Thirty year old Texan David Clarke movingly recalls his tortured teen years when bullies drove him to the point of attempting suicide and how now he has finally found happiness.
Oh my God, just look at that kid above. Who is he? In the simplest of terms, he’s me. I am him. I’m 30 now, but in this photo I’m probably 9 years old. From the awkward pose, I’m goofy and clearly confident. I’m an average middle-class American kid and playful in front of my family’s camera. Unbeknownst to my family, this wily child was struggling socially, and the schools entrusted to keep him safe for eight hours a day were failing him—sometimes miserably.
Growing up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas, I was called ‘faggot’, ‘fag’, ‘homo’, ‘queer’, and other derogatory words in the halls, cafeterias, and restrooms of the various schools I attended. For all of these words, I was called them before I personally knew what they meant. I learned their meaning from my bullies. And these hate filled words buried me deep in my closet and made me ultimately hate myself. Also, because of these words, I have lived my life with a ton of shame for who I am/was. This has only changed recently.
‘It was in that school hallway that I was first called faggot’
In many ways, I was tormented and tortured both physically and emotionally from third grade on. In fact, one of my clearest memories from third grade is standing in the hallway outside of the restrooms with my class. It has to be winter because the boys are bragging about their Starter jackets that their parents got them from Weiner’s. I didn’t own one, so all I could do was listen. Furthermore, professional sports didn’t really interest me, so the insignias and logos for the NBA and NFL teams didn’t really mean much to me.
But, it was there, in that hallway and in that moment that I was first called faggot. At the time, I figured it was because I didn’t have a Starter jacket. In retrospect it was probably because the heavily gelled hair of the boy who called me faggot mesmerized me, and he noticed me staring. Or, maybe he noticed how I probably ogled the broad, shiny forehead of his friend. Although I didn’t know it then, his friend’s forehead can probably be safely labeled as my first crush.
From that day on, the slurs kept coming. They also multiplied. And they were always delivered when teachers were either not around or too busy to notice. Most of the time, they were said in the restrooms. From the lines in the hall, we’d be sent into the restrooms in unaccompanied groups of 4 or 5. Once inside, the talking and teasing started almost instantly. One would start, and the others would join in. And they would all laugh.
To try and avoid these moments, I’d beeline for the stall at the back of the restroom, letting the thin metal walls visually separate me from the open urinals. Regardless, their words carried through the space and there was no separation when we all stood at the sinks to wash our hands.
‘When I look back at my school years, I hardly can recall when my peers were nice to me’
The cafeteria was another place where I was subjected to the torment of my peers. In the line for food they could jeer me without being seen and heard by the teachers and other adults. However, once out of the line, they had a harder time making fun of me. After all, it must be noted that I did have friends who were kind to me. Starting in third grade, I had two female friends that were very close and dear to me. We spent every moment of free time together, and we laughed a lot. We ate lunch together daily, and we spent our physical education periods together too.
Moreover, there were other students who didn’t tease me or pick on me in any way (mostly the girls in my classes). So, my story is not one of those situations where I was all alone and everyone abused me. Outside of school, I participated in Boy Scouts of America and at a local community theatre. Both of those outlets introduced me to many friends who accepted and like me for who I was. Sadly though, when I look back at my elementary school years, I hardly can recall when my peers were nice to me. And, I still struggle with my self-esteem and suffer from feelings of worthlessness.
‘I was afraid to tell my parents about what was happening at school. I was afraid that they would be ashamed of me’
As an effect of being called every slur imaginable for a homosexual male, I lived my life with a persistent feeling of terror and dread. One late summer morning when I was in fourth grade, I was beat up by kids at the bus stop in the apartment complex my family lived in.
The reason for the attack was because I was associated with these words. Despite being one of the few white kids in the apartment complex, I couldn’t see how I was different from my peers, but it was clear my peers saw me as very different. And, it wasn’t the difference in skin tones that they were concerned with.
A few months after being jumped at the bus stop, I reached a breaking point. The name-calling had intensified, and I felt so alienated from pretty much everyone at school. The words made me feel like I didn’t deserve friends. I felt unworthy of living, and I was afraid to tell my parents about what was happening at school. I was afraid that they would be ashamed of me.
My grades were good. So, I didn’t want them to know how I was failing so badly in other ways. Most importantly, I didn’t want to embarrass them. I wanted to handle this on my own. I wanted to make it better. But, it seemed like I would never be able to. I was falling apart, and I felt I had nowhere to turn.
‘I slowly wrapped my fingers around my neck, and I started to squeeze.’
