take in and think about and really hold on to."
He nodded. "Okay, he said."
"This isn't just conversation, this is important," I said. "You listening?"
He nodded again. "I'm listening," he replied with a look that convinced me that he was.
I took a deep breath. "Right now, you're in high school in a small suburban town," I started.
He nodded. I continued:
Everyone you know looks the same and acts the same. They may dress differently from each other or belong to different crowds, but they're all the same. Hipsters, brainiacs, jocks, so-called 'geeks' -- they're all so caught up with not being left out that they're changing who they are to fit in with whoever it is that will accept them.
When you show up and you're not like that, it scares them. They don't know what to do with you, because they have no idea what it's like to think for themselves. So they try to make you feel like the loser, because there's more of them doing what they're doing than there are of you. In such a small group of small minds, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.
To them, you are weird, but weird is good. No, screw that -- weird is great! Being weird to someone just proves that you are being you, which is the most important thing you can ever be. There's nothing wrong with you. There's something wrong with them. They can't understand what it's like to be themselves, much less what it's like to be you."
He smiled a little. "You really think that?" he asked.
I laughed. "Dude, look at me!" I said. "I'm 300 pounds of ex-football player covered in cartoon and comic book tattoos, who builds websites and tours the world talking to people about his anime cel collection. Trust me, I know all about being weird."
He shrugged and said "It just sucks, you know?"
"Oh, I know," I said with a smile. "And here's the little bit of bad news -- It's gonna suck for a little while longer. But one day, you'll get out of school and go somewhere besides the small town you're in and you're going to discover that there are groups of people just like you -- not that they do what you do or act how you act, but that they refused to change who they are to fit in, and that makes them just like you. And when you find them, you're finally going to feel at home.
"It might be college, or it might be visiting another city. Hell, it might even be on the internet. But at some point you're going to find them. And it's going to be great."
He smiled. "That would be awesome," he said.
"It will be awesome!" I replied. "But until then, it's going to be lonely and frustrating. You're going to do stupid things thinking it's going to impress them or change their opinion of you, and it won't, and you're going to get sad. Just know that it does end. It ends the day you realize that you never wanted to be them in the first place, because they are losers. They lost the battle to be themselves. You're the winner."
I paused for a second, because it had just occurred to me that, at some point during my little motivational speech, his parents had walked up and were waiting a short distance behind him. I presumed it was to give him enough space to let the conversation be his own, but I knew they had heard me, because when I looked at them, they both nodded and smiled.
So I put the cap on the whole thing: "And I know your parents are right there, but I'm going to say it anyway: Fuck. Them."
I kept my eyes on him, but could see just behind him that his mom reacted a little to my vulgarity. His dad placed his hand on her shoulder and just let it be.
The guys in the group all nodded and agreed with me, and began talking to him about their perspectives on the situation (which, in previous conversations over the years, I knew to be similar to mine). His parents came up to me and thanked me for talking to him.
"He just thinks the world of you guys," his mom said. "He talks about coming here all the time to work out with you."
"He really needed to hear that," his dad said. "We try to tell him that high school is just that way, but you know how it is..."
"No teenager wants to listen to his parents," I said. "Hell, I'm an adult and I still don't."
They both laughed.
"He's a great kid," I said. "He's going to be just fine in a few years."
"Well, thank you," the dad said. "It means a lot."
"Hey," I said with a shrug, "That's what we're here for. We're his friends."
* * *