The other day I made a contribution to It Gets Better, an organization that aims to help LGBT teenagers deal with bullying they encounter at school because of their sexual orientation. My small donation will not make much of a difference, enough perhaps to buy a book for a school library, not even worth mentioning except as a way to talk about the project.
The idea is simple: provide a platform which makes available through videos and text the experiences of thousands of other LGBT people who themselves were bullied when young because of their sexual orientation and survived to lead a happier life of love, acceptance and self-fulfillment: “The It Gets Better Project wants to remind teenagers in the LGBT community that they are not alone — and it will get better.” Right now there are over 50,000 videos, uploaded by all sorts of people, athletes, singers, writers, and actors, but mostly women and men whose names you wouldn’t know. Allies as well. Obama did a video, Hillary Clinton did one, too. I wish it had been around when I was a teenager.
After I made my donation, It Gets Better wrote back saying, “If you haven’t already done so, please record a video message or submit your written story of how your life got better.”
I was 12 and new at school. We’d just moved out of the city and into an unremarkable working class suburb. I didn’t think there was anything remarkable about me, either. I mean, nothing worth making remarks about. I was a short skinny kid with good grades who was awkward around girls and uncomfortable in large groups. I realized I was different from the other boys in my class but I was sure this was something only I knew (and even I didn’t know what this difference really meant at the time). I had liked my previous school and had good friends and no one bothered me. And then we moved and Jamie Marsh came into my life.
Jamie was an unlikely boy to be a bully. He was shorter than most of the other kids, with very pale freckled skin and closely cropped wavy hair that sat on his head like a toy helmet. He wore the kind of clothes his father did, button-down shirts in Oxford cloth or short-sleeved and madras when the weather got warm, a size or two too small for him, as if his family’s budget could only afford to renew his wardrobe every other year. If I weren’t so afraid of him, I might have seen him for the funny-looking boy he was.
And then there was his name, Jamie, the little boy’s name his momma would have used but one ill-suited to a bully. Indeed, if you saw him in class, slouched in his desk and lost in his own private world, you might think that he was a victim of bullying, instead of its perpetrator. Had it not been for his cruelty, he would have passed through school at best unnoticed. With his little-man clothes, cowlick and grades that hovered around D, Jamie, in his own way, was as odd as I was.
But Jamie was a tough kid whose body who had begun to acquire the subtle muscular definition of a slightly underfed manual worker. He looked strong, but his strength was untested. No one had ever fought with him. Perhaps we all confused his daring and brutality with strength.
During the two years I was obliged to spend at this suburban backwater of a school, Jamie tormented me. Not every day but enough to keep me on edge. I was like a rabbit in a psych experiment that would get an electrical shock at random intervals. It was mostly a verbal assault, though a few times I got pushed around and knocked down. He would call me a faggot, throw my books or cafeteria tray on the floor, push me away, against the wall or into one of his friends, who’d push me back. And always in front of others. Jamie needed an audience. But not any audience. His taunting was reserved for those moments in which he wouldn’t be seen by an adult. I didn’t think of it at the time but Jamie was a coward.
I soon began to see the school building and grounds as a thermograph of risk, parceled out into safe and danger zones. Classrooms were okay but not in the morning in homeroom before the teacher came in. The cafeteria was monitored but not the line for food. The longer the line, the greater the chance Jamie Marsh would be on it, and lunch would be ruined by another round of mockery. The hottest and reddest of zones was the locker room whenever we were left alone as the gym teacher stayed on the court to round up the basketballs or exercise mats after class.
I used to love school but now when I left home in the morning for school I’d detour down to the river, where I’d wander in the woods long enough to arrive at school after homeroom had started. When lunch time came, I’d dawdle around the corridor so that I would arrive late at the cafeteria when there wouldn’t be a line. I even started pretending to be sick on the days we had gym; I knew that this was a short-term solution but I dragged it as far as I could.
