To the Girl Who Stood Behind Me In Line At the Union Street Market

To the girl who stood behind me in line at the Union Street Market:

You are too drunk or high to realize that I’m being rude, but if you were to call me out on my rudeness, I would make the excuse that I have a lot on my mind.

I do.

I am contemplating the vulgarity of the world. I’m tense.

I’m trying to figure out how to sleep when people are dying and when not enough places sell vanilla Coke.

I wonder if you think about the same things.

You awkwardly reach around me to put your finger on a piece of packaging. You look at me and smile and laugh. As a pleasantry, I grin before moving forward in the line.

“You were holding this down,” you say, referring to the packaging. “I thought I’d help.”

I hadn’t realized that my hand was on the packaging. I was resting my hand there absentmindedly.

You try to start a conversation about the box. It holds several containers of energy shots. “You seemed very interested,” you say.

“I’m trying to go to bed soon. I don’t need any energy.” I’m hoping you don’t notice the hypocrisy of me buying a vanilla Coke.

“I should go to bed soon, too.” You say it as if you don’t mean it and know it.

I buy my vanilla Coke as you ask about the single blueberry bagel left on the counter. The cashier ignores your inquiry.

As I leave, you ask for a pack of Marlboros.

What kind of person are you like when it is not 12:30 am on a Monday night? What classes do you go to during the day? What kind of family do you have? What are you passionate about? What keeps you up at night?

These are the questions I mean to ask you. But it’s easier to box you in with the energy shots.

I Will Teach: A Promissory Note to a Future Student

Note: Unlike most of the things I write, this is not based on one factual occurrence. Instead, it is a composite of many experiences.

I have been given the instructions to mentor you. I have been given neat little packets that tell me the words to say.

“What do you want to be?”

“A mechanical engineer,” you answer.

“Great! Write that down!”

I glimpse at your sheet and see the words “megin engineer.”

You are in tenth grade. You are pimply, bright, optimistic, witty, and beautiful. But you can’t spell “mechanical.” I wouldn’t be bothered by it–“mechanical” is a hard word–except that word you spelled isn’t even phonetically close. And that’s when the gravity of the situation comes crashing down on me.

The neat little packets don’t know you.

I realize that you don’t need a mentor. You need a leader. You don’t need to be asked “What do you want to be?” You need to be asked “What combination of letters put together can also make the “k” sound?” Both questions are important, and you will get to both. You can even ask the first while you are asking the second, but the second should be present, too. You need someone to tell you each and every step for a while. Eventually, you will grow out of that. But right now, you need someone to help you.

You are everywhere. You are always in my head. You are perpetually getting off the bus that I’m stopped behind. You are in the group of kids sitting in the local coffee shop. You are on the playground when I walk by at lunch time.

You are everywhere. Today you were in Detroit. And I had a mini panic attack when I woke up because I thought I should get on an airplane and fly to you immediately. Yesterday you were in Appalachia, and I could have driven to you. The day before that you were in Atlanta, and I was afraid of the culture shock. Tomorrow you will be in New Mexico, and the arid heat will feel new and foreign against my skin.

Sometimes you jump across the ocean, where, the experts tell me, you know how to spell “mechanical,” but you can’t think critically about whether becoming a mechanical engineer will be a good occupation for you.

All this to say that you are constantly living in the back of my mind. I’m often guilty that I’m not with you.

When I go to being the mentor, I know how little it is. How it’s hardly anything at all. But right now, it’s all I can do.

I’m coming, wherever you are, I’m coming.

I promise.

To The Critic/Skeptic/Asshole at the Party

My friends and I have a joke that I can make any conversation be about education. There’s a lot of truth in it.

The world just makes more sense in terms of education. I think about the world in terms of teachers and students. I can’t help it.

My friend Benji says that the act of education is one of the purest acts of love–that there are teachers and students everywhere. I think he’s right.

And that’s why you make me sad. That’s why I avoid large social gatherings. There is always one of you. Usually alone in a corner. Either with or without drink. Brooding. You don’t fit here.

The worst part is that you don’t have to be here. But you think you do. You think that the only way of being is the way your peers are being.

