By CJ Glenn
It is March of 2010; I am sitting in the Jorgensen Auditorium at the University of Connecticut as it buzzes with the best kind of energy. For one day it’s been turned over to over a thousand high school students, some teachers and school personnel and at least one parent disguised as Board of Education member. Two high school age dancers are center stage connecting with their audience peers. The music shifts from Lady Gaga to something I’ve never heard. Most of the dancers’ interpretations of the music are mysteries to me but the audience responds with waves of laughter, cheers and applause peppered with the occasional shouted affirmations. Such a good feeling is filling my body and soul that I can barely control my emotions.
The auditorium continues to fill as more and more teenagers pour in wearing their own creations set off by rainbows and knowing no limits. They have been set free for a day; free from school that doesn’t welcome them, free from judgmental looks, free from name calling, free from bullies, free from condemnation and words of hate and free from violent attacks from the few who’s behavior has have been allowed to go unchecked from the rest of us for too long. Here they celebrate their freedom with a joy that jumps from hug to hug to fill the hall. All they had ever asked is to be able to live their lives as an expression of who they truly are; to dress the way they want to dress, to style their looks however they choose, to talk, to play, to dance, to sing they way they choose and to love who they want to love and be loved in return. For 364 days of every year they fight against constant waves of objections and oppression, for one day they are free to celebrate who they are.
I am wearing the tie-dye T-shirt I bought moments early in the crush of the crowd in the lobby near the registration tables. I liked the splash of tie-dyed rainbow colors and the turn of the phrase across the back of it, â€œThese Colors Don’t Run They Blendâ€; a rebuttal of the â€œYou are either with us or against usâ€ mindset. The playful message is that we will progress not through the binary of confrontation and submission but by the third choice of acceptance of each other’s differences.
I am sitting with Cheryl; we are both here as ‘educators’; Cheryl as a sometime substitute school nurse and me as a Board of Education member for our town. But really both of us are here as parent-advocate-social-justice warriors that have been taught so much by our children and need to learn so much more. Katie is sitting nearby with her high school’s GSA club. We saw Aaron in the lobby, hugged and then lost her; now she was off somewhere, one of a hundred volunteers helping make the event possible. She’s a sociology major senior at CCSU and doing an internship with True Colors. Rose is back home in school with her fifth grade class; a little miffed that she couldn’t come to True Colors with the rest of her family. I told her she could when she’s a ninth grader.
Next up is a comedian; his routine traces with much humor his difficult journey through high school. He is on; his is so connected with his audience, with us. And then he has a most unusual experience; well-practiced at playing off the up-hill resistance of hecklers and doubters, today he resonates with his audience in an uncommonly good way. The first cheer shouted, â€œYou are beautiful!!!â€ throws him off his pace. The second wave of approval brings him to a speechless halt; even his polished professionalism wasn’t ready for the total acceptance of a thousand teenagers. He laughs at himself and finds his pace again. And we all laugh with him and amaze at this place.
I am ‘only’ a parent but I share his feelings. I look down at my chest; I see the words â€œUnconditional Loveâ€ written across a valentine red heart and it’s written across my heart, too. I want to laugh and cry at the same time; I just barely avoid crying and I laugh with such fullness and depth that it feels spiritual. And I understand the words of a Motown philosopher from the seventies that I have sung over and over again like a prayer;
People in hand in hand
Have I lived to see the milk and honey land?
Where hate’s a dream and love forever stands
Or is this a vision in my mind?
â€¦But what I’d like to know
Is could a place like this exist so beautiful
Or do we have to take our wings and fly away
To the vision in our mind?
I would have never thought this day was possible, that such a place could exist for even a moment; we started so far from here. Through ninth and tenth grade Erin had found what should have been simple becoming unexplainably difficult. A good student and a good athlete Erin started to have more and more frequent problems that just didn’t fit with the image of her future successes we held in our minds. A puberty growth spurt had changed her small body into a lanky five-feet tall; all arms and legs with no curves and a blonde pony tail pulled back tight. One thing she could do in this body was run; a spring track season of fast miles followed by an even better fall cross-country season had Cheryl and I thinking college scholarship in between bursts of parental pride.
The winter of tenth grade it all came apart; the illusion of success, the race to conform slipping away, Erin finally couldn’t maintain the faÃ§ade any longer. She lost the desire to go to school; first a day here and a day there and then a complete shutdown. Some days she couldn’t even get out bed; never mind what we didn’t know was happening. And I just wondered; ‘Why is she doing this? All she has to do is get up and go to school. How hard can that be? I always did. Is she just being a spoiled brat?’ Some mornings Cheryl would call me at work and put Erin on the phone; I would drive the force of my will through that phone line. Sometimes Erin chose school over having to argue with me. Some days that didn’t work and I took off from work and spent the day with Erin visiting book stores and spending time together. And I wondered, ‘What are we doing? Where will this go?’ Once Cheryl broke down at a school meeting; in between sobs she sketched out the barest outline of our troubles with Erin. She was overwhelmed with feelings of ‘haven’t we already been through enough’ and was just looking for enough sympathy to get her through the day.
