© 2021 Henke Sjorgen. All rights reserved.
There are good days, and there are bad days.
And then there are shit days.
"Did you see the picture on the bulletin board?" Keith Rowley asked, as he sat down across from me at the cafeteria lunch table.
I was busy trying to dig apart the ball of meat and pasta on my tray that was supposed to be spaghetti and meatballs, and just grunted in return.
"Is that a 'yes', or a 'no'?" he persisted.
I grunted again and looked up at him, my annoyance at the day finally escaping. "What?" I growled. "What picture?"
I didn't mean to be an asshole. It wasn't annoyance at Keith I was feeling, just at the rotten morning I'd had. But he sat back from me, looking surprised, and a little warning bell rang in the back of my head. "I'm sorry," I said immediately, but was aware at the same time that I didn't sound sorry. "I had a miserable morning in Algebra. I studied hard for that damn test, and it still stomped my butt." I poked the ball of glop on my tray hard with the fork. "And now this crap. What the fuck else can go wrong?"
Keith looked like he didn't believe it. "That's what you're mad about? You can take a make up test, Jack. Schuyler's pretty good about that." He laughed then. "And the food here is always like this."
"No, that's not all I'm mad about!" I snapped, forgetting civility again. "I got up this morning, and the cat had peed on my new pair of shoes. Then I missed the damn school bus and started walking, and only the fact that one of my neighbors was heading out somewhere and offered me a ride kept me from being late. Then I got here and found some asshole had written faggot on my locker again in black magic marker, and I had to haul out the alcohol pads and clean it off as well as I could. And then I had the test and failed it, and now I have a tray full of crap I paid for, but wouldn't serve to my dog!"
He nodded, his eyes widening a little as he got my level of mad, and I could see the decision in him to back off. "It's okay. It doesn't matter." His gaze dropped to this own tray, and he began the same process of dissection I'd been doing myself. Silently.
I watched him a moment, feeling the distance that had just grown between us, and blew an exasperated puff of air between my lips. Crap. No need to take things out on Keith. What was that called? Redirecting anger? Rotten thing to do to my best friend.
I gritted my teeth a moment and forced away the anger I was feeling about everything, took a slow breath, let it out again. "I'm sorry," I said again, trying for reality. "Really. I'm interested. You said something about a picture?"
He looked up at me, saw the change in my eyes, I guess, and smiled and leaned forward again. He was that sort, lucky me. Forgiving. "On the bulletin board outside Mr. Lowery's room. There's a picture. You should see it, if you haven't."
I frowned. "Lowery? The history teacher, or the social arts teacher?"
He laughed. "They're the same person. Where have you been?"
Huh? Oh. Social arts was an elective class for seniors, not required, just one of a number of extra classes offered to those who had enough credits to graduate already. The class was about getting along in society, understanding rules and manners and civility - stuff like that. My sister took the class last year. She'd started out treating it like a joke, but had come to love the class. And it had worked, too, helping to turn her from being a first-class bitch into a sister that most guys would love to have. She was off at college this year, but I still talked to her every Sunday evening on the phone, and actually looked forward to it, too. Who knew?
But I hadn't really paid much attention to the class until after the fact, and it hadn't dawned on me that Mr. Lowery the history teacher was moonlighting on the side.
Keith frowned at the play of emotions on my face, had no idea they referred to my sister, and just assumed he needed to be patient with me. "Yeah, it's on the Social Arts bulletin board. Someone put up a picture there, and a note. You need to see it." He leaned closer and lowered his voice. "It's gay as hell."
I blinked at that. "Gay?"
He nodded. "I mean, like really gay, too." He told me about it then, and I had a hard time believing him. Someone was nuts!
"I gotta see this," I decided, getting up.
Keith waved a hand. "Eat your lunch first, Jack. There's time. You'll be hungry later if you don't." He appraised his own tray a bit sadly. "I know I will if I don't eat, and I do want to go with you when you see that picture."
I forced myself to sit again, took my fork, and sliced off a chunk of the spaghetti. It didn't taste bad, despite the way it presented. "Mmm. Good," I said, and took another. Then the almost frantic way I was feeling took over again. I dropped my fork on the tray and got up. "I'm going to see this picture."
Keith looked up at me and shook his head, immediately took two big bites of his own meal, and then set his fork down among the remains. "Okay, okay. I'll go with you."
