On Getting Better

Building onDoc’s bullying post, this:

They see Ellen and Adam Lambert and Neil Patrick Harris. They’re good folks and important public figures, but those are gay celebrities. What are the odds of becoming a celebrity? What kids have a hard time picturing is a rewarding, good, average life for themselves. Becoming Ellen is like winning the lottery. But there are a lot of happy and content lesbians who we don’t see or hear from ever. Those are the people teens need to hear from right now. When a 15-year-old kills himself, he’s saying he can’t picture a future that is decent enough and happy enough to stick around for. Gay adults can show our present lives and help them picture a future.

It gets better. I freely admit as a straight white middle class chick I don’t know jack about the battles LGBT teens face, except from the outside, where I feel profoundly sorry and angry we aren’t making a better world in which they can grow up. I don’t know what it was like being a gay teenager. But I know what it was like being a teenager, period, and a solitary, socially awkward teenager, and I can’t imagine a better message for anybody who feels alone than that.
I saw this girl in the airport two years ago. I’ve never forgotten her face. She was standing beside her parents and two younger boys I assumed were her brothers. They were engaged in a screaming fight over some toy in a bright green box. Her parents were doing that marital guerrilla warfare thing where Dad snaps things like, “No, RITA, you put it there, YOU go get it,” and Mom looks weary. The girl was holding a video game device of some kind, wearing ill-fitting jeans and a pink sweater, her complexion was pockmarked, and she fidgeted with everything, like she was trying to crawl out of her skin or deeper inside it. Her hair was stringy and her expression was one of total misery.
It’s not that she was the first alienated-looking teenager I’d seen in public. I work near a high school and I see them every day in the sandwich place, sitting by themselves, maybe with a book or a laptop or a notebook. But something about her thousand-yard stare, her whole body saying GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE, the picture of completely ordinary dejection she presented made me want to go up to her and hug her and say, “It will get better.”
It will get better. You’ll grow up. Your skin will even out. Your body will become what it’s meant to be. You’ll either figure out clothes or not care that you haven’t figured out clothes. You’ll learn to deal with your Difficult Hair. You’ll have someone teach you makeup, or teach it to yourself, or not give a damn anymore. You’ll be beautiful, in some way you haven’t figured out yet, the way everybody’s beautiful in ways they don’t always know, always.
You’ll find work you love, work that lifts you up and makes you more than you are and you’ll throw yourself into that work and you’ll be good at it. You may not be as successful as you once dreamed, but you’ll be good at it and that will be enough. You’ll find things to fill your extra time, art or music, reading, sports, volunteer work. You’ll get a cat or two or a dog or a fish or a robot hamster or a plant. You’ll go out. You’ll stay in. You’ll find love, and lose it, and find it again. Your days will take a shape you can’t see right now, and they’ll be good days and bad days, like everybody else’s. They won’t be perfect, but you won’t feel they’re wasted.
You’ll go to your high school reunion, and laugh because all those horrible kids who were so mean to you are just people now, and you don’t have to be afraid of them and you don’t have to care what they thought of you then or what they think of you now. One of them will corner you, drunk, in the bathroom, and slur at you that you’ve really changed. You’ll smile and go on your way, not because you’ve forgiven them for their cruelty but because you don’t care anymore. Hating them and feeling sorry for your old self and sorting out who was really to blame for what is so much work, and you’ve got so many other things to do.
You’ll think to yourself, I would not be fifteen again if you put a gun to my head. You’ll think people who say youth is wasted on the young are idiots. You’ll dance on your 30th and 40th birthdays. You’ll glory in your adulthood, in turning the key in the lock of your own apartment or house, in coming home from a job you’ll be doing with your own hands earning money you get to spend however you like. You’ll survive something else tough, a job loss, an illness, a death, and you’ll think about how much stronger you are than you ever thought you’d be. You’ll get knocked down, a lot, because it’s how you learn caution, but you’ll never forget what it felt like to be reckless and you’ll try to live like that as much as anyone possibly can.
Your squabbling siblings? They’ll be people who get the jokes no one else gets, who find things funny that to anyone else sound horrifying. They’ll hold your hand at family funerals. They’ll be your constants in a changing world. Your parents, snapping at each other? You’ll see your father looking at your mother one day and the love in his eyes will take your breath away. You and your family may not ever truly get each other, bone-deep and blood-simple, but you will work through what you don’t get, because shared history has a power best heeded, absent all other impediments.
And speaking of shared history, you’ll have friends you haven’t met yet. God, will you have friends. Friends whose faith will give you faith, whose strength will awe and inspire you, whose company you’ll glory in. You’ll be courageous with them beside you. You’ll laugh so hard your sides hurt. You’ll go to baseball games and football games and plays and farmer’s markets and out to dinner and brunch and to movies and plays together. They’ll come to your parties. You’ll go to theirs. They’ll e-mail you four times a day and you’ll drop everything to answer. You’ll babysit their kids and love that their kids know your names. You’ll pick them up from the airport and they’ll cook for you when you’re sick. They’ll follow your life like a soap opera and you’ll follow theirs. You’ll go for months without speaking but think of them every day. You’ll think, every day, how lucky you are to have found them. You’ll wonder, every day, why they put up with you and sometimes you’ll get down and feel broken and unworthy, and they’ll come around, and they’ll lift you up again.
You’ll fill your house with them whenever you can, and as you’re in the other room getting drinks you’ll hear them laughing and talking. The paint might be peeling and you didn’t get a promotion and nobody’s making enough money, and everybody in the room is fighting some kind of battle every day and so are you, but you’ll hear these people talking and laughingin your home and the love you feel will almost choke you. You’ll feel ten feet tall. You’ll think to yourself, “I have the life I wanted.” And your greatest fear will not be that you’ll never get there but that it will all be taken away.
I don’t know anything about that girl in the airport. Maybe she was a brilliant kid, class president and head cheerleader, having a crappy day. Maybe she just didn’t feel like smiling. Maybe she was some kind of pyro sociopath and was the cause of all her family’s fighting. Maybe she was absolutely fine and that’s just how her face looked. But if I could go back to that day, to that girl, I’d go up to her and tell her exactly what I needed to hear, all those years ago. What everybody needs to hear, when they’re someplace they can’t get out of, when they’re stuck somewhere miserable and can’t see the end of it. When they’ve been knocked down so hard they can’t imagine getting up.
It will get better.
It will get so much better.
A.

