From supporting her just-out-of-the-closet son, to a group hug with a roomful of self-doubting teens, one mother’s quest to ease the pain of being different.
My son, a wispy 17-year old, walked out to the car when I pulled into the High School’s parking lot and waited with the patience of an older person for me to lock the car, fish around in the back seat for my cane, and fumble my way out of the driver’s door.
We crept our way down hallways to the Gay-Straight Alliance meeting room, now renamed Spectrum to represent every person fitting within the spectrum of a rainbow. Oh, these kids, my heart warmed at meeting them all, for I had begun the journey of reaching out to them subconsciously already, although they didn’t know it, to send warm and healing energy into their worlds.
I couldn’t wait to meet them, to comfort them and to listen to anything, everything and nothing. I couldn’t wait to share the story I had written about Colton in an article on The Good Men Project several weeks prior, 5 Steps to Supporting Your Son After He Comes Out of the Closet. The response had been very positive, with not one person saying anything negative about it. Colton, who had experienced some challenging times in his coming out, reveled in the love resulting from acceptance. I had derived a new purpose, helping his fellow teens.
Roughly 15 students sat behind desks as the student co-chairs volleyed topics back and forth, discussing how people were doing, the structure of the meeting (two of the chairs couldn’t agree and argued about it in front of the group – the professional in me smiled tolerantly) handing out a question to be answered during Rainbow Time; If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be, and why?
Large panels of fabric, each in a varying rainbow color, hung from the back wall as the kids chattered and the teacher mediated. But she was the coolest teacher, with a hairstyle I imagined on myself, sassy, piecey, slightly punk. Her Converse low-tops and a rust eternity scarf complemented her complexion and savoir faire.
I turned to the computer with The Good Men Project ‘s website and my article pulled up when it was my turn and spoke to these kids, who had given me a small case of nerves. Sadly, I told lame jokes to their nervous laughter. One girl smiled at me as if she wanted to help me locate my confidence.
The lights lowered and I began to read, my voice clear, my eyes flitting occasionally to Colton to convey my love and pride in him. I guess that’s why people call it pride, because owning yourself is a prideful, positive action to take. Some parts were hard to get out, but I read them anyway, revealed the secrets parents regretfully harbor, the inane worries and the mental tug-of-war that occurs when your child comes out, and the distilled reality when acceptance comes like a watershed.
After I shared the article, I asked if there were questions, an old and teachery tone to my voice. I wanted to be the playful mom, but the harder I tried, the dorkier I sounded. I did invite each and every child to call my cell if they ever needed unconditional support, a surrogate parent who would be delighted to go to bat for them and bolster their spirits. Since I had lived through Colton’s pain, the homophobic jibes sometimes coming from the people who were supposed to protect him most, my heart bled for these children, even though I had no idea of their real situations, if their parents were okay with their lifestyles or not.
It didn’t matter, because I reminded myself being gay is hard. Acceptance arrives in stages and each one brings a wrench to the heart. Denial, self-loathing, bargaining, anger, sadness, feeling misunderstood and weird. Living as a gay person took going through an imitation of the Seven Stages of Grief to get there. Living as a gay teen had to be harder. With the lukewarm reception my speech had gotten and the smattering of hands that had waved in the air, maybe I was wrong. These kids might be just fine after all and I had pegged them as suffering because they were gay. That was silly.
The kids were off again, talking about issues that affected them as I remained convinced I was the only one emotionally reeling and overwhelmed in the room. Their conversation ranged from how to live as a short transgender male, to how to convince the object of their affection to give them a shot, to explaining pansexual to their parents and themselves, their young radiant faces happy to have a place where they could go. You could see it, a wash of relief and resolved pain shining out from their eyes, an aged understanding and a need to share what they learned as they discovered who they were. Some remained intensely private and closed off, but that look was still there. I’ve taken the trip to learn who I am, it said, but I am here, and that stands for something.
These kids didn’t need me after all. They had arrived at this place on their own and without help, or using the resources they had available. It was silly to think they would be a downtrodden bunch, crying for anyone to understand.
During Rainbow Time the kids’ answers to the question of what they would change about themselves and why were collected in a basket. My son stood up at the podium and, without identifying the respondent, read aloud what each student had written.
My opinion of what those children needed changed in an instant.
Sitting in the teacher’s chair, listening to the changes these kids thought they needed to make in themselves, quickly became one of the saddest experiences of my life. When had I last told myself I wanted to change everything? That my weight was all wrong? I had an ugly face? Everything I tried to do ended up wrong? My heart ached with sorrow as I listened to Colton read each response and then the kids discussed why that person, who regarded themselves as a lowly worm, was wrong, so wrong.
No one knew who had written what, so eyes flitted around the room, waiting for the clue to settle on the writer. None came because it could have been anyone, any child. This is what unites us, pain, longing, sadness at being different. We are all the same. It was so much easier being an adult where you can freely choose who you listen to and don’t care about others attempting to pull you down. These teenagers lacked the emotional and physical maturity to handle the slurs slung at them. They didn’t yet know how to reason through the pain and, instead of deflecting such agonizing barbs, they absorbed them and turned them into an undeniable truth.
How come more was not being done to help these kids?
I did not miss teenagerhood in that moment, as I catapulted back to the past, remembering a girl with giant red glasses engulfing half her diminutive face, a girl whose body wouldn’t catch up with her mind, a girl whose teeth grew faster than the rest of her face, and I absorbed the pain of each of these kids as I remembered, felt the distracting intensity, and the need to have it healed.
“If you don’t knock it off,” I cut Colton off midstream as he read another sickening response, gasping for a break from all the self hatred, “We are all going to share a group hug!” Everyone laughed, then Colton went on to read more tragedy and poison until he suddenly broke off in the middle of speaking, “That’s it! We are all having a group hug right now!” he announced, nodding his curly head. Everyone walked to the front of the room, some kids had to be egged on to move from their chairs and others approached shyly as if they had no idea about what getting hug entailed. I wished I were huge, large enough to cast a protective shadow over them all, and felt my mothering powers concentrate into a fury of healing and white light.
The kids waited as my cane and I arrived to the circle last, not staring as I toddled over from the teacher’s chair. They just waited, maybe sensing I was a victim in some way, too, and sending out their own love lasers. And then the marvelous group hug. Nothing like it, a hub of love for each person there, passed around the ring and arms draping over shoulders and arms and around waists. Then the energy flashed through us all again. If only we could bottle it.
That day is now the memory I link to when I wonder about our world and the intentions of the people in it, when I wonder why we can’t all accept without question a person’s private lifestyle especially when it has nothing to do with ours. And I recall the agony of those children’s pain, scary because they carry it around with them, because they believe the lies they told themselves, as if it were a rite of passage. It could certainly grow to overpower them if they didn’t know how to stop it.
I will be back for another round of group hugs. I’m not sure who needs it more, those very special kids, or me.
Read more about Colton’s journey – 5 Steps to Supporting Your Son After He Comes Out of the Closet
Photo: Flickr/Steve Snodgrass