Friday, July 12, 2013

My Worst Experiences = My Defining Moments, and Where I Go from Here

Next week I'm preparing to host my first blog interview with someone who I consider a role-model.

I don't use the term "role-model" lightly. Being very different from everyone I've been surrounded by in my formative years I've crafted significant portions of my personality from my favorite literary characters.
That may seem silly to some of you, but as an only child with a single, working mother and living outside of the district of the school I attended my peer interaction (until I was 16) was very limited. Television and the books on my shelves were simultaneously my escape and my social education.

As for my role-model? Last week I plumbed the far reaches of the Twitterverse asking my friends and acquaintances:

"Help! Searching for a male, homosexual, POC {Person of Color} author who writes MG/YA/NA speculative fiction..."

It took multiple Re-tweets from kind friends and strangers, but eventually I was directed to Craig L. Gidney.

You see, in the far future when I find my way to (hopefully) your bookshelf a part of me was very scared that I would be alone. I write MG/YA speculative fiction, I am a person of color, and I am gay.

But here he was, my personal Trailblazer. The one who came before, and in my elation and excitement I quickly (with trembling hands) e-mailed Mr. Gidley asking for an interview, and he graciously accepted.

As I perused Mr. Gidney's blog postings - which you should also because they're intelligent, insightful, and beautifully written - I noticed that there were many references to Black and African American culture, and homosexual culture as well.

I'm about to post my personal experiences and feelings which may make me unpopular for some of've been warned.

If you haven't noticed (if you're familiar with my blog or my twitter feed) rarely do I directly take stances on what I refer to as "Minority Issues". I often Re-tweet or reply to things that I agree with or vaguely comment on things that I don't. As for a well crafted, concise essay on why _____ is right/wrong - it's rare to hear my point of view in my own words.

Mostly it's because I had a hard-working, bold, formidable Momma-Bear who protected me from the worst of the world as I grew up. My experience with the evils of the world is limited. For instance, my mother didn't reveal to me until I was twelve that my grandparents were racists before I was born. I had no idea; they took me everywhere and bought me everything that I ever wanted. They were Nanna and Pa. They weren't those awful people that you see in movies. Their love for me changed their hearts before I could even talk so I never got to see the worst of them - thankfully. They are still my Nanna and Pa, and they love me like crazy.
Because of Mom I grew up in a very optimistic bubble full of books, cartoons, and toys.
My first experience with racism didn't come until I was in the third grade.

Mom doesn't even know about this.

To be clear, I knew that I was different. It was a vague, uninterested sort of observation that I came to very early in life. I had been ostracized since Kindergarten for being a "girl". That never bothered me. Girls were my preferred company, and they never called me a girl. The people that called me that were in the periphery of my attention - and most often beneath it.

At my elementary school, students gathered outside the cafeteria before school, and ten minutes before 8am we were lined up and ushered into the building by our teachers.

One morning three young boys - who I didn't know at the time - pushed their way in front of me.

"Get outta my way, nigger," the first one said.

I blinked in surprise.

No one had ever called me that before.

I'd heard it in movies, I knew what it meant, and I knew it was an ugly thing to say.

But I didn't know how to react.

I was raised never to start fights, but always to finish them.

But the blonde boy didn't hit me - he just called me a name, and I had been called names before...just not THAT name.

Then the other two boys turned around.

For five minutes the three of them giggled and called me "nigger" over and over.

They thought it was funny.

At one point they even started flipping me the bird while giggling and saying the word.

I stood there and looked at them.

I memorized their faces.

I still didn't know what to do.

You didn't tattle-tale. They were just being kids, calling names, and doing things that "bad kids" did.

Another boy - who, once again, I didn't know - pulled me back out of my place in line.

"You have to tell a teacher!" Andy told me.

I shook my head, "No, it's not a big deal."

I was scared.

If Mom found out what those boys did - she would hurt them. She would hurt their parents; the world would catch on fire and explode if Mom found out what happened. Those boys didn't deserve the Wrath of Mom.

Since then, I've always considered myself merciful.

"Well then I'm telling," Andy said. He looked as worried and distressed as a fellow third grader could look, he went and found the chaperone, and I disappeared into the crowd.

