Shadow Living

I recently turned 25, which is an age that seems like it would come with some additional amount of withheld wisdom or at least a senior discount at the movie theater, but so far has only made my students react with wide eyes and the confidence-building question, “But weren’t you really young when you started teaching us?” It’s been quite the ride.

In my 25 years on this earth, I haven’t ascribed much significance to ages. I didn’t start driving until I was 18. 21 didn’t find me at a bar. 22 did not feel like one of the Taylor Swift’s nights on the town. By all accounts, significant moments in my life haven’t come attached to specific ages.

I do frequently think about the 6th grade. In the grand scope of my youth, that was a defining year. That was the year I became my class’s prime candidate for bullying. I was invited into friend groups, only to be kicked out for “making them look bad.” I was asked questions about myself, only to hear the information retold later in jokes at my expense. I was a loser, a lame, that horrible f-word that has been used to degrade the LGBTQ community for decades now. I was pushed around when the teachers weren’t looking, the recipient of spitballs to the back of my head. Teachers assured my mom that they didn’t see anything. My principal asked if maybe I didn’t possess a sense of humor, if I hadn’t understood that “boys will be boys”? Most days, my mom would sign me out for lunch so that I could cry in her Chevy Astro van in the parking lot, a brief reprieve from the harassment.

It was a terrible, terrible year, but when the seventh grade rolled around, it was over. Nothing significant changed in me, but the class moved on to other targets, and I was safe at last. One would think that this was the end of all that noise.

If you look at my high school track record, the sixth grade underdog came up big. I was the class president and valedictorian, involved in Art, Theater, Student Council, National Honor Society, UIL Academics, and my school’s first-ever all-male “dance” team, the Crazy Cats. It was a classic Cinderella story, one that used to make me think that I was real cool.

Of course, life never leaves off where the happy ending in a movie does. There are always more dragons to face after the credits, and rarely do they go easier on you because of past victories. As I entered college in 2009, I was confronted with the challenge of making a new name for myself in a new place. This sea of 8,000 faces was an opportunity to make new friends and make the most of my four years as an undergraduate.

But that’s not how I viewed this new landscape. What I saw were 8,000 faces that could call me a loser again. What I saw was an infinite amount of scenarios in which I could reveal part of myself only to have it thrown back in my face as a joke. I felt vulnerable, exposed to the possibility that I could be hated again for no reason at all. I was standing in the shadow of my sixth grade self, or what those kids had told me about my sixth grade self, and I was afraid of what would happen if I tried to outlive him.

I’m not the only one who does this. I know people who have yet to outlive words people said about them what seems like lifetimes ago to everyone else, but just yesterday to them. I know people who have yet to outrun past mistakes because they can’t believe that grace extends to oneself. I know people who have yet to let go of missed opportunities, believing that life will never be as good as that alternate route they failed to take.

In some ways, we are all shadow people. We all live out, over and over, the words or actions that we cannot seem to shake for all of our successes and triumphs. I have lived a good life filled with so much joy and so much love, yet sometimes I am standing in a room of people I don’t know and am afraid to speak for fear of what they might think of me. I sometimes have entire weeks of feeling sensitive and remaining quiet, avoiding friends and interactions so that I can protect my bruised ego. I am always on guard for people who might belittle me and revert me back to that insecure boy who stopped trusting others to save his self.

For me, stepping out of the shadows of that fateful year is dangerous. It is a constant risk that I do not always perceive as worth taking. I am risking my ego, my feelings, my self-esteem that took so long to build up after that time, and ultimately myself. Whenever any of us decide to step out of the shadows we are hiding in, we run the very scary risk of losing part of what makes us whole.

But when we decide to stay in the shadows, to lick our wounds for our whole lives, to never trust that there is light for us outside of this darkness, we run the even scarier risk of never truly being whole.

I never fully left the shadows of my sixth grade year in college, and the consequence was only being left with a few good friends from that time, friends I can’t even say know the whole me despite how much I cherish them. I have met up with long-time friends to catch up, only to realize I never fully revealed myself to them, and no longer know them because they never really knew me. I have spent months with my guard up around people I could have loved deeper and received deeper love from, had I only let them in sooner.

We deserve to step out of the shadows. There is light on the other side of whatever darkness we wrestle every day.

We deserve to believe that there are truer, kinder words to be spoken of us by people who actually have our best interest in mind. Better stories exist if we only pick up the pen to write them and share them with our loved ones.

We deserve to accept the grace we extend to others. We can spend our lives paying for the past, but we’ll never settle the debt unless we learn to live forgiven.

Shadow living is a difficult and heavy way to live, but it is also incredibly easy, for it is a pain that is known, comfortable, and predictable. Living in the light requires more of us, is a challenge not everyone wishes to risk, but is ultimately a lighter load to carry. Its pain is the pain that James Baldwin describes when he says, “Love is a growing up.”

We deserve to step from the shadows and live in light, so that we may know love and give love and let go of the rest.

You Are Alive

I used to believe a lie.

Even though I am ultra-cool now to everyone who knows me (I can hear some of you snickering), I used to be uncool. Rather, I used to be ashamed of being uncool.

In the 6th grade, I was bullied for being the scrawny nerd who believed he could play in the NBA one day and had an unusual affinity for rap music (specifically Nelly’s Nellyville). Most days I was called the names children still pass around like candy that’s been poisoned. Most days my mom took me out for lunch to let me breathe for 30 minutes. Most days I was ready to call it quits on school because of the pain that came with it.

