When I was studying for my Master’s in Teaching, I had to write two autobiographical essays. I dreaded the assignment, and waited until the due date to write both of them. But now, just having re-read them, I think there is a lot there that I almost never share with anyone…so, why not post them here.
Bear in mind, that I wrote these a year ago. Also bear in mind that I wrote them both in about an hour or two. With that in mind, I hope you like them. (Oh, and Christina isn’t her real name.)
I had to search through my seventh grade yearbook to learn that her name was Christina. Thirteen years ago I didn’t ask or care. She was merely a prop for me, a comic foil that allowed me to fit in exactly in proportion to how left-out I made her feel; and for these purposes she served me well. I made the whole playground laugh, so easily and instantly, and all I had to do was make her cry. I didn’t then know the full price, for her or for me. Even at night, sobbing and hating myself, I didn’t know what would come from my choices. I didn’t know that Christina would transform my life.
Christina was one of a handful of developmentally disabled students at Oak Harbor Middle School in Whidbey Island, Washington, and she was not the first of them who we surrounded and terrorized. She was just the latest in what was more or less a rotation. As we got bored with stealing one kid’s football or aggressively imitating the slurred speech of another, we would eventually come around to her. And she was mine. I picked her out in the playground, I motioned for my friends to follow me, and I chose those soft spots that I wanted to prod and irritate until I got my desired response. It was a calculated process of emotional brutality, targeted less at our victims and more at each other, a bunch of scrawny white middle class kids who’d learned from our movies, our sports, our dads, and especially our older brothers that this is what one does to be cool: you focus so intently, so callously on the strangeness, the weakness, the frailty of The Other that no one would dare suspect that you carry those things in yourself.
Without the ability to articulate it, and with no one to articulate it to, this was exactly what was going on for me. In my head, in my heart, things felt terribly wrong in the world, and I didn’t know where I belonged. I saw homeless men arguing with lampposts in the streets and I wondered how I was different, why I deserved friends and comfort while these men deserved ridicule. I saw National Geographic specials about poached gorillas and elephants and I rose up screaming at the television, at the unjust absurdity of the world. I even watched Corky struggle with Down’s syndrome on ABC’s “Life Goes On” and TV movies about Special Olympics superstars overcoming their obstacles and I remember feeling so much love and respect for them in their dramatized struggles. But I had my friends, and my brother’s older, cooler friends were always hanging around, as well. None of them talked about these things. They talked about cars and video games and the way women’s bodies were supposed to look. The message was clear: Talking about those other things made you gay. Mama’s boys talked about those other things. Pussies talked about those other things. I didn’t want to be called those names, and so I didn’t say anything about what was going on for me. I just focused on being cool instead, and that meant going after Christina.
Most of the time, I just sort of walked circles around her, tagging her and getting her to chase me, pretending to play with her while everyone laughed along from a distance. The last time was different, though. We all thought she had a crush on me, the way she giggled and tagged me back, and so I thought I was brilliant when the week of the spring dance arrived and I formed my little plan. On the Thursday before the dance, I came up to her really nicely, really slowly. I smiled at her and she smiled at me, and I faked nervousness, pretending to search for words.
“I was just, you know, wondering if, you know, maybe you’d go to the dance with me?”
She blushed brightly, her eyes widened, and she stepped back and turned around. I spun around her to see her face and she was smiling, nervous, clearly surprised. She ran off, laughing, probably not knowing how to respond, then she ran back to me, with a huge smile. She was going to say yes, I could tell, and that was just too much for me. I acted quickly.
“Not! I was just joking, retard!” I ran away to my group, and we walked, chuckling and jostling, back to our classes.
When school ended that afternoon, I ran home by myself, crashed into my bed, and cried. The person who I was inside, the person who I wanted to be, was nothing like the person who I was presenting in public. The gap was so great, and it felt so unbridgeable, that I started thinking about suicide.
I was lucky though. That summer, my parents had to move us from Washington to Alaska, and for me that move was a lifesaver. I remember consciously thinking that I would have the opportunity to start from scratch, to finally redefine myself in my own way. And I was.
