Going home to see my family has become a scavenger hunt of sorts. After everyone’s gone to bed, I spend an hour or two alone in my childhood room digging through the assorted contents of the closet. My clothes and keepsakes are no longer there, but the shelves still hold some remnants of a decade’s worth of living and growing. There are shoeboxes full of CDs burned from a long gone desktop computer stacked behind some winter sweaters. On a shelf near the ceiling is a collection of college textbooks I was unable to sell back. My college diplomas are coiled up in cardboard tubes, neon-colored toucan puppets lay limp in a pile and VHS tapes with recorded episodes of Friends and Will & Grace are lined up like soldiers under years of gathered dust.
On the wall hangs a wooden framed chalkboard with my name, a football, a baseball and a soccer ball painted onto the front, rendering it useless as a chalkboard. I received it as an end-of-school present from the overzealous mother of one of my fifth grade classmates. The boys’ frames were light blue, though I would’ve preferred a red frame as red was my favorite color then, and it’s hung in that closet without purpose for as long as my family’s been in that house.
Beneath all of that, beneath the suits that no longer fit and the outdated jackets that hang on the rod, there’s a large plastic box I long ago filled with photos, scripts from church and laminated paper awards from my high school yearbook staff. I sift through this box every time I’m home, hunting for something that might resonate anew.
I admit that I actively seek out those somethings. I thoroughly enjoy the process of drudging up the past and contrary to what some people believe, there’s value in doing so. You don’t find gold without a little digging and I gladly rummage through my history, revisiting and reinforcing the checkpoints of my life trapped on photographs and pieces of paper.
On this trip to Dallas, while digging through the plastic bin of memories, I found a picture of myself from my senior year among a stack of photos taken when I was in high school.
I attended a large high school in Texas, which means the fall months centered around football games and the spring months were a wash while we waited for football to come back. Friday night in Texas is a sanctified affair, a weekly stadium pilgrimage that’s as much a part of our culture as cowboy boots, big hair and open-carry laws. I loved being at the games. The timbre of the cheerleaders’ chants, the leggy high kicks of the drill team, the sounds of the band echoing off the school buildings beyond the stadium – it’s an intoxicating, sensory sparking environment. Couple that with my love of nachos and it’s the perfect place to spend a Friday night.
But Texas football begins long before the game. Spirit Days were meant to be a way for students to spend Fridays showing our support for the home team, but mostly they were just excuses to wear ridiculous outfits to class. The day the photo of me was taken, the Spirit Day theme was “Hollywood,” something I assume a cheerleader’s mother thought was an incredibly inventive and fun idea like the painted chalkboard. I bought into it though and on the black T-shirt I’m wearing, white iron-on letters spell out “MOVIE STAR.” I know I was only moderately more inventive than that cheer mom, but ironic tees were swinging back into style that year.
The photo is a candid, something today’s teenagers probably don’t know exists in our selfie-centric-society, and I’m sitting on a stool in the hallway outside the yearbook room. That room was my home base, my fort, and my isle of refuge. I was there before school, between classes, during lunch and after the last bell rang. I didn’t even know where my locker was because my desk in the yearbook room doubled as my locker. In the photo, I proudly sit with blue highlights in the gelled spikes of my hair, the white letters of my “MOVIE STAR” shirt reflecting in the fluorescent hallway lights, and black shiny vinyl pants tucked into my boots. It was the TRL version of a movie star I’d wished I could be.
After pulling on the patent leather pants that morning, I stared at myself in the mirror, going back and forth as to whether I should actually wear them to school. It didn’t matter how many pop stars wore them on TV, I wasn’t popular enough to get away with wearing them, even ironically. I knew most of the people at my school and I wasn’t a total social pariah, but I was still an insecure high school student not wanting to be forever known as “that kid who wore those gay pants.” But most of the seniors dressed up for Spirit Days and I wanted to be a team player on game day like everyone else.
The pants had been in my closet for a long time. I’d seen them in the window at Hot Topic and wished I could be cool enough to pull them off. After work one day, I bought them on a whim and snuck them into my closet where they sat for months. I hid them in a bag behind my racks of clothes, not wanting to have to explain why I owned them. They were just pants, but they were also the shiny black pants more regularly worn by the goth kids.
In the late 90s, goth culture entered the public consciousness like a dark cloud. They were mad at the world and every piece of unisex clothing they owned had to be heavy and black. It was something that made the angst of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” crowd appear playful and mainstream. I was never that kid. That sort of over-worked, brooding aesthetic never did anything for me. Those were also the kids who wore Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson T-shirts, neither artist I cared for and within my church circle were both considered minions of the Antichrist. Mostly though, I struggled with the idea of wearing such heavy long sleeves and giant jeans during the inferno of a Texas August. It wasn’t practical and seemed unnecessarily sweaty.