On spring afternoon in fourth grade, I vividly recall wrapping my hands around my throat and choking myself in front of the bullies who were making fun of me. We were in the cafeteria, and I just wanted to end it all. I was defeated. I remember thinking, “I’ll show them. I’ll make them stop.” So, I walked through the lunch line. I got my pizza, grapes, and strawberry milk. I walked to the table my bullies sat at, opting not to sit with the two girls that I normally sat with. I purposefully sat down across from the kids who were the meanest to me.
The ringleader with his heavily gelled hair looked me in the eyes, and I held his gaze. I slowly wrapped my fingers around my neck, and I started to squeeze. I never dropped my gaze. Our eyes were locked. I remember my peripheral vision going black, and everything in my line of sight tunneled, and the world seemed to go blissfully silent around me.
Everything centered on his eyes. I’m sure we blinked, but in my memory, neither of us did. Staring into his eyes, it felt like hours passed before a teacher yanked me to a standing position. Noise flooded back into my ears. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I was being yelled at. I was confused. I felt terrible.
‘I was never given a chance to explain my actions, so the kids who bullied me were never questioned – I was voiceless.’
Apparently, the teacher stopped me because she saw I had turned blue. Ultimately, I was punished. The principal for the school declared I had to sit at a table by myself in the cafeteria for two weeks. I don’t think my parents were notified. I never was sent to the school counsellor about what happened. And I was never given a chance to explain my actions, so the kids who bullied me were never questioned for their culpability in my actions either. I was voiceless.
My tormentors carried on with their vile behavior. And, I was buried under and burdened by mountains of shame. This shame continued my silence at home. I felt that I could never tell my parents. Their shame and embarrassment would end me, and I just wanted them to be proud of their boy.
‘This would be the year that I learned that I was indeed gay, even if I wasn’t able to accept it until much later.’
I moved to a new school during sixth grade. There the attacks were just vocal, and a couple of boys in the class actually stood up for me. In the school’s restrooms, they gave me lessons on how to be more masculine so I wouldn’t catch the ire of other kids. They tried to help me be ‘normal.’ I remember them trying to teach me how to walk in the restroom. We would practice, and they would give me notes like a director of a play. They’d periodically monitor my mannerisms in the cafeteria, in class, on the bus, and even around our neighbuorhood, offering help anytime they saw me do something that appeared gay.
Again, I moved to a new school in seventh grade. There the kids picked on me because I was the new kid. The slurs still got used, but in the social hierarchy of the school, I wasn’t really worth the time. It is worth noting though, that this is the year that I’d finally really understand what it really meant to be gay. This would be the year that I truly learned that I was indeed gay, even if I wasn’t able to accept it until much later.
‘I again felt shame. I felt that it was all my fault and that I somehow deserved everything that had happened.’
Through my junior high school band, I quickly made a small group of friends. Also, I was finally attending school in the same town as the church my family attended and in the same town as the community theatre I was involved with. So, in essence, more of my peers knew me from experiences outside of school.
One particularly bad day in seventh grade two boys sat behind me in the gym before class and called me ‘faggot’ over and over as they flicked my ears. Teachers stationed in the gym ignored their actions, and they also ignored the couple of times I got up to move myself away from the boys and was subsequently followed by the pair.
The boys stopped when the back of my ears began to bleed. When we were released from the gym, I went to the nurse. I told her what happened, and she told me not to be such a baby as she washed my ears. She sent me to class without another word, and I again felt shame. I felt that it was all my fault and that I somehow deserved everything that had happened.
‘By college, all the bullying I experienced completely ended. However, the effects are lasting.’
When I got to high school it was easier to distance myself from the bullies. Thank you high school band. Also, all the physical harassment stopped entirely. Likewise, almost all of the verbal harassment stopped too. The hate-filled slurs still floated through my life on occasion, and they pierced my heart and soul every time they were flung at me.
Yet, they were thrown my way with less steam. I was a kid who lived in the world of the arts, so the peers I was social with and myself really embraced the parts of us that made us unique and set us apart from the crowd.
By college, all the bullying I experienced completely ended. However, the effects are lasting. Despite that, I find myself feeling more connected to that self-assured and confident kid in the photo again. I rarely think about the traumatic experiences of my childhood, choosing to focus on the happier memories with friends and family.
Sometimes I think about how silly I was to be so enamored with a boy’s forehead. I also remember laying on the floor of my bedroom and doodling pictures of my fifth grade PE coach. That’s the David I remember because that is the David who achieved his dream of living and working in Greater New York City.
That’s the David who was featured in Greg Salvatori’s art book Beards of New York. That’s the David who is in control of his life and responsible for his happiness. That’s the David who is able to surround himself with friends and family members who love him.
If you have any problems with bullies, remember you are NOT ALONE!
Try any of these organisations.