There were other people in the halls. Lunch period didn't mean you had to eat lunch. Or, if you did, that you had to eat it in the cafeteria. A lot of people ate outside in nice weather like this, sitting on the benches in front of the school, or just out in the grass under the trees. A few of the cooler teachers ate their lunches in their classrooms, and left the doors open for anyone that wanted a desk to sit at to eat their own lunch. People that did that read while they ate, or just enjoyed being quiet and alone. That these classrooms were refuges for the picked upon was known to me. It was usually their one chance to eat in peace.
Those with cars often took off for the forty-minute lunch period, heading up to one of the three fast food places at the intersection in town. And those with nothing else going on ate in the cafeteria, usually at crowded, noisy tables, like a party was going on. An invitation-only party, too.
I usually sat with Keith, Emma Wooten, and Mark Sasaki. Sometimes a few others. We had our own table, right by the hallway door. But it wasn't a status symbol. We were there because it isolated us, somewhat. Kept us out of people's hair. Made it so they didn't have to acknowledge that we were alive.
Yeah. We were the uncool. I guess someone has to be.
Emma and Mark are a couple. I liked them, and Keith liked them. But they were both fairly extreme nerds, and more than a little awkward. Perfect for each other, at least. Mark had an old Ford Taurus he'd gotten from his aunt that was in great shape, and he and Emma had probably gone to the MacDonald's in town for lunch today. Keith and I often went with them when the posted lunch in the cafeteria was crap, but I'd missed seeing them this morning, so we hadn't been asked.
People in the halls mostly ignored us. They either wanted to be left alone themselves, or just didn't want to be bothered with us. Some were just walking and talking, others were circulating among other groups, and some were just those who wanted to start some trouble, somewhere, somehow.
When we arrived at the Social Arts class, there was a small group standing at the glass-fronted bulletin board, obviously intent on something posted there. I recognized them all, and felt my blood pressure notch up a few numbers right away. Keith recognized them, too, and put out a hand to slow me. He wanted us to wait. But I was manic in my unrest, and I shrugged him off, and we pulled up behind the others unnoticed, and stood silently, waiting for them to move on.
One of the readers was Perry Hart, his muscled arm circled around the shoulders of his princess girlfriend, Cathy Spearman. Mr. Perfect and his bejeweled lady. Just seeing them there made me angry, because I knew exactly what would come next. Perry never disappointed me when I expected lowbrow.
"Do you believe this faggot shit?" he said then, the contempt loud enough in his voice to echo down the hallway. "I can't believe they let this sort of cocksucker crap get posted in the hallway where everybody can see it!" He rapped his knuckles pointedly on the glass. "If this thing wasn't locked, I'd rip that trash down right now!"
Perry's a big boy, a jock's jock, hero of the wrestling team, and the son of another prick, for sure. His old man owns the paint store in town, supports all the 'good' causes, is on the town council, and hates anyone that doesn't think or act the way he does. Genes, the damn stupid things! The type breeds true, like father, like son, you know?
Perry has the social skills of all of his breed, which is none. What he likes is what everyone should like. And what he hates is what everyone should also hate. He bulls his way through most situations, getting his way by the threat of force, which he can certainly apply if needed. He was one of a number of other seniors I detested, one of the elite that seemed to feel they could run the show because they were the biggest and baddest of the pack. His girlfriend is another one, obnoxious, stuck up and mean, and absolutely convinced she's destined to rule the world. They're the perfect couple, spoiled, pretty, and petty, enjoying their glory days here in high school, never dreaming that this was as good as it would ever get for them. I had Perry working in his old man's paint store until he inherited the place, while his cheating wife ran around behind his back with every single guy in the neighborhood. And maybe a few married ones, too.
Perry glanced over his shoulder then, and saw Keith and I standing there, and immediately laughed harshly and made a patently false show of looking contrite. "Ooh. No offense, Jackie-boy."
That strange, frantic edge I was feeling spoke up for me. "My feelings are never hurt by ignorance," I snapped. "You don't know any better, so what's the use of getting upset?"
It took a full two seconds for what I'd said to register. I heard Keith gasp in the momentary pause, and he tried to pull me away; and then Perry's arm was coming off Cathy's shoulders and he was turning to face me. "Hey fuck you, you swishy little pimple! How'd you like your face rearranged?"
But I was on a roll now, commonsense and self-preservation having fled. "Oh, wow, there's a slick response! Caveman time, everybody!" I actually sneered at Perry. "You see something you don't like or don't understand, so now you wanna break it!" I let my eyes jump to Cathy. "I hope you like being beaten up a lot, because if you stay with this clown, that's where you're heading!"