There was one guy on the yearbook staff who I considered goth. Kevin had long hair past his shoulders, but it wasn’t unkept and greasy like most of the other guys who went for the “don’t give a shit” look. His hair was clean and feathery, always perfectly brushed. He also had black painted finger nails, something that lets other students know “I’m a goth kid, leave me be.” He hit all the stereotypical requirements except for one: so many of those kids seemed outwardly bitter with the world, their parents, or at rules in general and Kevin was not. He had a soft spoken demeanor and I never saw him be unkind to anyone. He didn’t have a sharp tongue; he was as cool as James Dean, with the perfect hair of a Clairol commercial and the wardrobe of a death metal roadie circa 1999. He was fascinating.
As a photographer on our staff, he spent most of his time in the darkroom, a place I loved since I spent most of my time at a computer. One afternoon during class, I was in the darkroom listening to music while the photographers developed film, printed photos and manually did everything that Photoshop will now do instantly from your iPhone. Kevin told some of us to come over and look at the pictures a friend had taken of him. Under the red light, I saw that in the photos he was wearing a corset, a long-sleeved fishnet shirt, and heels on top of fishnet stockings, but mostly what I saw was how aggressively confident he was.
In my small suburb of Dallas, there wasn’t a lot of positive reinforcement for students who went against the grain. The kids who were nonconformists – who didn’t have the same Abercrombie shirts and Gap jeans as everyone else – they mostly had to marshal that strength themselves. They were defiant, and yes some of them funneled that through anger, but mostly they were strong. The popular kids may’ve gotten the Homecoming crowns and the yearbook photos, but the kids who were on the fringes of the social cesspool, the ones who dared to be different, they were the ones we should’ve take our cues from in terms of being ourselves.
Kevin was that for me. We weren’t close, we never spent time together outside of our yearbook room and yes he preferred to listen to Marilyn Manson whereas I preferred Kirk Franklin, but he was himself and he was willing to test-drive new facets of himself openly. Standing in my mirror that morning looking at my lumpy high school body in the shiny pants I’d always wanted to wear and had now fabricated an excuse to do so, would I be fearless and take a chance on myself, or would I tuck my shiny pants back into my closet and wear my Gap khakis instead?
Split seconds are just enough time to make the safe decision so before I could talk myself out of it, I picked up my backpack and headed out the door. The pants were on, the hair was blue and I was going to school. I decided I would be externally fearless, even though every few minutes I wished I’d brought a pair of jeans to change into. But I committed to it. This was for me, not for anyone else. It wasn’t cool, it didn’t make me any friends, but I did it because I’d wanted to every time I’d seen those pants reflecting back at me from inside my closet.
I felt like Kevin for a day. I felt fearless, bold and confident: the person I wished I could be every day. It’s not like I was going to trade in my jeans for patent leather pants every Friday, nor did I have any interest in fishnets and heels, but I was capable of taking a chance on myself. It wasn’t impossible to let go of trying to be just like everyone else, and on that day, myself wanted to wear shiny black pants like a Backstreet Boy.
Sometimes, you have to almost trick yourself into being who you want to be. That morning, I had to leave the house before I could change my mind but today, I still get in my own way through insecurities, through trying to adhere to prescribed social decorum, or through fear. You’re familiar with fear; that seething alien that lingers just outside our peripheral vision, waiting to sneak up on us when it’s least convenient. I don’t mean a haunted house or scary movie sort of fear, but the fear that prevents us from growing. I’m calling out the fear that acts like a roadblock in our daily commute through personhood.
The phrase “fear not” is used in the Bible more than 100 times and while at least 98 of those are meant for situations more dire than a high school boy afraid to wear plastic pants, surely one or two of them applied to me. Fear doesn’t discriminate on basis of the direness of our situation; it meets us right where we are and attempts to turn us into irrational idiots, stuck and afraid to pull ourselves out of where we’re planted. Luckily, I believe God also meets us where we are and while I don’t think He cared one way or another that I wore shiny black pants to school, I’ll step out on a limb and say He cared that I walked in confidence that day. Just showing up was more of a faith exercise than anyone would’ve known. So, I buried my insecurity under a few extra ounces of confidence and walked boldly to class alongside the other Spirit Day movie stars, Elvis impersonators and blonde-wigged Marilyns.