During my sophomore year at Fountain Valley High School, I had broken away from the rampaging acne and the stigma of being a freshman. Still in the throws of awkwardness, I had not cemented myself with any one group. I had a few friends from the previous tour in marching band. I had begun to plant some roots in the theater and choir classes.
Actually the quiet kid who was uncomfortable in social situations, I made very few friends in my academic classes. I had little success in core subject matter.
Outside of high school, I was entrenched in community and junior college theater productions. The efforts of building sets, designing costumes, and character development forged bonds. There were no cliques as we were one tight unit.
Without the collective, I struggled socially at school. Mr McNamara’s class had a singular appeal. Literature. An older man, Mr McNamara was almost completely bald with a full beard and a mouth that never smiled. His lectures were dazzling. The overhead projector sat in the corner that had never needed to be removed from the dust cover. I sat on the right side of the class second seat from the front. The back two rows had various athletes. The football players were boisterous except for when it came to answering Mr McNamara’s questions.
Perched on a stool at a tall desk, Mr McNamara spent his non-lecture time grading papers or reading ahead.
Chronically late from his previous class, Mr McNamara was a driving instructor in the days that public schools controlled that rite of passage.
A month into the school year, I noticed the football players having conversations about a gay student. “He is so gay. So gay!” This guy had stirred up a hornet’s nest. I had no dog in this fight. I was just glad it wasn’t me in their crosshairs.
The next day, this “homo” had set them off, once more, until Mr McNamara entered the class and the football players settled in for their predictable, vegetative state. Mr McNamara fired up into a dynamic lecture that inspired me to want to read something besides a script.
The following week, Mr McNamara was running late. The circle of testosterone surged. A particularly large and broad fore headed fellow looked towards me. I had not really paid any attention to the football player since I was focused on the doorway. His eye brows lifted up and his eyes were on fire with rage. As he catapulted his insult directly at me, his canine teeth showed like the fangs of a bear. His Southern California blond mullet seem to stand up like the hackles of an arctic wolf. In disgust. “F****t!” Like the Hulk, his physique expanded and become menacing.
“ME!?!?!” I questioned internally. The gay student was me? “I am not gay. Baffled and shaken, I turned and pretended to read until Mr McNamara arrived.”
Pronounced in my memory was the time I left after school rehearsal to walk to the nearby Taco Bell. Other cast members had dinner or went to other places. With my extra large coke and Nacho Bell Grande, I headed back on my way to the high school. Going over my lines and blocking in my head, my gaze cast towards the ground. In an instant, my concentration was broken by the movement of two linebackers in full stride in my direction. My heart skipped a beat when I saw it was the blond knuckle dragger from Mr McNamara’s class. His sidekick was equally as ginormous yet always had an evil grin when he shot daggers at me.
I had never done anything to these guys. In fact, I had not even spoken a word to either of them.
Both of their faces lit up as they saw I was alone and headed into their domain. In unison, like it had been planned, they split to both edges of the sidewalk. Forced to walk between them, I thought I had no option. Committed to not be intimidated, I carried forward with my fear tucked deep into my pocket. My eyes cloaked in mirrored shades, I hoped my panic was veiled.
In perfect synchronicity, each dude through out their elbows knocking my drink and nachos all over the ground and my pants.. In an act of despair, I screamed at both of them. The blond neanderthal showed nothing but pure contempt and adulation to have gotten me to react. His twisted sidekick cackled and puffed out his arms. “YOU JERKS!”
My heart in my throat, I thought maybe I could… I didn’t know what I could do. As I took in their reactions and physical stature, there was no scenario that would allow for me to save dignity. I would have ended up face down spread out all over the concrete like my nachos. The guys stood next to each other like a wall of primal adrenaline. I turned and walked away. Careful to listen for any sign of being followed, I was ready to bolt to the high school office building. The parking lot and property line were a thirty second sprint. I calculated these guys smashed quarterbacks into the ground for fun. I would be no challenge but they relished in my fear. The blond lug nut appeared to take joy. I got to the safety of the band hall and washed off the liquid cheese that decorated my legs. I had to scrub my shoes. While my appearance had no remnants of what happened, my soul would remain stained.
I told no one. This is the first acknowledgement of the incident in my life. I have carried this secret for over twenty-seven years.
As an adaptive and subconscious motivation, I avoided any interaction with these football players. Instead of walking into class by myself, I went to the Driving Instruction classroom and walked with Mr McNamara. I acted like I had questions about the assignment. I only walked certain routes and knew of outside doors. I left classes early or arrived late to keep from going near the gym or public lockers.
I had class with the quarterback. Jason looked like Val Kilmer in Top Gun. Like Iceman, Jason was keenly smart, a genuinely nice guy, and a natural leader. I think I could have confided in him as I saw him as a ally. He knew me. He knew I wasn’t gay. I trusted my instincts that the group of males would not be swayed by the truth. Reason would do little. Their minds appeared to be made up. Of course, their venom tainted my opinion of their capacity to listen or experience compassion for anyone not like them.
