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What I Didn't Know Then


I had no idea when I was a kid that my life would turn out as it has. I didn't necessarily think it would be terrible; I just couldn’t see anything hopeful on the horizon. Partly it was because I was gay (although I didn’t know all of what that meant), and partly it was because I was the only kid in a family full of grown-ups. Even my brothers were late teenagers by the time I was conscious of anything, so to me my family seemed very odd. The result was a world in which I didn’t see anyone who looked like me, nor a road to follow that might lead to something that felt like my place. What I didn’t realize then—or really for many, many years—is that most people felt the same way growing up. We looked outside ourselves and struggled to fit in with what we saw. What we didn’t know is that we would just keep putting one foot in front of the other and, after a while, we would begin to feel more at home with ourselves.

I can’t imagine what my world would have been like if I’d known what I had inside of me.

Whenever I am wishing for more years in front of me than behind me, I shudder to imagine having to go back to my teenage years—a time I felt as out of place as a person could feel. It never occurred to me in a million years that I would one day feel in sync with that girl. That I also hold such great empathy for her doesn’t surprise me because I know exactly what crazy, circuitous path I followed to get her from there to here. So much of it was guessing, it seemed at the time, but I am pretty sure now that I actually played a big role in the choices I found in front of me. Because it took me so long time to develop confidence and agency, I often felt like the passive recipient of what was randomly tossed my way. I didn’t get it until recently that I stood where I stood because I had something in me that brought me there.


Although I wasn’t this clear about it when I went into teaching, one of my favorite parts of helping people learn to write and interact and organize their thoughts, was helping them see what they already had in them. You can’t give a person talent or skill, but you can show them what tools they own and how to use them. A few people also did that for me along the way, but I often misinterpreted it as them just being nice or even, god forbid, feeling sorry for me. I can imagine now that, from their point of view, I was probably already aware of my strengths and they were helping me learn to hone them. But their recognition of something notable in me meant everything, and I held on to those moments for my own private review when I needed a boost.


I can’t imagine what my world would have been like if I’d known what I had inside of me. And I honestly don’t know if any of us is really aware of what we have until we’re old enough to just feel the comfortable weight of being in the world on our own terms. When I think back on the pain of what felt like wandering aimlessly for many years, I almost immediately wish it had been different. But I know that the angst I felt helps me see it in other people’s eyes and lets me reach out a hand or sit and listen. I think our paths are really just our paths, and wishing them different is a wasted effort. If the lusciousness of the life I live now is the product of those fumbling, scared, awkward steps, though, I know it was the road I was always meant to travel.