It's not easy to admit one's own shortcomings; to look in the mirror and realize that my insides have not kept up with my outside. My almost-gray sideburns quietly say wisdom to some, but my mind and heart are still just 17 years old, at least today.
My 30th high school reunion is this weekend. And I'm not going. The teenager won this very long and emotionally draining debate about whether to go or not. This almost-49-year-old is going camping.
I'm not interested. Who cares. I don't even remember their names. Who goes to reunions? I'm too busy. I'm not where I wanted to be at this point of my life. My friends probably won't even be there.
These are all of the normal excuses some give to skip seeing their old high school chums every five or 10 years in their home town. But my excuse is none of those.
Mine is more shameful, harder to say. I wish it were more mundane, more ordinary.
I'm not going to my 30th reunion because I am not over it.
I'm not over the bullying.
My mind tells me I have moved on. My heart says, not so fast.
Admitting such a thing, even to myself, is difficult. It opens up the discussion to passers-by, to people that do not know me, to acquaintances, and to friends alike. It gives way to someone I respect tersely telling me to get over it. For those who have been bullied as kids, to the point that it fundamentally screwed with their mind and spirit, it's painfully obvious that the get-over-it advice only brings more shame.
We want to be over it.
We have impressive careers. We have moved on to be whole and productive people. We have paid for cars and impressive houses. We've travelled the world. We have successful relationships, are well-liked and respected in our communities. We have kids who look up to us, for goodness sake. We should be the ones going to the reunion to yuck it up over cocktails and a rubber chicken, if anyone does.
But the kid in me says, no way.
It's hard to argue with a teenager who is stuck in his thinking.
I was systematically bullied from 11 years old until I was 18. To be called faggot nearly every day for years took a toll; a big one. To be frightened in one's own neighborhood, school, and town for that long left scars that even I don't fully understand, even now.
What I do know is that living a good life isn't always enough to right these wrongs.
In the midst of the "It Gets Better" campaign I have quietly nodded my head in agreement. It indeed does get better. Life did go on and barely a human has said a cross word to me in all of these years. The bullying stopped. I achieved. I found happiness, love, and self-acceptance.
The memories indeed fade, but the gut doesn't forget. Mine hasn't anyway.
And that is the deciding factor, as I side with camping over singing the alma mater with the others from the class of 1982.
My gut won't let me go. It's as if it is trying to protect me. And despite my own strong will to be an adult and to make my own decisions, the kid is winning here. God bless him.
We think we know which kids are bullied. They tend to be the ones who look different, act different; the ones that we see picked on by the bigger kids or the cooler kids. But what my experience demonstrates is that many kids suffer from bullies right under our own noses; completely off our individual and collective radar.
Nobody in my life knew I was being bullied when I was a kid, except for the bullies. It was so covert, as if it were a well-orchestrated and slow assassination attempt, that my friends and family had no idea of the suffering.
The smile on my face, the confidence in my step, and my otherwise achieving ways served as a huge distraction to what felt very ugly -- and increasingly shameful.
I do not know why I didn't stand up, fight back, or at least tell an adult.
I wish I had.
Despite 30 years passing since this childhood nightmare ended, it seems like it was yesterday. I can still hear the whispers. Faggot. I can still hear the growl of upperclassmen in unison as I made my way from one class to another. Faggot. I can still see myself hiding in my own school. I can hear them yelling from the bleachers as I made my way in for a layup on the basketball court. Faggot. I can hear the whisper behind me as I stand in the junior high shower. Faggot. I remember peeking out my bedroom window when they'd drive by and yell. I can still see -- and almost feel -- it all.
The irony is that I am not a person who is afraid of much these days. I fear for my kids' safety and well-being. I am afraid of a mass shooting in my little town. I fear global warming. I fear losing my hair and my widening waist line. These are the normal fears of a man my age.
But I am going camping just the same.