Riding the school bus was a very formative experience for me. I’m sure it was for some of you also. So much happens on a school bus. Secrets get told, people make-out, friends protect one another. For me, it was a place that took a boy who knew who he was and taught him to fear it.
When I was in pre-school, I remember watching my three older sisters board the school bus around 7:00 every morning. I dreamt of the day I could join them. I wanted to experience the world they were experiencing. I wanted to be grown up like them.
I used to rehearse like I was going to catch the bus. I would put my backpack on, walk to the end of the driveway and wait. So imagine how I felt my first day actually riding the bus.
I was ecstatic.
The bus doors opened, I stretched my right leg to step up the first tall step. As I reached the third and final step, I heard the radio sweeper for “Thuuuunder Country 105.5” echo through this yellow, hollow, metal tube. Bus number 24. It was the only radio station we were allowed to listen to. I sat in the seat directly behind the bus driver; next to the person who would become my childhood best friend, Larry.
This was my first day of being in the real world.
The bus doors closed and our 40-minute journey down the dirt roads and through the cornfields to school began.
It felt like there should have been a band playing a celebratory song in our driveway as the bus drove off, along with my mom and dad waving enthusiastically. But there was no band and I don’t recall my mom and dad waving enthusiastically. My dad worked third shift as a forklift driver and my mom worked first shift in a welding factory. So, by this time, dad was in the shower getting ready for bed and mom had already been at work for one hour.
One of my earliest memories on bus number 24 was when Dolly Parton’s song, “I Will Always Love You” played over the radio. I absolutely loved that song as a kid. Every time it came on Thunder Country, I would sit up on my knees and belt the song out: “Aaaand IiiiiiiiiIIIIIIiiii wiiill always looooove youuuuu.” I would become enraptured with the song. I was doing what just felt natural – serenading the entire bus. What I realize now is that my queerness was showing and it made others uncomfortable.
It made Carl, in particular, uncomfortable.
Carl was my childhood bully.
I’ve only seen Carl’s house once, I think. Carl was picked up before me every morning and dropped off after me on the days he made it to school. The sense I got from Carl, even as a kid, was that he was from a poor, uneducated and abusive family. If you’ve seen the Showtime series, Shameless, that’s the sort of chaotic family Carl was from. The latest I know of him is that he was recently released from a correction facility.
Carl didn’t like my singing. He didn’t like anything about me. However, Carl and his brother, Seth, did like to pick on Larry and me. Larry was smart; he kept to himself and Carl would end up leaving him alone. Me, however, I couldn’t stand how mean and abusive Carl was and I didn’t want him to get away with it. No matter how many times my mom told me, “Let the Lord fight your battles for you, Azariah,” I couldn’t help but stand up to him. Often to the point that Carl would beat me up while reminding me I am nothing more than a faggot. The defiant queer in me was showing and that had to be beaten into submission. There’s nothing more threatening to false masculinity than a defiant queer.
The last time I worked up the courage to be me, was the day I wore mascara to school. I loved how the mascara accentuated my eyes. As I got out of my seat that morning to exit the bus and begin the school day, I started to feel overwhelmingly nervous. Fear ran wild with thoughts in my mind, “Everyone is going to notice. Carl’s going to beat you up again. Tell the bus driver you’re sick and you need to go home. If I talk to the bus driver, he’ll know I’m wearing mascara and tell my parents.” My blood felt cold. It was quickly making its way from my arms and legs to the center of my chest causing me to physically shiver in fear. I kept asking myself, “Why did I do this?” I felt forced to abandon my queer self. It was then I learned that I had to perform if I wanted to survive.
I kept my head down as I exited the bus. Once I made it into the school, I quickly made my way to the least busy restroom and washed the mascara off the best I could. I was learning there was no place for my queerness in this world.
I also learned, mascara does not wash off easily.
It was in moments like these I discovered how to navigate my way to my closet and hide. My life became committed to hiding every socially unacceptable part of me.
At home. At school. At church.
I will dive into this more in my book, My Gay Agenda. For now, this #SpiritDay, embrace your queerness and celebrate the queerness of others.