One day our gym teacher came to school drunk. A couple of teachers out for a smoke in the parking lot saw him vomiting on the soccer field and ran up to help. They told us to get to the locker room and change.
Jamie seized the opportunity. He managed to trap another one of his usual victims, George Madison, in a headlock and after kneeing him in his groin, made him drop to his knees. With his free hand Jamie began pounding his fist on George’s skull, yelling “monkey, monkey” in time with his drumming. He picked up the pace, drumming and chanting faster and faster. George’s face had gone red, whether from shame or the lock on his neck, but so had Jamie’s, and the room became filled with the sounds of Jamie’s frenzied chant and George’s crying. The other boys who had joined Jamie at first had now stopped and stood transfixed, watching silently like the rest of us, as if we had climbed over the back fence to a drive-in movie that was showing a disturbingly dark adult film.
George was much bigger than Jamie. He wasn’t as agile or fast but I imagine he could have beaten back Jamie if he had tried. But he didn’t. Jamie hadn’t selected his victims consciously, but he must have had a sense of who would resist and who wouldn’t. His victims never resisted. George never did. I didn’t either.
I watched George being tormented and was fearful yet relieved—afraid that I might suffer the same kind of humiliation and thankful that Jamie had found another, more interesting victim. In fact, I was secretly glad, though deeply ashamed, that George was taking the place that otherwise might be mine. Fear does that. In your desperation to become inconspicuous—don’t let it be me—you fail to see your natural allies.
No one had ever called me names before or would after I left this school. At the time I couldn’t know that my unhappy experience at this small, unexceptional school was a matter of coincidence: a momentary constellation of a handful of equally unexceptional mean boys. Nor could I know that it would stop once I found myself in different circumstances.
Sadly, one of the most debilitating aspects of bullying and any other sort of oppression for that matter—illness, too—is the difficulty you have in foreseeing an alternative future. Just make it better, you pray, but it doesn’t get better the next day. You hope that the boys who taunt you will eventually get bored with the games they play at your expense. But they don’t get bored. You hope that they will find another victim, though the thought of this shames you.
But after I graduated grammar school and started attending a prep school miles away from home, things did get better. The moment I walked into the school that first day. Jamie wasn’t there, of course (he couldn’t have gotten in even if he applied) but there was no one like him, either. I made good friends and ran cross-country and school was again something I looked forward to, instead of a reason to wander in the woods in the early morning. I even joined the wrestling team in my sophomore year, and though I wasn’t particularly good, I could have beaten Jamie. I sometimes wished I could meet him on the mat. But the truth is, I didn’t think about him all that much. Besides, in a way not entirely clear to me at the time, I had already beaten him.
I knew that there were other boys and later men like Jamie Marsh who under certain circumstances could hurt me. It made me cautious when I needed to be. But I was no longer afraid, and by the time I came out in college, I was certain that I would never let someone make me feel bad about myself in the way Jamie had. Never.
I didn’t think about Jamie until years later on the day I almost drowned.
I was a graduate student at the time and staying with friends on Martha’s Vineyard. It was one of those late cloudy and vaguely cool late summer days that hint at the autumn to come, the kind of weather that leaves the cushions on the garden chairs soggy. Still, we sailed out that morning with our little board boat down the brackish inlet to the beach. I told my friends I wanted a proper swim, so I left them and walked until I got to the stretch of beach on whose inland side lay the quieter waters of a long pond.
I was usually a careful swimmer in the open water, hugging the shoreline to be sure I’d be able to stand up if I had to. But the bed of this pond was lined with eelgrass, whose stalks would brush across my chest as I swam. It was an unpleasant feeling, like the rub of a frotteur in a crowded subway.
I turned away from the shore to rid myself of their touch. As I made my way up the pond I noticed that the morning fog had thickened, dissolving in its veil the details of the reeds that lined the ever more distant shore. Then I lost the shoreline completely.
