Confession time: I am extremely judgmental. It’s something I’m working on. Honestly, though, I’ll probably never fully overcome it unless I move to Bali and spend the rest of my days meditating on the beach—which my husband informs me is not an option.
My judgment never shuts up. Like a toddler with separation anxiety, it follows me everywhere. It never misses an opportunity to make assumptions and label people. Wow, listen to that Starbucks order, she must be so high maintenance. Omg, a Nickelback shirt, what a tool.
Trying to ignore it is like trying to ignore a chocolate pound cake or a hit of cocaine. Like those things, judgment is all about instant gratification. For a minute it makes us feel good. Specifically, it makes us feel better than the person we’re judging—and being better than someone is one step closer to feeling like we are enough.
I work every day on quieting my judgment. Some days I’m more successful than others. When I’m really struggling, though, the universe helps out by sending me a teacher.
I thought about one of those teachers the other weekend. I was at my husband’s high school reunion, wondering how soon we could leave and where the bathroom was so I could hide out in the meantime and scroll through Instagram. As I was looking out over the crowd, I realized that without talking to any of them I could tell who everyone had been in high school. The popular girls were gathered in a tight circle by the photo booth, laughing and taking selfies. The football player/bully was holding court in the middle of the room talking about himself. The Dead Heads were flailing around on the dance floor. Suddenly I wasn’t just bored, I was sad—sad that even as adults, we often still operate according to the labels we received early in life.
This made me think about Stew Haman. Stew was the jockiest of jocks in my high school. He spent a lot of time at the gym lifting weights, and a lot of time out of the gym flexing his muscles for anyone around. From all this working out he didn’t so much have a neck as he had a face attached to a thick stump protruding from his body. His wardrobe consisted exclusively of Chicago Bulls t-shirts and those wind pants that everyone thought were cool in the 90s.
I hated Stew. As a sensitive drama nerd who couldn’t wait to leave the agony that is high school behind, Stew was not my people. He and his baseball player friends took over the Senior hallway with their loud jokes and wrestling moves, while my friends and I congregated in the parking lot listening to the Cure and Depeche Mode on someone’s car stereo until the final bell before class.
So, when my twelfth grade English teacher gave us a graduation assignment to bring in our favorite song accompanied by a short speech about why we had chosen it, I had no intention of listening to Stew’s. As he walked to the front of the room and pressed play, I put my head down on my desk for a catnap
You’ve got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
I sat bolt upright. Stew was playing my song—the one my friends and I blasted with the windows down as we drove aimlessly around town, dreaming about living somewhere else one day.
As Tracy Chapman’s voice faded, Stew began reading his speech from a piece of notebook paper.
“I chose the song Fast Car because it’s how I feel a lot of the time,” he read in a stilted voice. “In the song, she dreams of a different, better life. Sometimes she has moments when it feels possible, like when she’s driving fast with the window down. Other times she feels like she’ll be trapped where she is forever. I feel that way too. Sometimes when I’m driving my truck fast on the highway and singing along I feel like anything is possible, like I will have the future that I want. Other times, like when I’m at school, I feel like I will never escape. This song reminds me to never stop dreaming.”
I put my head down on my desk again, this time from disbelief. Stew’s speech was exactly the one I would have given if I’d been brave enough to share something honest with my classmates. We were more similar than I thought, except that he had way more guts than I did.
That night there was a party at someone’s house whose parents were out of town. I went with my friend and fellow drama nerd, Carson. Carson and I had been friends since junior high when he was my first boyfriend, thus kicking off multiple decades of me choosing men who were romantically wrong for me. Carson was gay, but only recently out to good friends. Most people at school suspected, though, and were not kind about it. This was small-town America in the 90s, before Will & Grace or “It Gets Better”.
At the party, I lost track of him. Already in high school, Carson drank too much, too often. I know now that this was a side effect of hiding such an important part of himself. As it came time to leave I grew concerned and started asking people if they’d seen him.
“He left a little while ago,” one of the band geeks told me. “I think he got a ride with Stew.”
Stew Haman, king of the jocks, giving the gay drama nerd a ride home? Yeah, right. Yet about a mile down the road, as I left the party, there was Stew’s Chevy truck pulled off to the side. He stood next to it, patting Carson’s back as he puked into the ditch.
“Hey,” Stew said as I got out of the car. “He’s gonna be all right, don’t worry.” Opening the door to his truck he fished out a bottle of Gatorade, twisted off the cap and handed it to Carson.
“I can take him home,” I said, still completely confused by the situation.
“I don’t mind,” he said. “I’ll make sure he gets there and that he’s ok. I know what it’s like to have a rough night.” With that wrapped an arm around Carson’s shoulders and helped him climb back into the truck.
I lost track of Stew after that night. I like to think that he left our hometown and became the person he wasn’t allowed to be high school, the one I saw that night. Or maybe he always was that person, but I was unable to see past my own judgment and labels. I’ve met a lot of Stews since then—people who surprise me and remind me to stay open-minded and kind. So wherever you are, Stew, thank you for being one of the first. Somewhere out there I hope you’re still driving your fast car and singing along.
*Names changed to protect the innocent.
Previously published here and reprinted with the author’s permission.
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