As parents we flailed in the dark. We thought our child’s bright future was on the verge of being realized and now was being inexplicably swept away. Almost everything we tried didn’t work; almost but not everything. One night we did something right that we will all always be proud of; or I should say Cheryl did something right and I managed to follow her lead and Erin found her way. That night we had all reached the edge of something that felt like everything was going to come apart and their might be no more tomorrows. It was late, past midnight, five-year-old Rose was long asleep and nine-year-old Katie was either asleep or expertly pretending to be. Cheryl and I sat on our bed and talked around in circles that went nowhere, Erin struggled alone in her room.
And then Cheryl decided she just couldn’t leave Erin alone, not this night. She picked up her pillow, grabbed a blanket and walked into Erin’s room. Erin lay in her bed wide awake; Cheryl sat on the floor across from her and said, â€œI’m sleeping her tonight. I’m not leaving you alone.â€
I hesitated, thought about the toll of another sleepless night, and then picked up my pillow and another blanket and followed Cheryl. I walked into Erin’s room and lay down on the floor next to Cheryl, â€œI’m staying here, too.â€
Hours went by, we cried, we were quiet, we didn’t sleep. Then something clicked in Erin; she burst into tears and dove between us. Cheryl hugged her. I hugged her, we cried for the longest time and then we calmed and spoke; â€œI love you.â€ â€œI love youâ€ â€œI love youâ€ and the moment seemed to hold. Cheryl took a risk, â€œWhy don’t you get you blankets?â€ Erin left us to dash back to her bed; a ball of blankets and pillow and Erin landed between us. We hugged each other, found places for each other and then slept the rest of the night on her floor; a warm mass of family love. That was it; no demands, no other imposition other than declaring with our bodies that we will never let you go. We are family. Unconditional Love is not words; it’s our actions that speak so much louder. And we said with our actions that we are family, we will always be family, and we will always love you. It’s the one thing we did right. It was a long time coming but we learned a child who doesn’t sleep won’t run fast but a child who knows unconditionally love will live to see the sunrise. We are family.
There is a harsh wisdom that comes from the personal experiences of long nights of isolation brought on by long days of subtle and not so subtle rejections. Here is the poem Erin wrote the summer before her senior year in high school to describe those battles through those lonely nights.
The Pillow Man
So, you are
The Pillow Man?
I have felt your words here before
On this same kind of night
My door shut tight
I saw you peering through the shades;
I avoided you for nights and days
Upon days, upon days!
Oh, the days meant nothing but the nights were everything–
Everything bad happened at night
And yet the day brings me no closer to safety’s paradise
Because you follow me.
You disgusting creep,
You follow me.
And so my days slump into nights
That are ruined
Because I feel like a sick person, an
You spoon feed my night to make me nauseous
Trite and sick of life.
So I spit it out
And try again, but
I hate to sleep, now
So I stay up and think
About everything that should be nothing…
I call you out to play this game
How dare you cry for yourself
When it’s me that you’re hurting
There is shame in that sort of name
I’m putting shame to your name
So I run because I’m fast
And people cheer me for it
But you have no idea how much I hate it
But there’s my fight!
When my mind is racing
Set off by this psychotic pacing
It feels like my words aren’t really me
There is nothing left to be
But a pile of ashes
To and from the shadows
Obscuring my windows
And I am still
And there is nothing left to see
But maybe, maybe…
I will turn on all the lights at once!
I will slow to a walk and truly face my death’s creator
For the first time
For the last time
And I will set you ablaze with all the lies you’ve told me.
It would take time for Erin to tell us everything she needed to tell us. It took time for her to even understand what it was she wanted to tell us. Eventually the concepts would be found and then the words to describe those concepts to us. And awhile later we would learn to truly listen and start to understand. As much as we selfishly wanted to think of ourselves as ‘good parents’ we had failed to provide Erin an education in the range of possible lives. A start would have been explaining a little more clearly the significance of the two guys that lived together down the street and one house past them the two women that lived together. Simply carrying on neighborly conversations didn’t provide a middle-school-age Erin the means to understand what else might be possible. We missed opportunities to really be good parents, we stumbled and made mistakes but we did do one thing right.
And this day at True Colors was waiting for me in the future. I needed to know that then but I didn’t. I wouldn’t have understood that such a place, such a moment, such a feeling of complete acceptance could exist. I wish I knew then what I know now. I wish I could have taken 14 year-old Erin to a day like this to end all the long nights of wrestling alone with the Pillow Man. I can’t begin to imagine how much immediate healing this could have brought. And yet Aaron has persevered, despite ignorant parents, and grown into an amazing person with more than double times double the compassion, intelligence and sense of purpose to make any parent proud.
I am at True Colors and the lifting of fear and apprehension almost leaves me giddy. Every parent should come to experience this feeling; to know that your children are free and safe to express their true selves without fear of question or reprisal. I need more days like this. I need to feel this feeling again. I need to answer yes to this question over and over again:
Could a place like this exist so beautiful
Or do we have to take our wings and fly away
To the vision in our mind?
This place does exist. This is real for one day in one place. It should be more days and more places. It should be everyday and every place. But it starts with one day, one place; this place so beautiful, this vision in our mind does exist and it’s called True Colors.