The lie I believed was not that I would be in the NBA; that didn’t pan out either, but I (mostly) got over that. There was a deeper lie that took root due to the bullying I experienced that year: I believed I did not have a voice.

In the short span of one year, enough kids told me I did not matter that I started to believe they must be right. Time after time, when my teacher blamed me for painting a target on myself, she painted a picture of me that made me invisible. When an administrator told my mom, “Boys will be boys,” I wondered when I got to be one of the boys and not one of the victims.

It was only the 6th grade. The year after, I started making friends again and the bullies left me alone. A few of them became my friends.

But the small moments that happen to a child—or any human for that matter—can take root and grow into something massive over time. The movie Inception shows the power small ideas can have when they are planted deep in someone’s subconscious. I was only bullied in the 6th grade, but the effects lasted into adulthood.

In high school, my theme song could have been Aloe Blacc’s “The Man” (you know, the one that goes, “I’m the man, I’m the man, I’m the man”). I was class president, valedictorian, and involved in any club or organization that even remotely interested me.

I don’t say any of this to brag; no one cares what you did in high school starting the day you graduate from high school. I say this because I used to think I had lived out the quirky indie movie about the middle school dweeb-turned-high school cool kid. I thought I had lived the Cinderella story and my underdog roots would carry me through life. I was convinced that I was a real-life Michael Cera.

When we are young, we can be pretty dumb. As soon as I got to college, my social 180 took a spin in the other direction. I realized I had not really emerged from my cocoon of uncool. I commuted to school and found it difficult to fit into the social scene at my university. Instead of digging my heels in and trying harder, I started remembering that voiceless 6th grader that faded into the background of everyone’s minds and concerns.

It’s not something I like to think about or talk about a lot, but on my lonely commute to and from school, I used to imagine a world without me. I would think about how people would go on living after I was dead. I wondered how much I mattered, and I started to believe that lie about myself—the one about how I was voiceless, powerless, and ultimately worthless.

I don’t want to spend too much time talking about that dark period in my life, but I do want to talk about the other side of it. After hitting my version of rock bottom, I took stock of my life and started digging deeper so I could climb up and out of the hole years of insecurity and false security had made. I added a Writing major to my Religion major, and began writing stories that helped me process what I was dealing with internally. I started being a better friend to people who had been there all along.

Slowly, I survived the storm. As Ben Dolnick writes in the novel You Know Who You Are, “the amazing, ordinary thing happened: time passed.” There were certainly other factors that pulled me from the depths of my insecurity, but they all happened because time allowed them to come through for me.

In ten weekdays, I will finish my first year of teaching. This year, I have taught about 100 students who are just a bit older than I was when I was first told I was voiceless. Interacting with them on a daily basis, I have made it my mission to let them know that they have a voice. I cannot give them their own voice, but I can help them find it.

It is a hard task. My students are dealing with social pressures that I never conceived of at their age. There are a variety of factors that contribute to this reality, from the fact that they are dealing with their racial identity at a much earlier age than I did to new technology we as adults don’t even know how to use. My kids are constantly inundated with messages that tell them they, too, are as voiceless or more voiceless than I was.

I wanted to tell you that I found the key to loving people in such a way that they know they have a voice. I wanted to tell you I unlocked a secret in my first year of teaching that most of us spend a lifetime searching to be told.

I did not find that magic solution.

However, I will tell you this: I am alive.

I know that is probably shocking news, so I will give you a moment to process.

I have been thinking about the 6th grade a lot this year. I have been thinking about what it felt like to be voiceless, to feel like I didn’t matter. I have been thinking about how it felt to experience that again in my early adult years.

Lately, I have also been thinking about how I survived those years, those trials, those moments when I felt like I wouldn’t make it, to be alive right here and now.

I stand in front of a classroom of middle schoolers every day, and I tell them they matter both through my words and my actions.

I wrote a blog post about how we are all the 27th line, and almost 55,000 people read it. Many shared it with their children or students to let them know they matter.

I perform my rap music every month in the same room I have seen my favorite bands play.

I drove home this weekend to tell my mother I love her.

I know a group of very special people who I love through stupid jokes and fun adventures.

How did I come to believe I have a voice? I am alive, and that has made all the difference. Woody Allen once said that “80% of success is showing up.” I have showed up to life every day for over 23 years, I did a few things right here and there, and I started becoming acutely aware of how far my voice truly carries.

You are alive, too.

In this moment, your voice is carrying a lot farther than you realize. You never know what showing up will accomplish. There are people all around you who need you to believe the incredible truth that you are alive.

This past week, I received a note from a student for Teacher Appreciation Week. He is one of my English Language Learners, and he wrote that since I became his teacher, he is no longer afraid to write, but instead has started to learn its importance.

I hope that you stop being afraid of not mattering and start learning that you matter. I hope you know that you are alive right now, and someone needs you to remind them that they are alive too. I hope someday we don’t have to be told we are alive, because we will all just believe it from a very young age.

Until that day, wake up every morning, look in the mirror, and say, “I am alive.” Believe that, then use it. You won’t get it right every time, but every once in awhile, something amazing will happen. Live for that moment, then go after the next one. You will be surprised by what happens to those who believe the truth that they are alive.

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