Soon I could see nothing but the grayish-green waters below me and the grayish-white of the fog around me. The only shape I could discern as I lay suspended in this womb of sky and sea was my arm as it slipped past my face and cut into the water ahead. The only sound I could hear was occasional squawk of a loon. It was beautiful for a short while but then I suddenly felt small and vulnerable and very alone. I had already been swimming for the better part of an hour. I wanted to get back to shore. But where was the shore?
I turned around in the water and headed back to the patch of eelgrass where I had turned out from the shore. Or where I thought it was. I swam for a long time, much longer than it had taken to get to the point where I had turned around. I still could not see anything, no sign of the pond bed or beach reeds.
I knew I had a sweet side when I swam, a slight pull to the right. In the pool the feedback from the lane ropes let me make minute adjustments to my stroke to compensate for the deviation, and when I swam in open-water races I’d use the buoys or other swimmers to keep on course. But there was nothing to see in the pond, nothing except my fingertips as they sliced into the water at the beginning of each stroke.
At the time I didn’t it occur to me that the distance from one edge of the pond to the point at its farthest end could not have been more than 4 kilometers, and only if you managed through an unlikely series of turns to avoid swimming into the tiny fingers of land that jutted into the pond. Even with my constant small pull to one side, the pond, which was much longer than it was wide, could not contain even a quarter of the spiral I would describe in an open sea, and again I would bump into land soon enough. I didn’t realize that all I needed to do was to keep swimming, steadily and slowly, and I would make land in another hour at the most. There was a shore ahead of me, wherever I was, and all I needed to do was just swim.
But instead I panicked. I became convinced I was swimming in the wrong direction. And then I did exactly what I shouldn’t have. I turned. Not completely around but enough to lose any bearings on where I was and where I was going.
I swam for what seemed an interminably long time. There was still no sign of shore. I was very tired, more tired than I could remember ever being. I could feel my stroke getting choppier, more inefficient and more demanding. All I could think about was how deep the pond was and how small my legs were and how I’d give anything just to be able to stand on my feet.
I stopped swimming and turned onto my back to rest. And then I thought, I’m going to drown and die. Here, cold and alone in the middle of a great pond.
My life didn’t flash before my eyes, of course, but as I lay on my back treading water, a procession of random snippets of memory passed through my consciousness, like the ones you see as you try to get back to sleep after being awakened in the middle of the night. Among the fragments of memory was Jamie coming up to me in the lunchroom line, a mean smile traced on his thin lips and his vacant eyes. Jamie, trapped and alone in his twisted briar of hate.
It was a creepy apparition and I remembered deciding, quite theatrically (though the possibility of dying seemed quite real at the time), that Jamie Marsh was not going to be the last thing in my mind if I was going to drown. Of course, it could have been any one of dozens of other moments in my life I didn’t want to remember, instances of great awkwardness or shame, times I let others down or myself, the small failures of courage or decency that one accumulates during a life. But it was Jamie.
I flipped back on my chest and started swimming again. I saw the first shafts of grass on the pond bed in ten minutes.
Resting on shore I found myself thinking about the other boy, the one waiting in the lunch line. I was saddened that his years in middle school should have been marked by this hurt. I was saddened, too, that he was so afraid of disappointing his father that he couldn’t tell him what was happening at school. But mostly I was saddened that this boy saw himself, if only for a short period of time in his life, in the borrowed eyes of his tormentor.
I remembered the way he had retreated into his own world, disappearing on his bike for hours after school, riding deep into the countryside, reveling in the pleasure of his body as it climbed the hills if an increasingly unfamiliar landscape. Maybe that’s why I remembered him out on the pond. That sense of being alone and very far from home.
I wish I could have told him it would pass. I wish I could have told him of the remarkable men he would meet and fall in love with. I would’ve told him he would be loved and would come to see his sexuality as a source of joy and celebration and not an occasion for derision. I wish I could have told him of the good life he would live. This would all come to pass for him, and I wished there were a way to tell him.
But there isn’t. And so I must tell you.
Image: Photograph by Saverio Cardia