Back then, we didn't call it "bullying." There was no buzz word like that to grab the attention of parents, teachers and coaches. When I was a teenager, you just teased kids who were different or weak. That's just what you did. It was a perfectly accepted form of interaction between high school students. It was a rite of passage.
I vividly remember the first time I went home crying. I was in the fourth grade, Mrs. Olsen's class. A girl named Donnella had a crush on me, but I fancied Jennifer. One day standing in line to head to art class, Donnella tried to kiss me, and I wasn't having it. Within hours, word spread through the class that I was gay. I had no idea what it was, but it was clear from the pointing, laughing and shunning that it wasn't good.
I was 9.
When I got home my mom dried my tears and explained to me what "gay" was.
"But mom that's stupid," I said. "I like Jennifer."
I really did. It didn't matter. Over the next five years I would endure what felt like a constant barrage of verbal and physical attacks because I was deemed gay. I suddenly got picked last in gym class. I lost friends. My confidence and self-worth were shot.
When I got to Harwich Junior High School, the locker-room intimidation made it worse. Suddenly I was getting undressed with other guys, something that didn't happen in elementary and middle school. As I dipped my toe in track & field and cross-country, the soccer and baseball players made it clear I wasn't welcome anywhere near them. So I changed every day in the back of the room, away from the bravado and girl talk that dominated the larger room where the "guys" bonded.
Yet something funny happened in tenth grade: I got good. My picture started showing up in the local sports sections. I started beating people in races. When I swept all of my events in a dual track & field meet against West Bridgewater High School that year, and went on to win the season-long team MVP award, suddenly the teasing slowed down. If I was faster than everyone else, I couldn't be gay. If I could win a varsity MVP award before any of the jocks in my class, I couldn't be gay. They couldn't let me be gay.
At that young age, I had learned an important lesson about the power of sports to change attitudes.
It was at the same time that I realized... the teasing was right. I was gay. My crushes on girls faded away in junior high school, and by the time I was a sophomore I only thought about boys in that way. It wouldn't be for another eight years that I'd do anything about it.
I was lucky. The bullying and teasing only lasted about five years. But it was a painful five years. I cried a lot, sometimes in front of my mom, but usually by myself, alone in my room.
It's because of those painful five years that I honor #SpiritDay today and extend an open hand to the countless victims of bullying in our society. We can wear all of the purple we have in our closets, we can share slogans like "It Gets Better" and "You Can Play." These campaigns give us a collective voice.
But I know it's so hard to let any of it in when you feel like you're lower than the gum on the gymnasium floor. Still, I hope the breadth and depth of these campaigns show those kids - like me 25 years ago - that things will work out in the end. I turned out OK. I think.