I saw him point to me, and the parent-chaperone look over at me.

No one came to talk to me.

No one came to find me.

Until now, only Andy, those three boys, and I know what happened that morning.

Andy and I became friends when we were in high school. More accurately - we were part of the same large group of friends. He's married to a wonderful woman with a beautiful little girl. He never stopped being a Good Guy, and he'll never really know how grateful I was to have an advocate - even though I didn't reach out when he offered his hand.

Two of those boys I actually became casual friends with as well. They both currently serve in our armed forces, and one has a family of his own now.

None of us have ever spoken of that morning in line outside of the cafeteria.

I doubt any of them except me remember it.

Maybe Andy.

But because Andy is good and polite I doubt he would ever mention it if he does remember.


It wouldn't be until 7th grade that I fired the shot heard 'round the school.

I was one of the academically recognized students able to leave class five minutes early to go to lunch.
We left Mr. Smith's English Class, and a well-known "bad kid" happened to be walking down the hall with his sister. His sister was in my homeroom the previous year, and we got along well - she thought I was funny (which was how I won most of my friends).

One of the faux-trees caught a breeze that blew through the atrium we were walking through and fell on her shoulder.

The tree weighed all of 5 pounds.

It caught the six of us in the hall by surprise.

I chuckled, "Be careful!"

"Shut up, nigger."

The boy, her brother, said it.

At this point in my life, my temper and sense of indignation had started to develop. I was far less peaceable than I was as a child, and there was no fear of Mom's retaliation. I was 12 and an invincible know-it-all. Think of a sassy, brown Hermione with a penis.

"What did you say?" I asked calmly. My hands were shaking, and my chest and face could have cooked an egg they were so hot.

"You heard me," the boy replied.

"Yeah, I did."

Without preamble or fanfare I punched him, and immediately turned around and walked the rest of the way to lunch.

Little did I know the woman who would be my 8th grade science teacher saw (though didn't hear) our altercation from down the hall.

She followed me into the cafeteria and pulled me out of the lunch line.

When we made it to the Assistant Principal's office I was already in tears.

I was Colten! I never got in trouble! I never hit anyone! I was never mean! I wasn't one of the bad kids! I didn't break rules!

Mom arrived seven minutes after I made a weeping phone call.

Mom never leaves the house without make-up. When she burst through the front doors of the school her normally pristine cosmetic mask was streaked and smudged 9 ways from Sunday.

She was so proud of me.

My teachers were so proud of me.

Since I did punch the boy I got 2 days In-School-Suspension (ISS)...The boy got 5 days.

My teachers sent me cards, brought candy into the tiny dungeon-like ISS building, and my theatre teacher was the only one who gave me an assignment. She provided me with a radio and headphones, and instructed me to list my top 10 favorite songs that played on my favorite stations.

I knew the boy wasn't a racist. He used The Word to get a rise out of me. He wanted to start a fight. He had black friends, his sister was a casual acquaintance of mine; he was just trying to be what my family would call a "Billy Badass".

I never harbored any ill-will towards him. I knew that's all he was trying to do, but by the time I was 12 - I had deemed such behavior Unacceptable.

 I found out seven months ago that he died.
I came across his sister's facebook and she posted a "RIP Baby Bro". I looked up the newspaper article from my hometown. He died in a high speed chase from the police in 2011. He lost control of his vehicle.

Now homophobia I am more familiar with...but not the ugly "we hate gays" kind, but the ignorant, reckless-with-words kind. I was a "girl" until 5th grade when everyone learned the word "gay", and it never really bothered me.

But three years ago when I was twenty-three I had my first disturbing taste of true, ugly homophobia.

I had gotten a speeding ticket in Canyon, TX.

It's the 12,000 person town where my former University is located.

I was working a job for barely above minimum wage and the ticket was more than I could afford.
I went to the appropriate city office to determine a payment arrangement.
There was a young, brunette lady sitting behind the desk.
Typical, moderately attractive West-Texas girl. She was my age.
I had engaged with her earlier and she was overtly hostile.
So this time I turned on the voice recorder on my cell phone. If she stepped out of line, I would have proof.
She and an older woman who also worked in the office took me to a small room so we could discuss the details of the payment arrangement.
At one point I had to go back out to my car to retrieve the original ticket.

