In and Out: Numbness in the Black Row

As I stepped out of my ragged Honda on the dark brick street in Kirksville, I felt miles away. No, I didn’t feel any distance shorter than out of my own person. It was a Sunday in mid-October, and I was dressed up for a church service on the corner of Harrison and Mulanix. In the air, the first hint of an autumn scent took hold of me, and it was the first time I was going to a church service for myself since I was in high school.

I ascended the steps, my throat tightened, and I worried about where I would sit. I slowed my steps and quickened my eyes to scan the quaint, dimly lit sanctuary. I found a spot in the back row, and I walked myself in front of a piano to get to my coveted anonymity. Sitting next to me were two individuals, seemingly there alone. I smiled and nodded, but retreated into my own surveying. My neck began to get the workout as I strained to take note of my surroundings and fellow church-goers. Candles lit university professors and notable community faces. I even saw our State Representative. Feelings of loneliness and difference relaxed off my once tense body and were replaced by comfort and community.

I allowed my eyes to roam as more of my teachers and colleagues filed into the dark room. It was a romantic evening for a moment. Then I remembered why I was there. This service was a special reflection in the wake of a GLBT suicide surge, as a result of bullying. The idea was that the community would come together, in a religious setting, to reflect on the tragedies and to consider the importance of aiding the bullied. As soon as I had heard about the service, I knew I needed to be there, to be present, to be a living unit in the community of support that I so desperately wanted to feel. I thought that if I contributed to this framework, I would feel uplifted by a scaffolding of human persons who could understand who I was trying to build in myself. Maybe I felt that for some part of the hour I spent in Trinity Episcopal Church, but I know that I also came down from that high, feeling numb—a sensation that I knew all too well.

I was bullied from an early age. I remember the specific turning point. In fourth grade, my class put on a religious musical called Psalty, the Singing Songbook. I cannot remember if I wanted any specific part, but I probably did because I liked to be the center of attention, and I was well-liked at this point. Mrs. Borth, our spirited music teacher, asked us to sing to the best of our abilities while she played one of our favorite songs. From there, she walked around the classroom, listening to us and taking note of our individual performances. I don’t remember the song now, but I will never forget her name. I have always irrationally blamed exhausting Mrs. Borth for giving me the lead role of Psalty. At the time, it was another story.

I remember feeling such gratification when she announced that I would play the title role. My parents were proud, and the rehearsals became very social experiences for me. Two of my good friends were also main characters, and we enjoyed goofing off and sharing the stage. But all of the intricacies are damaged goods in my memory now because they brought great suffering.

The big day for the dress rehearsal in front of the whole school came, and my nerves brought me to a brief consciousness of the reality I was about to enter. Because of my strong personality and outwardly expressed self-esteem and sense of humor, I was accepted for my uniqueness in my class. I was hard to argue with, belittle, or question in the classroom because I owned my space. The teachers loved me without taking on the infamous role of teacher’s pet, I had a good core group of friends, and the girls in my grade loved me because I was a good friend to them. But all of that meant nothing outside of my fourth grade bubble.

In third grade, I remember walking into the boys’ bathroom, and this kid, Nathaniel, who was in my brother’s grade, saw me enter from his position at the sink. My big brother was also in the restroom when Nathaniel turned to shake the water off his hands, and said, “You’re in the wrong bathroom. The girls’ bathroom is across the hall.” I am sure my skin turned red, and I am positive I felt something on the inside, but on the surface, I began the practice of feeling numbness. This was coping for me in grade school and beyond. But this is what I had to face as I made my stage debut in front of Prince of Peace Catholic School on that Thursday before Thanksgiving, including my brother who never said anything on my behalf.

As the play ended, I was so relieved that I hadn’t forgotten any lines, but I saw the eyes and whispers in the crowd. I felt my small world get bigger and meaner. I quickly woke up to smell the roses, except this experience was only thorny. I immediately became Psalty, then gay wad, then faggot, then fag. I am not sure I can even now make sense of the trials that I had to endure. As I write this, I am picturing a fourth grade version of me and the tragic breaking of my person that happened. I fronted the numbness that also doubled as indifference, but behind the scenes, even to myself, I believe I was objectified. I was no longer the little human in my Catholic school uniform. I became the bad joke that could be tossed around without any threats to the psyches of the mainly male tormentors. Of course, the bystanders also had their impact as I was emotionally abused, and I didn’t know how to cope.

These memories don’t lose themselves in the messy holes in my memory like I sometimes wish they would. Instead, they resurface more powerfully and sometimes, more emotionally charged, at times like these, where groups of people gather to recognize psychological harm done to innocent people. Unfortunately, it always seems like a little too late. Nonetheless, the church was almost full when the doors closed, and the piano began to play behind me.

The bulletin explained the service as a means of reflection and worship. There would be times of silence after prayer or song for individuals to meditate on the ideas and words of the congregation’s offerings. I started wondering if I would have a divine intervention when the piano began and the first of several short songs began.