And it depresses me because no one ever loved you enough to tell you that you are allowed to believe in something. You are allowed to have faith in something so big and crazy that no one else can understand it. You are allowed to be head over heels for something or someone. You are allowed to make your dreams into reality.

But no one ever told you.

When I look at you, I see someone who was always told what to do. I see someone whose opinion was never respected. I see someone who desperately wants to be different.

But no one ever gave you permission.

You are the reason I want to teach. You are the reason I want to put the formal label on the act of love I already prize.

Everyone should know that it’s okay to believe in something.

Come Back Next Year

Come back next year.

Four simple words. Four simple life-changing words.

When I was in eighth grade, I told a girl that I would die for her. “Well that’s not healthy,” she responded.

In eighth grade, I was certain that my self-worth was tied to whether or not this girl could ever like me back as much as I liked her. I spent nights obsessing over it, lunches plotting about it with my friends, and many an AIM conversation trying to figure out how she really felt about me.

I think I read too many books for my own good. The large majority of young adult literature uses the romance subplot. It’s sexy. It’s interesting. It’s a lie.

Come back next year.

It’s summer. A lot of my friends from high school are getting married. Other friends are getting engaged. At least half a dozen of my Facebook friends entered into a FB official relationship in the past week.

It seems that my obsession from eighth grade has become a cultural one.

If you are semi-active on-line and you are in your twenties, chances are you will see an article or a blog post at least once a day that lets you know that it’s okay if you are single. Or maybe it helps you survive wedding season. Or maybe it tells you how to find a partner.

It’s sad that we need articles about how being single and being lonely are two different things. But we do need them. Desperately. Because everyone is telling us that being single is the worst thing that can possibly befall us. If we are religious, we are supposed to pray every night for a mate. If we aren’t, we are supposed to date as much as possible. Go get ’em tiger.

Come back next year.

The trouble with the culture of coupling is that we are complex people. I think almost everyone is single by choice. If you really didn’t want to be single, you would put everything else on hold and find someone. At least that’s what I would do. But there are other things that we devote our time to. Other important things.

For a lot of us, I think the myth that you are either a family-oriented wonderful person or a career-oriented cold-blooded bastard is completely misguided. If you do something that fulfills you and maybe makes a difference, why is that any worse than spending a life in a quaint suburb with a 2.5-kids-family?

Come back next year.

Love is not just a thing between two consenting adults. Defining it that way already limits it. Love is so much bigger than that. We should be practicing love with our coworkers, our friends, our neighbors, our parents, our children, our bosses, our teachers, and our students.

Come back next year.

Almost eight years after telling a girl that I would die for her, I taught a group of ninth graders for a summer. My conceptions of love were tested. I loved my students with a teacher-ly parental love. It was different than romantic love. I didn’t care if they loved me back. I cared if they grew. If they hated me but were learning and growing, I was happy.

And somehow, this was all-encompassing. It was fulfilling. It made me happy everyday to wake up and love something the way I loved my students. I was content with this.

Then the last day came. And it was hard. And I hated it. They passed out yearbooks of the summer. Students rushed around, getting their peers to sign; others found teachers and asked us to sign. I stood in a corner, letting the students interact with one another for the last time.

An eighth-grade girl came up to me. She politely asked if I would sign her yearbook. I hadn’t taught her. I barely knew her. We had interacted once or twice. I had told her and her friends to be quiet during assemblies and told her to walk in the hallway. But she knew I taught ninth-grade English. I asked if she would sign my yearbook as well. She did. She wrote a simple message, and it changed everything.

Come back next year.

When I was in eighth grade, no one told me that those four words would mean more to me than “I would die for you, too.”

To the Woman Who Stared at Me at Exit 38

I think maybe you were once very pretty. You are, still, in a tired way. But like a sunflower in fall, it is clear that you have seen better days. I look at you because I like looking at the cars that I pass. They seem like self-contained worlds to me. You look as if you understand that.

At first, I’m flattered that you are staring at me. I do look good with facial hair, highway wind whipping through my closely cropped hair, and black shades on. But you hold your stare for too long. I make eye contact with you and hope we will share a moment. I hope you will wave or turn away and laugh with your friends. But you don’t. You keep your eyes on me, and as much as I try to look away, I can’t.