Yeah, that was stupid. But it's what came out.
Perry's eyes popped, and his arm danced out, his fingers twisted in the material of my t-shirt, and he pulled me to him, my feet briefly coming off the ground in the process.
But I still spoke first, hellbent on destruction. "Go ahead, asswipe! Hit me!" I screamed then, every bit of the anger I was feeling coming out then. I actually stuck my face closer to his. "I will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law, and put your stupid ass in jail for the next twenty years!"
Perry's eyes went glassy, and hard as a rock. I might have died then and there. But then the door of the classroom opened, and Mr. Lowery was there, watching us. "Problem, guys?"
For a couple of seconds, the world simply froze. But then Cathy, being the brains of the couple, saw calamity coming for her future, and immediately smiled at Mr. Lowery and snuggled up against Perry. "Come on, honey," she whispered. "He's not worth it."
Perry's gaze broke with mine, and his eyes darted to Mr. Lowery, some small connection being made in his brain then, with maybe a glimpse of his status as one of the school elite now imperiled if he didn't wind this thing down quickly. He straight-armed me back away from him and released me, and only Keith grabbing my arm kept me from sitting down hard.
"No problem here," Perry said, trying for light and airy but sounding as if he was choking on it. "I was just showing Jackie-boy how to exercise."
I laughed at the stupidity of that, looking down at the twisted front of my shirt.
Perry forced a grin, but it was a plain mean one to my eye. But he let Cathy turn him away, and they started off down the hallway. They reached the corner with every eye watching, and Perry cast a last glance my way over his shoulder as they turned it, and I did not miss the threat that was there. This ain't over, asshole!
The other people that had been standing there all decided they had better things to do, and just sort of sauntered away, leaving Keith and I standing before Mr. Lowery.
He canted his head to one side, and his eyes seemed to pick me apart. "You okay?"
He gave his head a little shake, and sighed. "You live dangerously, don't you?"
"I'm feeling a little crazy today." It was true, too.
He watched me in silence, and I watched him back. He had probably been cute when he was a teen like me. He had gorgeous, bright, intelligent eyes, and his smile when he did it made his eyes crinkle at the corners in a very appealing way. But he was old now, probably forty, and his hair had receded some, and the mustache he wore had a tiny bit of gray in it. But he was tall and broad-shouldered, and looked like he could still kick some ass, and something told me he'd have been able to handle Perry if the action had gotten down to the mat.
"But thanks," I added, feeling a need for it somehow.
He nodded, and smiled a little smile. "I heard the conversation. In my opinion, you caused what happened to happen."
My temper flared again at that. "Really? That guy is always making comments like that around me. I shouldn't have to take that kind of shit from anybody!"
He brought up a hand and made a short downward motion with it, obviously a request for me to tone it down. "That's true. But if you really expect him to act that way, and you really place no value in what he thinks or says, then you should have simply ignored him and left it at that."
"It hurts anyway," I said, before I could really think about it. And then I was surprised at myself.
He nodded again. "Uh huh. I know."
I guess I was just not trying to make friends that day. "Let me guess," I sneered. "You're secretly gay, and you went through all the same shit I have to deal with when you were my age."
He grinned, and gave a little shake of his head. "Actually, I'm happily married - to a woman - have two nice kids, and none of my family is gay." He laughed. "On top of that, I played basketball in high school and was a little bit of a jock myself."
I hissed at him. "Then how can you understand what I'm feeling?" I turned then, and pointed at the picture on the bulletin board by his door. "And what about that?"
We all turned to look at the picture. It was an odd one, really. A human body, that to my eye was male, and possibly my own age, even. The guy was posed on a white floor, maybe, with his hands down and fingers splayed behind him to support his raised upper body. But the picture was cropped, removing the head and everything below the shins. What was there was clad in a lavender shirt that said Love across the chest in black letters, and which was canted a little provocatively off the right shoulder. Below that, the hips were barely concealed beneath an extremely short pair of cutoff denim shorts, which drew the eye right to the crotch, and what was obviously beneath the soft material there.
But it was the socks that really made the point. They were striped, and in a seven-color pattern that I readily recognized: red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo, and violet. The pattern repeated on the way down, but that they were LGBTQ+ in nature was clear.
