Here's a question for you: what is it that ultimately defines us, says who and what we are? Is it how we look? Act? What we say? Think? What we believe in? Value?
And who does the defining anyway? We ourselves? Are we whoever and whatever we say we are? (I can't altogether think so. When I was a child, I declared I was a kitten and when I grew up I was going to be a cat. This pronouncement no more made me feline than my fervent belief I was heterosexual male made for a happy marriage to a woman.)
What then, do others get to define us? They try, certainly. Every social group sets rules and expectations for its members' behavior—and consequences for failure to measure up. Yet to be human is to be a walking set of contradictions and mystery. We each have a hard enough time getting a handle on who we are as individuals. How can we pretend to define who and what another person is? But others do hold the power to define us, don't they—in the end, we become whatever memories they carry of us after we're dead and gone.
So I ask you, Kurt, what or who is it that determines what we are? I was 14 when you started in on me. "Jeezo," you labeled me. "Fag," "pud," "queer." I didn't know what those words meant. I didn't want to know. I knew you didn't intend them kindly. Whatever they meant, they didn't jive with my Sunday School award for perfect attendance. Didn't jive with how I wanted to define myself: good church boy, obedient Christian, godly teen.
I prayed for you, of course. Prayed you'd go directly to hell. Prayed your arm would snap next time you pressed me against the wall, next time you thrust your hand under my chin, pushed my head back so I could see only the ceiling, had to look heavenward from whence came no help.
Every school day you tormented me. I can still feel the jibes of your tagalong henchmen, hear the snickers of my classmates. I often felt helpless, hapless, humiliated at your hands.
I wonder which affected my sense of self more, your actions or my inaction? To what extent did I participate in my own abuse by allowing you to treat me as you did? Was I so helpless as I imagined? Under your tutelage, I came to see myself as a spineless loser, stupid sap, human push-around. What recourse did I have? Over and again I appealed to God without effect. I tried to tell my parents what was going on. How to explain, "Mom, Dad, your oldest son is the laughingstock of the school, the scum at the bottom of the barrel"?
I let myself be defined by your words and actions.
What about you? I suspect you were defined in part by how you looked. You were the one dark face in a sea of lily-white. How was that for you? I never asked.
Were you unleashing on me pent-up anger you couldn't blast at your friends? You had friends, right? You lettered in golf—didn't that put you in the rich kids' club? Maybe not. Maybe doors were closed to you; maybe in a thousand prickly ways you were told you didn't belong. Was that it? Or were you lashing out at something in me you didn't like in yourself?
I'll never know. You peddling your bicycle, a couple years after graduation. A sudden roar. You never stood a chance against that Mack truck.
All that's left of you now are memories. Those, and the way I still shudder to think of you, the sour taste that rises in my mouth when I do. Some legacy, eh? I'm left to define you, Kurt, to shape you—not in the way you shaped me, but still.
I wish I felt more kind.
This essay appeared in the February, 2012 issue of The Community Letter