10 thoughts on “On Getting Better

  1. pansypoo says:

    butbutbut high school never ends!

  2. Marc says:

    You’ll fill your house with them whenever you can, and as you’re in the other room getting drinks you’ll hear them laughing and talking. The paint might be peeling and you didn’t get a promotion and nobody’s making enough money, and everybody in the room is fighting some kind of battle every day and so are you, but you’ll hear these people talking and laughing in your home and the love you feel will almost choke you.
    Wow – so beautiful and true! I got choked up reading that.

  3. cathyx says:

    Perfectly said. I have had the same thoughts seeing some of the girls at my daughter’s middle school when I have come to pick her up. Some of them seem just like I was at that age, I absolutely know the pain they are feeling. Luckily, so far I haven’t seen that in my daughter yet. I hope I never have to.

  4. hoppy says:

    I wish this could be spoken to every school kid in this country. I know hearing this would have made a big difference in my life at that time.

  5. Adrastos says:

    It didn’t make me cry but it made me proud to be your colleague at First Draft.

  6. zm says:

    I know everyone keeps saying “It gets better” and A, you mention being able to look forward to creating a shared history, but it’s daunting to create a shared history when people can’t get beyond labels that are intended to evoke fear.
    Funny you should mention a story about the girl in the airport who “might have been a pyro.” I had a friend who was occasionally teased about some vague story of getting in trouble for melting something. One day, seeing the sad and pained disgust in her eyes after being teased yet again for something about which, curiously, no one really seemed to know the actual meaning, I waited until the goaders had slunk off to attend to some other shiny object, then casually asked her for the background story. She looked relieved that I cared to even ask at all, that I wasn’t willing to throw her away out of some mistaken, thinly veiled fear, wrapped in knee-jerk hate. Said she:
    “I was about ten years old, already the little scientist, and this one day, some bigger kids and I were sitting around a table with a candle, some matches and a piece of tupperware. The big kids egged me on to set the napkin on fire and dip it into the tupperware so we could all watch plastic melt. Of course the big kids were all scared they’d get in trouble if they did it. But we all wanted to see what it looked like. It was like a harmless but somewhat thrilling science experiment, so we agreed, as kids often do, to let the little kid do it. We were a little freaked when we realized we’d have to scrape it off the table, but we all had something like plausible deniability. No big deal, right? We were just kids.”
    Pretty big f8king difference between an actual, diagnosable pyro and some kids playing mighty morphing games with ubiquitous petroleum products, wouldn’t you agree?
    Stuff like that. Is stifling all of us.
    What would be more important with this kid? Wasting time on reactivity 4ever & ever Amen, or engaging her scientific inclination?
    Let’s look at the perfect storm among religio-bigots, medico-eugenecists, and corporatists. It’s all driven by “there’s not enough to go around” and “how can I make sure there’s more for me (and mine)?”
    This is about the population knock-off game and the U.S. is enthralled with it, to the point of rapid-fear-based processing that only mimics use of the frontal lobes (labels are vewwy twixxy dey are). To wit, the post on Kos the other day about a middle-aged man, crab shack employee, hit (and killed) while riding his bike home from work. Someone in the online local newspaper commented that he was “better off dead.”
    There are two “resource focused” solutions floating around out there. Only one includes people who are different. The other is the one where the sociopaths run the show. Every day it’s worth asking, which model do I support by way of my actions?

  7. zm says:

    What’s more – to the issue of focusing on the individual about the inconsequential – we have the means to do so and we’ve even bought into the notion that this is the most productive use of our time. However, I would wager a tidy sum that this is our collective fallback position (with a heaping a la carte serving of denial), since we, as a society, feel so powerless to reign in the mighty. We accept their distractive finger-pointing and they are all too happy to continue their Rovian projections, and thereby divide and conquer.
    After all, our little kid pyro was just a kid.
    Meanwhile, we have a bunch of unaccountable, mostly namely, faceless adults running an assortment of mad scientist experiments in every facet of our lives: the financial & housing markets, our food, water and medicine, the job market, our social lives and our freedom of expression (to name a few). These are adults. What’s their excuse?
    We must necessarily be disciplined enough to question these hyperfocused pick-apart sessions on individuals and instead, direct our energies to reforming systems, institutions and policies within which we must all build our personal and interconnected niches.
    But that’s the harder work and it entails at least a tad more personal risk.
    If you fall into the trap of pretending you’re not human, TPTB will be all to happy to add, “agreed, and on what basis do you claim any rights?”

  8. Maitri says:

    I was bullied in high school, alienated to outright depression, but it didn’t make me jump off a bridge. Some think that Dharun Ravi and his girlfriend ought to be held responsible for Clementi’s death. I don’t, but do feel that they have to do some time for invading the guy’s privacy as well as causing extreme emotional anguish. Another question to be asked here is if Ravi would have done the same thing if Clementi were hooking up with a girl. We need a pretty honest and mature justice system to figure this one out.

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