In eighth grade, I was unashamed of getting good grades, of having multiracial friendships in a racist town, in being drug free among stoners, and in making friends with the so-called nerds of my school. In ninth grade, I got accepted into an alternative school, where nearly everyone had rejected the conformity of traditional schools, and where, for the first time, my confusions about the world were not only validated, but also reflected back in new and challenging ways. At 14 years old, teachers and students were introducing me to Socrates, Buddhism, anarchism, and the writings of Karl Marx. In that new, open environment, my mind exploded open. I felt like I was identifying with a new worldview every week, debating publicly and privately about questions of materialism, freedom, desire, meaning, and equality.
I’ve only recently realized that all of my intellectual and emotional processes in that exciting time, and up to the present, had their roots in the contradictions of my experience with Christina. Inside, I had long felt a deep love and sensitivity for the world, for other creatures and people, and even for her. But outside there were all of these forces pushing and pulling me away from who I was. They were not just pushing me away from basic decency and respect for people like Christina. They were also pushing me toward more and more consumerism at the expense of my childhood imagination; toward the objectification of women at the expense of authentic desire; toward classroom docility at the expense of intellectual curiosity; toward some vague college track at the expense of my genuine passions and interests. I came to see that modern social forces were far from benign. They were often deeply irrational and oppressive, even murderous. With Christina I had fallen into a myriad of society’s traps, and the move to Alaska freed me just in time to breathe, reflect, and decide that I didn’t want to go down that road ever again.
By 17, I was a committed radical social justice activist, in love with books, and especially steeped in economic justice and de-schooling literature. Even in an incredible alternative high school, I felt stifled and I decided to drop out. I tried college for a few months, but decided to drop out again. The struggle was calling. I decided to focus on full-time radical activism, fighting for farm workers’ rights in Skagit Valley, against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, for anarchist revolution in Los Angeles, and for community control of public space in Bellingham.
All my experiences eventually brought me back to college, by choice this time, rather than by obligation, and they even landed me a job back in the public school system, doing youth-empowerment work in a diverse urban high school near Seattle. I still work at the school, and it feels like such a privilege to work with young people and to provide them support for the kinds of vulnerable, challenging reflection that I wasn’t encouraged to engage with until many years too late. In that job, I discovered my passion for education, and my desire to be a teacher.
For me, every part of who I am is related to the story above. I love life tremendously, and I love sharing it with so many people, animals, and other living and non-living things. Sometimes the beauty is simple overwhelming. At the same time, ever since seventh grade, I just can’t ignore the ridiculous, inhumane, and sometimes unspeakable social systems and relationships that thousands of years of human history have built around us like a cage. I can’t pretend that racism ended with Martin Luther King Jr. or something. I can’t pretend that sexism faded in the 1970’s. I can’t pretend that poverty is on the downswing because the news is optimistic about the Dow or Nasdaq. I can’t ignore the realities of Iraq, Burma, Guatemala, Haiti. What I only viscerally felt in seventh grade, that something is terribly wrong in the world, I now know from experience and from research. Something is terribly wrong. Many things are terribly wrong, and they need to change. I want to be a force for that change, and for almost 11 years now I have tried. For me, that has meant participating in social movements that seek systemic transformation, that strive for the creation of new social institutions built on human cooperation, equality, and dignity. I’m not dogmatic, though. I recognize the possibility that I might not be on the exactly right path.
Every day, I try to find that difficult balance between my deep appreciation for the beauty of this life and my deep outrage at the injustices of this society. For me, this is a kind of amazing dance between my heart and my mind. I know that I need both perspectives, that without one or the other, I would be hollow. I owe Christina for pushing me to the deep introspection that has brought me here.
13 years ago, I didn’t know Christina’s name, but she did change my life. I will always carry shame inside me, knowing that her experience of me was probably not similarly beneficial. Whatever lessons I might have learned do not excuse how I treated her. I hope that somewhere she has forgiven me, but I would support her fully if she never does. All I can do is what any of us should do in the face of those inexcusable choices that we sometimes make when we try to solidify our status or our privilege: recognize my humanity, face forward toward my potential, and try once again to act vigorously for justice.