Your eyes are empty. That’s the best way to describe them. And I’m terribly scared of them. I’m scared of them because they don’t seem self-aware. In fact, they seem the opposite of it. They are empty. They are shells. And they warn me that most people have souls that look similar.

The woman who waves or laughs is no more self-aware than you are. She is simply better at acting. She knows that a well-placed laugh can make it seem like she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She knows that a well-timed wave goes well with her personal aesthetic.

The scary thing about your eyes is that they show that you have given up. As I try to cut away every opinion, every action, every thought that is not my own, you realize that it is not an achievable goal. You have given into the cookie cutter. You have allowed it to rule your sunflower face. Nothing in the world can make you more or less than you are now because you will be gone by winter.

A Letter to Sixteen-Year-Old Me

To the sixteen-year-old me:

I know you read through your journals and you don’t see progress. You feel like you are wrestling with the same things. And mostly, that’s true. But that’s okay. You’ve only been writing seriously for a couple of months. Change, maturity, resolution – those things take time.

Right now, you believe in God. That’s important. Keep doing that. But don’t think God limits. God expands. Keep your open mind. Ask the questions you don’t hear other people asking. Make your faith yours. Make it personal. But don’t give up on God. He won’t give up on you.

You think you’re in love. I can’t tell you if you are or not. It will happen a few more times. Each time it does, really think about it. Really dive into it. And if you decide that you actually are, treat the girl as if it’s true.

But, in the mean time, be in love with everyone. Respect everyone. Be selfless to everyone. And rejoice in it. Don’t walk around with a nice-guy chip on your shoulder. Good men aren’t good because they don’t curse. They are good because they always put others first.

Don’t be mad at the people who party and drive fast and sleep with each other. Be mad at the people who say “faggot” and use female genitalia as insult. Be mad at the people who are convinced that the funniest humor is the kind that is necessarily insulting. Be mad at the people whose main source of socialization is exclusionary.

Stop thinking you are smarter than the people around you. Life is much more fun when you live it outside of GPAs and SAT scores.

In a related way, stop believing that you hold objective reality. Your instincts about people are good, but they are based on your own personality. Just because you don’t get along with someone doesn’t mean they are a bad person.

But don’t take any of this criticism too personally. You are already perfect. after all. Not because of anything you have done, but because God is pulling you into His Kingdom. And I know that feels weird. I know that feels like a free pass. But really, all it is is freeing. If you don’t turn that assignment in on time, you won’t be any less great. If a girl breaks your heart, your soul will still be whole. If things don’t go your way, you are still on the right path. And that’s freeing.

With love,

Your 21-year-old self who is still a lot like you.

Why My Creative Nonfiction Professor Thinks I Am A Mess With The Ladies

If things had gone differently, I have full faith that I would still be with a girl named Lauren N. Lauren was the cutest girl in my second grade class. Our relationship developed, as most second grade relationships do, on the playground. The playground is essentially the bar of elementary school. You go there to do other things (drink, talk, dance in the bar; chase, swing, slide in the playground), but everyone knows if you are spending time on the playground, you are single.  All the boys with girlfriends play kickball.

I was a committed bachelor. Whereas other boys were self-conscious on the playground, chasing girls so that they could ultimately land spots on the kickball court, I reveled in the chase. I had no interest in kickball. I had chase strategies: Foster a friendship with the girl. Converse with her on the swings. Jump up suddenly. Chase her. Direct the chase to the Hill. Outlast the girl on the Hill.

If I managed to outlast the girl on the Hill before the end of recess, in my head, I had two options. I could choose to be the girls’ boyfriends or start again next recess. Before Lauren, I always chose to start over. But Lauren was special.

Chasing Lauren started off like chasing any other girl. I got her to the Hill by the end of recess without any problem. Then something interesting happened – Lauren began to talk.

“Oh, I am just so glad you are my boyfriend.”

Emergency lights began flashing in my head. I hadn’t committed to anything, had I? This wasn’t part of the plan. Identify, chase, reset. That’s what I was used to.