Next to the photo was a note - or maybe a caption, now that I looked at it. Obviously printed. It said:
Would you be my friend? If you met me one day in class, or in the park, or anywhere else, would you let my appearance dictate how you felt about me, let a first impression rule how you treated me? Would you be honest enough to give me the benefit of the doubt and not judge me before you knew me? Would you feel I had any less of a right to be there, to speak, to smile, to be loved, just by the way I was dressed? Because of the way I was expressing who I was? Would you question my right to live and be happy? Or would you deny me the right to know and enjoy all the things that you do, just because I was different? Would the emotion I was expressing on my shirt make you smile, or fill you with rage?
Would you strike me down, just because I was born not like you?
Sadly, many of you would. And even more sadly, some of you did.
I gulped as I read it through, because it somehow stung me deeper than I could have imagined. "What is that doing there?" I looked up at Mr. Lowery. "It's not helping the cause. People just laugh at it, man. And it makes assholes like Perry go berserk!"
He nodded. "Some people react negatively. Some don't." He pointed at me. "You didn't, despite your anger at it. Your anger is at the presence of the picture, not at what the boy in the picture represents." He smiled at Keith. "You're not laughing or angry, either."
Keith looked unhappy. "No, sir. It's not funny. Just sad."
"It wasn't meant to be funny. It was meant to be sad." Mr. Lowery glanced at his watch. "Lunch runs another fifteen minutes. Care to come into the room and talk a little?"
I actually didn't care to do that. The way I was feeling, no amount of talk would help. I opened my mouth to say no, but felt a slight push then, from Keith. I turned to look at him, and his eyes were insistent. "It'll give you a chance to calm down," he said quietly, being bluntly practical.
I think I hissed at that, but I didn't pull away from him.
"Come on," he said, taking me by the arm. He smiled at Mr. Lowery. "We'll come."
The man smiled, and turned around, and held the door open while Keith ushered me inside. The room was cool and quiet, the purring rush of the air-conditioning exhaling from a vent in the ceiling the only sound. The walls were covered with posters and pictures, mostly of faraway places. Pretty things, attractive things. Smiling people, beautiful places. It was magnetic, in a way, and I was immediately impressed. It was a place of calm, and learning, and ideas.
"I'm a history teacher in my other life," Mr. Lowery said, noting our curious glances.
I was still feeling mean. "We have Mrs. Kantarkian for history. At least she doesn't try to teach us how to act in society."
But Mr. Lowery was apparently one of those people almost impossible to bait. He simply laughed, and waved a hand at the front row of desks. "Come on and grab a couple of seats, why don't you? Sit a minute, Relax."
We did that. But I had barely sat down before I felt the urge to jump up again. Mr. Lowery saw that, and cut me off before I had fully risen. "Running away will not solve your problems."
I stared at him, and sat myself again. "I'm not running away from anything!"
He nodded. "Okay. Side-stepping issues isn't any better."
I squinted, not about to be roped in.
"Avoidance, then," he said pointedly. "Not coping. Having unrealistic expectations?"
Well, okay, that sort of pinned me to the spot. "I'm listening."
"You're gay," he said then.
I nodded. "Masterful deduction!"
He just smiled, and looked at Keith. "What about you?"
I expected Keith to huff, look offended, and shake his head pretty rapidly. Instead, he looked at me, and then back at Mr. Lowery. "I'm undecided."
I gaped then, just plain amazed. "What? You're not gay!"
Keith nodded. "I know. I'm undecided."
Mr. Lowery held up a hand to quiet me, and smiled at Keith. "Undecided, as in maybe bisexual?"
Keith looked pained, but nodded. "I guess."
All I could do was stare at him. My best friend, and I didn't know this? My gaydar is almost never wrong, and I'd never so much as gotten a blip on the screen from Keith! "Why didn't you say so?"
He gave a little laugh, and shook his head. "That's what being undecided is all about, Jack."
Mr. Lowery nodded and looked at me. "Do you think you're the only gay guy in the school?"
I laughed at that. "No. I'm just the only one dumb enough to be honest and come out. The others are keeping their heads down until they're done with this school crap. Just what I should've done!"
"So why did you come out?"
"What? Because I'm not ashamed of who I am, that's why. I don't care what any of these idiots think --" I stopped then, stunned.
Mr. Lowery shrugged. "And yet, apparently, you do care."
I closed my eyes. "I didn't think I would." I shook my head, feeling the frantic closing in again. "I just wanted to be me!"
Someone squeezed my arm, and when I opened my eyes, I saw it was Keith. He just smiled, and didn't say anything, but I was suddenly comforted just to know he was there.
"You have at least one good friend, I see," Mr. Lowery went on. "He wants you to talk to me. So let's humor him."
I crossed my arms and made a face, but I just didn't have a good answer to that, so I said nothing.