I have often said I wouldn’t have left the church if there had always been good music. The music played at this service undulated, with repetitions of short lyrics and nuanced harmonies spread around the church. It was beautiful, letting the music rock my body and soul, to the beat of the girl’s tears in front of me, and the man’s voice, alternating octaves and moving into Spanish every once in a while, right next to me. I ignored the generally annoying God poetry, as I called it, and I thought about the young people who had taken their own lives because of the way others had perceived their sexuality.

I tried to think of ways for people to transcend their own victimization, but I couldn’t come up with any example from my own life, except my own jaded numbness. Then, I remembered I hadn’t only faked an indifference, as a way to cope. I had found another scapegoat, and then I found another. For a while, I gained some momentum.

In fifth grade, my mom got a call from another mom of a boy in my class, Mark Shaukowitz. Ms. Shaukowitz called to inform my parents that I had been bullying her son, calling him cuss words and tormenting him by socially cornering him. She also called to schedule a sit-down meeting between herself and Mark, and me and my parents. My parents were none too pleased, and they were embarrassed, I am sure of it. Somehow, I was able to convince them that I was remorseful. And then, I convinced the Shaukowitzes, even going on to become friends with Mark later. It was probably because I didn’t want to be a mean person. I didn’t want to imprison others in solitary cells, but that was where I found myself.

I don’t remember when I finally accepted that I was different, but it was not in grade school. I allowed myself to believe that I was just like every other boy, even though I was intrigued by Barbie dolls and playing dress up. My favorite shows had strong, beautiful women as the center of the plot, and I admired them. I wanted to be just like them, not like their male counterparts. I hated sports, and I always played with the girls on the playground. If my brother and I were ever out at recess at the same time, I am sure that teachers could notice the striking difference between us. I always felt like the teachers thought I was making the choice to stand out. Deep down in my subconscious, I think they had me convinced for a long time.

So here I was, sitting in the back row of a church I had never attended, to stand in solidarity and remembrance of those who were bullied to death. Instead, I found myself thinking about me. My immediate response would be to consider this a selfish behavior. Sadly, it was also a breakthrough. I had only recently been able to consider the intricacies of my personality with an honest approach. I couldn’t believe the revelations. I couldn’t believe the almost watercolor-esque swirls of emotional turmoil that became clearer and clearer. While the girl in the pew in front of me continued to cry and the girl next to her rubbed her back, I pictured my brother.

Robert was about two years older than me, and I always wanted him to like me. I don’t think he disliked me. In fact, he was very protective of me in his own subtle way, but he also was the opposite of me. The part that I believe put a wedge between us was our place on the spectrum of sensitivity. He was very commonsensical, while I always stood in stark contrast as the emotional, sentimental person. Robert could see that I was different from everyone else, and I believe it made sense for him that I should just stop being so different. Stop playing with dolls; stop watching I Love Lucy; stop running around with all the girls at recess; stop talking in such a high voice; stop acting like a girl. Thus, the wedge found its way between us when I didn’t stop, and he became annoyed and embarrassed. Before I could consider trying to stop all that I was, the idea of friendship with him was obsolete. Not that I stopped trying.

When I wasn’t sparring with him like most young siblings do, I wanted to make him laugh or make him want to hang out with me. I remember giving him all of my Legos, specifically in front of one of his friends, so that he could see that not only was I cool to him, but I also gave him and his friend more toys to play with. I can recall swinging on our swing set, asking him if there were any girls he had crushes on, any cool people he had in his new class. He claimed he didn’t like anyone like that, so I told him I had a crush on Emily Dinges, even though I never liked her before, and she looked like a rabbit. I remember things getting really hard for me as my elementary school days progressed, and I finally told my parents that people at school were calling me gay. They turned to my brother, the fairly popular eighth grader, to step in, but I knew he never would, and if he did, I never knew about it.

At this point in the service, I was over the silences. My phone doubled as a watch, and I nervously checked the bulletin to realize we were only halfway through the service. The Dean of the School of Arts and Letters surprised me when her voice reverberated a prayer for the people of the world, the gay and lesbian children of God, and their fellow citizens. Surreality became reality, and my reality was highly reflective at that point. I thought about all the church services and Catholic masses I had been to in my life, and never once did I feel like I was being remotely spoken to through prayer, until then. But it wasn’t God talking. It was one of my teachers, now the Dean. She was talking about me, someone who might need a few extra prayers, but another human being, who is welcome to live and breathe the same air. This was coming from a prayer?

As I entered St. Thomas Aquinas as a freshman, I came wounded, but hopeful. I had left behind myself as the joke, bruises from every time I was the punch line. I rejoined my brother as he grew into himself at a larger battlefield with more ferocious social warriors, but I initially experienced success in large numbers. I quickly befriended many young ladies in my class with my wit and my humor, and indirectly, the boys respected my role as friend to the females. I was untouchable in one sense, but the luster didn’t last.