***

  • Chelsea B., if I hadn’t been too afraid to talk to an older girl.
  • Libby H., if I hadn’t written that short story where the love interest was named “Libby” and then published it in the school newspaper that her mom was the faculty adviser for.
  • Ruth Z., if I hadn’t believed that her parents didn’t want her dating.
  • Elizabeth G., if I hadn’t told her that when I hugged her it felt like I was hugging my sister. I don’t have a sister.
  • Mary T., if I would have let her drunkenly make out with me.
  • Lindsey J., if she knew that one of our professional dinners was actually a date.
  • Jess R., if I had never asked her on a date.

***

I gulped as Lauren took my hand and led me back down the Hill to stand in line for the end of recess. My days of recess bachelorhood were over. I didn’t even know how to play kickball.

I didn’t take well to a relationship. I disliked being around Lauren, but she insisted that we spend all of our free time with each other. It became quite clear that puberty had not yet hit me. I knew girls were different, but I was not yet attracted to them for that difference. I was more attracted to the fact that they would run when I chased them. If a boy had done that, I would have chased boys. (And would have probably faced ridicule from the kickball courts.)

Imagine my surprise, then, when Lauren began whispering about a secret plan. A secret sleepover plan. Lauren, being the worldly woman she was, knew that couples sometimes spent the night together and so she began talking of me coming over to her house when her parents were asleep. I was petrified. Never mind that we were eight years old, had no sense of direction, no transportation, and no way of getting past locked doors. I thought this plan was a very real possibility. It literally kept me up at night.

I spent hours wide awake, trying to devise an excuse. But I knew I couldn’t come up with an excuse for every night. I was only a second grader, after all. My schedule wasn’t exactly brimming with other engagements.

One night, as I was lying awake in my bed, quivering fearfully from the thought of spending an entire night with Lauren N., my father came in my room to check on me. He noticed I was awake.

“Is there something the matter, son?” he asked.

“Lauren N. wants me to have a sleepover with her!” I said tearfully.

My father waited patiently as I explained the situation to him, and then he introduced the greatest childhood excuse ever devised. “Just tell her that your mother and I aren’t comfortable with it.”

***

  • Staci B., if she hadn’t gone to an all-girls school after kindergarten probably because her father was frightened by the fact that I was her only friend.
  • Liz A., if her parents hadn’t forbidden her reading Harry Potter.

***

After my parent-developed excuse, the issue, for me, was resolved. I told Lauren the next day that my parents would never go for it, and in a weird not-yet-rebellious second grade world, that seemed to work. I was free to chase again! Life regained its sweetness.

But I soon realized my mistake. Lauren, after all, was the cutest girl in my second grade class. I had ruined my chance with her. The first reason, then, that Lauren and I are not still together is because I, in my second-grade ignorance fearfully told my parents about what would have been the first of what I can only guess would have been hundreds of romantic trysts.

The second reason that Lauren and I are not still together happened a week later. Right before lunch, we were pulled down to the guidance office. The guidance counselor, a small, kind, middle-aged woman named Mrs. R, ushered us into her office.

“I hear that you two have been thinking about… dating,” she started. I rolled my eyes. Back at this. I had been chasing new girls on the playground for a whole week. Lauren had tears in her eyes.

“I think we can all agree that the two of you are a little young to date.”

I was nodding profusely.

“So I thought we would come up with some appropriate ages for dating.”

Mrs. R pulled out some hokey picture book that she had bought with school funds for occasions like this one, and read us a story about Jack and Jill who dated in high school and then got married and lived happily ever after.

“See,” said Mrs. R. “Dating in high school doesn’t put you behind. So, what do you think would be an appropriate time to start dating?”

Lauren answered first, sniffling as she did. “High school?”

“That’s great, Lauren. That’s really great! Now what about you, Spencer? When do you think is a good time to start dating?”

We had just read a story about people dating in high school and getting married. Lauren had just answered high school. The answer should have been obvious. But I crossed my arms and answered: “College.”

***

  • Bethany M., if I hadn’t smeared dandelion on her Abercrombie cardigan at recess.
  • Lauren P., if I hadn’t gone to the Spring Fling with Amy V.
  • Amy V., if I hadn’t almost elementary-school cheated on her with Lauren P.