I was not insulted by the label of gay. Friends in theater were openly gay and I thought of them no differently. What had me scared was the increased vitriol and I would always be vigilant after the physical confrontation.
Like all teenagers, I couldn’t leave well enough alone.
I was not homosexual but I decided to instigate a little. Ok, instigate flamboyantly. Mr McNamara assigned students to present a speech where we taught a skill by demonstrating the task. Our presentations had to be outlined and scripted. I had recently performed at a UIL competition. I had memorized the piece where I was a dog with a big spot around his eye and a little puppy nose.
The day of my presentation, I had everything I needed. I introduced myself, set up a mirror, and explained the process of putting on stage make up. I heard the guys in the back gasp as I put on black eye liner. I knew they would hemorrhage as I put on lip stick. I explained the types of make up and the strategy to accentuate features to aid in conveying expressions. I began to apply a grey “pancake” make up and drew a black spot around my right eye. I stopped applying the make up to describe how I memorize scripts. I glanced at the back rows and the football players were seething that I flaunted myself in front of them. I quickly finished up my make up, put on a hoodie with black velvet dog ears tacked to my head and performed a section of the piece. “Thank you,” I said as I gathered make up sponges and returned to my seat.
As other students presented, I wiped off the make up. The dark energy from the back rows radiated. I walked out with Mr McNamara and ducked down a hallway to the theater room. As I cold creamed off the make up, I weighed the consequences of my decision. “Did I just embolden those guys to beat the hell out of me?” I was an office aide so I wrote out excused absence slips for the rest of my classes for the day. I hid under the tech booth in the theater room. and listened to my Walkman. I felt like a rabbit that could dart out or around trees to get away from a pack of wolves.
I seem to slip from one protective cover to the next. To this day, I do not think anyone was aware of the extent I went through to keep from encountering any one of that group. I had access to the attendance in order to know which guys were in certain buildings. I never took highly traveled passages.
I dug into theater and choir. I planted myself into the environment to gain strength.
Senior year, I was the stage manager for the dance production. At Huntington Beach High School’s theater building, I had been in numerous productions over the past four years. I knew the layout including the entrances and exits. All of the girls had learned to trust me. If they asked for something, I made it happen. As they got ready, one of them told me some guys tried to get in to the Green Room. The Stage Manager has to be in control of the production’s success. I charged through the backstage and Green Room to the outside door. The door began to open and I grabbed the handle. I stepped partially out. “There are girls changing. You cannot come in.” I firmly stated. My pupils focused upon the figures standing in the shadows. It was the group of football players from two years ago. As I shut the door, “Go back to the locker room and watch each other change. You are not coming back here. I will call the police!” When I slammed the metal door and locked it, It was as if I had closed the door on their torment.
It would not have mattered if I had been gay. I was different than their image of the “norm”. They were bullies. I hated them. I have a friend I made in eighth grade. He was one of my groom’s men and has never been aware of this facet of my days at Fountain Valley High School. The choir and theater rooms were safe places. I worked with the office to make sure I never had classes with any of those dangerous individuals. I shutter to think of their other victims.
I obviously carried some form of shame over the years. No matter that I was not homosexual, the fear of ridicule and violence shackled a part of me. Since I didn’t have someone I could trust to handle this precarious powder keg, I controlled my choices. From doing a mental inventory of any baggage I carried from days passed, the incidents from Mr McNamara’s class came to the surface recently. This story doesn’t have a tidy ending. Even at a twenty year reunion, the theater/choir stayed in their cliques.
I am grateful for the safety I had from my brothers & sisters I made on and back stage. Being in theater allowed me a safe place to bond with people from different backgrounds, make mistakes to grow into better individuals, and to accept who I am.
Everyone deserves a place to be safe. Not just feel safe but truly be free from oppression. It could be a relationship, workplace, or a neighborhood, my experience has shown how the empowerment gained can set a spirit free to soar. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, we all have the ability for a second or maybe even a seventh chance to get away from those bullies.
Those guys saw me and decided they knew exactly who and what I was because I was quiet. Judge and jury, I was found guilty of being gay. I cannot conceive what I would have felt if I was secretly homosexual. I could go home and not fear my parents, family, or friends. For that hour a day, five days a week, I was queer in their eye.
Perhaps that influenced my choice to not judge anyone for the labels placed on them.
As I type these words, I feel like I have released a beast of burden. No longer tearing at my insides, I hope that sharing this intensely private aspect can encourage anyone who works with children to look past what motivates a student’s behavior. Maybe someone can put the pieces of a puzzle together. I may have taken the path of silence and escape, I am stronger now. As a teacher, I did what I could to picture what each student’s life was like at home and school.
I don’t know if there was a realistic intervention that would have stopped the bullying. I had nothing to prove to the bullies. I did manifest my own sense of security by trusting my instincts. Later in life, I could be the open hand to someone in need. While I am nervous about the reaction to this post, breaking my silence only makes me stronger.