I can still remember the one time I was shoved for being me. A guy in the class above mine, Dan, had circled me like a vulture ever since I had come to Aquinas, and in the staircase one day, he thrust his shoulder into mine and kept walking. I had never talked to him or any of his friends. And I never did. I learned right then and there that, just like fourth grade, I was hard to belittle in my own class, but outside of that bubble, I was a prime target. Some of the guys in my own class were a little intimidating, and I quickly became jaded and defeated emotionally. I threw up my old numb and indifferent front. Underneath, I didn’t know that I hated myself, specifically the version of myself that everyone else perceived. And in hating myself, I fragmented the kinds of relationships I could have with anyone. If I thought so lowly of myself, imagine what I must have thought of people whom wanted to associate with me.

Thus, year by year, the number of close friends I had got smaller and smaller. I didn’t have the support of peers that I didn’t know I needed. I was indifferent because it was something that I couldn’t control to go my way. Fast forward a good six or seven years, and in this church, at this prayer service, I was amidst people of all ages in a church in my community that were there for people like me, mourning the people like me whom hadn’t accepted themselves. The candles flickered, the people around were searching for something like answers, something like clarity, as I looked for connection.

Finally, the part of the service I had been most anticipating: the candlelight vigil. I noticed the local news station had a cameraman in attendance, as a participant and as a reporter. The piano started, and the simple song began humbly. The redhead in front of me saw the light of new candles and began to choke back sobs as if the light represented someone very real to her, now lost. I was paralyzed, and then I was crying. The words moved like trout swimming upstream, as if it were necessary for this short song to be sung in order for nature to make good on the promises of balance. There were times when I thought I could feel the current pushing me forward. But I didn’t move, and I barely sang. Again, I found myself walking next to a younger version of me in memory.

My sophomore year in high school, I drove my friend Taylor to and from school. We were close mainly because our parents were best friends. He had always liked my brother better, but we got along fine. One day, Taylor and I were walking to my car after school when I noticed a group of senior guys walking to their vehicles at the back of the senior parking lot. They were walking in front of us, and I stayed in my numb, indifferent mode to stay safe from harm. Unfortunately, Taylor was there to expose me. Once the older boys went off in their direction and we in ours, my passenger turned to me right before we got to the car. He said, “Did you hear them? What they said just now?”

“No, I don’t think so. Why?”

“They were making fun of the way you draped your coat over your arm. They said something like, ‘Check out how that—they called you a fag—carries his coat.’”

Taylor was always like this. He unknowingly spoke too much because of a lack of social etiquette. He was just any average boy that could blend or stand out when he wanted. He didn’t have any perception of having to soften the language that was used to belittle people because he wasn’t bullied. As we approached the car, we climbed in, and I shrugged silently.

“That’s not all they said,” he started again. “That one guy, I think his name is Jeff, he said, ‘I wish they would just have a genocide to get rid of all the faggots around here.’ He said something about life being easier that way.”

I withdrew immediately. I was indifferent on the surface, numb one layer down, and I was inaccessible underneath it all. And just like that, I came to from this memory to tears and flickering lights. Until now, I had been able to guide myself reflectively through the pain and the damage. I blinked my eyes, wiped my windshields, but I couldn’t keep up. I had joined the girl in front of me in uncontrollable anguish. I was mourning. And so were many others. I couldn’t even get up to light a candle. My ribs felt like they were going to collapse under me, and I would no longer be upright or one piece. The words began to wash over me as I considered the juxtaposition of the current suicides and my own pain.

Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray, watch and pray. Over and over, I revisited my memories in fragments and broken waves. I saw myself sitting at the edge of the guys’ side of the cafeteria table, trying to talk to the girls who were my friends in grade school at the other end of the table. I pictured being scolded for not playing sports with the boys at recess. I didn’t have birthday parties after a certain age because I didn’t have anyone to invite. I revisited the end of my friendship with the two girls, who were brave and gay-friendly enough to try to tackle my issues of sexual orientation when they befriended me at the end of my sophomore year, all because they couldn’t handle my deeply-founded denial. I imagined all the times someone told me that I was going to get myself beat up. And all the times I secretly wanted to die young.

As the song ended, I found my head almost completely down and my lap covered in my own tears. It had been a torrential rain, and I was cold and dreary. I had been singing the words to the song under my breath, and I thought about the words. Why didn’t these kids hear these words before they took their own lives? Why didn’t they stay here with me? Why didn’t they remain here with me? Why did I stay?

These questions remained unanswered and overwhelmingly melancholy, even after two periods of silence for reflection during the remainder of the service. And I stood up, walked out into the night. The stars were sparkling, the orange and red leaves were rustling, and I was doing neither of these things. I had felt something, and I had experienced something in a room of community support, but I walked out alone.