I left my cell-phone - still recording - on the table.

Once I left, having made the payment arrangement, I got to my car and back-tracked on the recording to see what I had missed.
The older woman said something that was muddled.
The young brunette, who was sitting closer to my phone replied to whatever the older woman said:

"It just makes me sick that he takes it up the ass!"

She was vehement. There was an exclamation point at the end of her sentence.
My hands are trembling even as I write this.
I felt my stomach shrivel, and twenty minutes later when I arrived at work my co-workers commented on how flushed and pale I looked.
I explained to them what happened.

"You have to do something!" they pushed.

I didn't know what to do.
Who do you call?
What do you say?
It was so shameful, and it made me feel - for the very first time in my life - Wrong.

I ended up doing nothing.

Would it make her homophobia worse if I retaliated? Was she not entitled to her own beliefs? She didn't say it TO me she said it to a co-worker ABOUT me. My co-workers said awful things about her once I told them the story - Fair is Fair.

It was (and is) a terrible reminder of the world we live in, and the kinds of people we inhabit it with - and I'm sure she feels that exact same way about me.

But here's the thing...this is why I don't draw attention to those moments in my life...and why you may find me ...irritating.

We are all discriminated against. Fat-shaming, slut-shaming, racism, homophobia, anti-semitism, protestants-vs-catholics, etc... No one crime is greater than another. As a brown person if I cry "Racism!" at every encounter I feel may have disadvantaged me in some way then I am a victim. And there are people in the world who are REAL victims.

I am intelligent, creative, I live with a beautiful man who loves me, I have friends who I adore and who cherish me...I am blessed. That is enough. The people who Don't have those things are victims. The people who are prevented from attaining those things are victims.

Those kids grew out of whatever phase they were going through when they taunted me. They don't hate black people any more than I do.

That hideous-hearted girl from Canyon will never be able to achieve success outside of the bubble of West Texas without a tolerant attitude toward those who are different. And frankly, that's fine, because as far as I can discern she has nothing to offer the wider world.

I don't mention my stances on issues because more often than not I've observed that taking a stand creates an issue instead of solving it.

Never start a fight, but always finish it.

That's how I was raised.

But I was also raised to Pick My Battles.

Is that brunette in a position of significant authority? Did I not recieve the payment arrangement I went to make because of her attitude? No.
She said something nasty and hurt my feelings, but ultimately I still got my way. It all ended well.
It wasn't unjust for her to speak her mind to her colleague.

I'll fight injustice tooth and nail, and down to the grave.

But I find we have to be very careful to not limit the freedoms of others as we (minorities in general) pursue our own. Tolerance is a two way street, and sometimes that road can get narrow.

My interview with Mr. Gidney will definitely touch upon diversity in literature. The world thirsts for it. I would like to think that my friend's children wouldn't blink twice at an epic fantasy series set in Austrailia with an Asian heroine when they are old enough to read Young Adult books. (That's not my story, but you get the drift.)

We didn't have that growing up. Conscious Diversity is something new, and I think those of us who have endured any type of injustice should lace our stories with the wisdom we've learned from our encounters. So that the kids like me, who build their souls from pieces of other's imaginations can learn things like charity, kindness, mercy, forgiveness, and love without being preached at, or scarred...but entertained.

The world is what we make of it. Because I've seen ugly human hearts and minds I can recognize virtue much more clearly. So it is virtue that I cling to and cultivate. I would rather create beauty and harmony than fight fire with fire.
I write because I want to create good things. I want to foster open minds, and warm hearts. I want others to cherish and pursue idealism and innocence.

I've only fought when the time was right. When someone tested the boundaries and pushed too far. It was a small battle...and I think - in the end - people like that always end up defeating themselves one way or another.

So now as I prepare to converse with someone whose experience and cultural knowledge vastly outweighs mine, I look to him for guidance. Ultimately looking to answer the questions I always ask I too soft, and I too naive, am I too idealistic? (I've been called a "Pollyanna" more than once in my life.)

This week I get to introduce you to a brilliant author who writes magical prose, and I get to learn about myself in the process. I look forward to us getting acquainted with Mr. Gidney.

Until we meet again!


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