Let us retreat into darkness – where the evening does not spread out against the sky.
For I wasted away in the absence of light for the first 17 years of my life.
As a child, I took pride in being a tomboy – I wore boys’ graphic tees, played with “Hot Wheels” in the dirt, and begged my mom for a pair of light-up “Hulk” sneakers.
Unfortunately, boys’ shoes didn’t run in my size, but she bought them anyway. She stored them in the closet, and I just couldn’t wait to grow into them.
Around the age of 7, I was aggressively tackled by an older neighborhood boy. His mother scolded me for “tattling” and said, “Well, maybe if you didn’t dress and act like a boy, you wouldn’t be treated like one.”
Teary-eyed, my pride was replaced with shame.
From that point on, I knew I was different, but what I couldn’t understand was why my choice of expression dictated my treatment from others.
It was time to act like a girl – whatever that meant. I traded in my shark tees for “Bobby Jack” shirts and ditched “Hot Wheels” for “Polly Pockets.” I stopped waiting to grow into my “Hulk” sneakers and began waiting to outgrow my closet.
I had measured my life out in eggshells – the ones I’d be walking on until I escaped the darkness. Why hadn’t my light-up shoes fit me when I needed them most?
By the time I reached high school, I began processing my sexual orientation when I started dating my first girlfriend, Lilly. At that point, I was also meeting regularly with my therapist, the brilliant Jessa Brine.
Every week, Jessa and I discussed a course of action for outgrowing my closet. Her simple, yet memorable piece of advice was, “Don’t let anxiety win.”
Ayer Shirley Regional High School enrolls approximately 400 students from two towns. I had known most of my peers since kindergarten, but I wouldn’t just be coming out to them – I would also be coming out to various soccer moms, coach dads, teachers, and overall strangers.
One teacher I did feel comfortable opening up to was my beloved English teacher, Melanie Wittmier.
It wasn’t through the hushed utterance of phrases that never quite slipped the tip of my tongue, but through my writing, in which I often expressed myself to her.
Oddly enough, it was the work of the rather conservative T. S. Eliot that resonated with me.
In reference to his poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poster that read, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” hung in Mrs. Wittmier’s classroom.
Every time I entered her room, I gawked at the poster as it seemed to stare back at me. Would I ever disturb the universe, or would it always be the universe that perturbed me?
When she assigned a close reading of Eliot’s work, she asked students to write poems regarding concerns of their own. My piece was about my sexual orientation and aptly titled, “Don’t Let Anxiety Win.”
That same year – junior year – was when I finally got too big for my closet. My grade was voting for the 2013 homecoming court, and word began to spread that Lilly and I were dating as we joked with some friends about voting for ourselves.
To my surprise, most of my peers voted for us that day instead of the high school sweethearts who had won the two previous years, and to the delight of us all, are together to this day.
The student council debated whether we would both be princesses, or if one of us would be a prince. Thankfully, they got it right as we were announced as the 11th grade homecoming princesses at the pep rally.
With pride, I finally held Lilly’s hand in school as we vigorously threw our entangled fingers into the air while the crowd burst into applause and my heart burst with happiness – a moment more iconic than the closing scene of “The Breakfast Club” when Judd Nelson thrust his clenched fist into the air.
I felt the vulnerability evaporate from my bones, as the relief set in when I realized I could finally come out to my mother.
This is my love song to Ayer Shirley Regional High School.
To my peers, whom I mistakenly believed were small-minded because we were from small towns, thank you for accepting me when I least expected it – and when I least accepted myself.
I am no longer filled with doubt and hesitation like Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock – nor was I meant to be.
I caught a glimpse of light in a high school gymnasium and I sure wasn’t stopping there.
There’s darkness even in the brightest communities, and thanks to the help of mentors and peers, I found my way out – even without light-up sneakers.