I learned, years after graduating from my rural, Midwestern high school, that my classmates had unofficially voted me most likely to shoot up the school. The messenger was a former class mate I’d bumped into (I can’t remember where), the guy I used sit in the library with during study hall, when everyone else was in the cafeteria. I knew that people thought I was a bit unusual, but this new information surprised me, enough, in fact, that I didn’t think to follow up on it with any questions. Nevertheless, I was apparently more than a bit unusual to them. I was a bit dangerous too. Of course, we can never know exactly what others think of us (if they even know that themselves), and yet these impressions, often of no material foundation, can have material results. So I’ve occasionally speculated about what it was they were seeing in me, how they were shaping me into some symbolic vessel for their fears… as I went about my business unaware.
Despite my regular involvement in school activities (football, track, theater, the science team, the English team, Future Problem Solvers, etc.), I never felt accepted by my peers. Girls would have little to do with me, though, admittedly, I made very little effort myself (anxiety, etc.), and the boys seemed vaguely afraid of me. Younger students seemed intrigued by me, but, flattering as that may have been, it was also too ephemeral for me to give serious thought. As I mentioned earlier, I never did figure out what they thought of me, or if there was even some kind of consensus, but I did catch occasional glimpses of potential versions of myself among them, such as the time when I was walking through the relative silence of the cafeteria during study hall, bringing the attendance sheet back from the library, and someone announced in a clear, confident voice, “Iwen is a faggot.” I stopped and turned, to identify the speaker. He was someone I’d never spoken to before, someone from the grade below me, of whose reputation as a bully even I was vaguely aware. I silently stared him down for several seconds, then continued on my way, feeling quite confident I’d made my point. (Ironically, I was later asked by the guidance counselor to tutor another student in reading and writing, and guess who I was paired with. I didn’t flinch. I suppressed my initial anxiety and, over the course of several weeks, helped him over some obstacles he couldn’t get over on his own. To this day, I believe he considers me a good friend.)
So, why was I marginalized the way I was? Admittedly, I was (as I remain to some extent) bored and irritated by the predictability of the mainstream culture that surrounded me, from the gymnasium to the national stage, so I intentionally dressed differently, wore my hair in eccentric styles, openly read books deemed dangerous or unacceptable by mainstream society (The Satanic Verses, American Psycho, etc.). In other words, I was openly subversive, not to a flamboyant extent (at least in my mind), but enough to make me feel I wasn’t suppressing my conscience, just enough to not feel I was a coward for not expressing my feelings, just enough to have some pride in myself. But apparently that was just enough to earn me some alienation. Not only did I think and feel strange things (as we all do), but I had the temerity and perversity of disposition to make my thoughts and feelings known to others.
Who knows if my classmate’s fears would have been actualized if I hadn’t the courage to express myself, if I had bottled it up inside and felt increasingly disgusted with myself and a world that I felt was giving me no other options but conformity, external at first, but eventually internal as well, through the gradual desensitization of mental habit. Fortunately, this didn’t happen to me. It felt good to stare the bully down (and occasionally defend myself physically; I did make sure I was familiar with basic martial arts techniques… It’s good for self-confidence, whether it’s actually ever needed or not). It also feels good, now that I’m aware of how all my classmates “turned out,” to know that I distracted those who were less accepting, long enough for those who were less confident than I to make it through high school relatively unscathed.