Mr. Lowery nodded, and sat back more comfortably in his seat. He watched me a bit, and then sighed. "So you think your troubles will be over when you graduate?"
I hissed again. I didn't mean to - it just came out. "Of course! Once I'm out of this dump and away from these clods, I can choose the people I associate with. I won't have to put up with any more jerks."
He shook his head. "No. It doesn't work that way, I'm afraid."
I stared at him. "How could it not? If I can pick and choose --"
"You can't pick and choose," he interrupted. "Oh, maybe your friends, sure. You will naturally gravitate to people that accept you for who you are. They're out there, definitely." He leaned forward again. "But you cannot pick and choose life, Jack. Not but so much, and not the way you're suggesting."
I blinked at him. "You know me?"
He smiled. "Your sister is Jen Gregory, right?"
Oh, yeah. Still, I frowned. "Just because my sister took your class doesn't mean you should know me."
"Well, I do. She showed me a picture of you once. She described you. And she told me she was worried about you. About your temper."
I felt my mouth just drop open at that. "My temper! I don't have a temper!"
The room got very quiet. Mr. Lowery just watched me, and I felt Keith doing the same thing. I stared at him, too. "I don't have a bad temper, do I?"
I could see the indecision in his eyes, but then that it simply went away. "You didn't used to. But since you came out - yes."
Mr. Lowery smiled. "I would call what happened with Perry Hart a major show of temper, Jack. And a dangerous one. That boy would make two of you, and he has his dad's nasty temperament. He could have hurt you badly if things had progressed."
I felt my face twist at that. "He's such an asshole! I can't even look at him without...without getting mad." And there it was.
Mr. Lowery nodded. "The world is full of assholes, son. They are everywhere you will go in life. If you react to each one you meet the way you did with Hart, you will find yourself in serious trouble one day. That, or hurt...or dead."
I closed my eyes. "I just want to be me. Is that so much?"
"No, it's not." I opened my eyes, and Mr. Lowery was watching me again. "It's not. There is no reason you cannot be you. But at the same time, you cannot demand that every other person out there accept who you are. It's not a reasonable point of view, and it's not safe."
"I have a right --"
"No, you don't."
It was my turn to stare at him. "I have a right to be who I am." I repeated.
He shrugged. "Rights are a human invention, Jack. Nature doesn't understand them, and it certainly doesn't honor them. Human beings run by natural instincts bred into the race, and social rules that have changed constantly over time. The sort of rights you think you have are based entirely on tolerance by others. And that tolerance comes and goes like the wind."
I tried to digest that. "Tolerance?'
"Yes. Some people are tolerant by inclination. Other people's minds can be changed. But some others - and it's a lot of others - will die before they change their attitude. That's just the way it is."
I didn't get that. "The law says --"
He waved a hand, cutting me off. "Laws are part of the social rules I mentioned. Yes, here and now, in this country, they mostly protect you in your lifestyle. But you cannot expect that everywhere you go, or for the present legal tolerance to maintain. There are places in the world, even in this day and age, that are making it illegal to be openly LBGTQ." He shook his head. "You cannot mandate acceptance of an idea, Jack. You cannot mandate a change of opinion. You cannot make people who dislike you for who you are, change. All you can do is penalize people who step over the line and act out against you." He sighed. "But by then, it's often too late."
My head was in a whirl now. "It's just so...so unfair!"
Mr. Lowery looked sad. "I know that. I could just tell you that life is unfair, but you've surely heard that before."
My frantic feeling surged, and I wanted to get up and run. Mr. Lowery saw it coming, and patted his hand forcefully on his desktop. "Wait, Jack."
Keith put out a hand and dropped it on my shoulder. "Listen to him, Jack."
I shook my head. "What can I do then? I thought I was free to be me!"
Mr. Lowery grinned. "You are, Jack. You are free to be you."
"But you just said --"
He held up a hand. "Let me finish." His pretty blue eyes settled upon me, and I felt he could see everything going on inside me. "You are free to be you, Jack. But not because the law says so. Not because tolerance is at an all-time high in some places, and not because I am telling you so. You should be who you were born to be because that is your nature." He eyed me pointedly then. "There are just provisions."
I shook my head. "Provisions?"
He held up his hands. "Yes. Provisions. Stipulations. Rules. Freedom always comes with responsibilities, Jack."
"Oh." I could feel the slow creep of disappointment at my back. "That sure as hell sounds like I'm not free at all."
The teacher nodded. "Let me tell you something about that picture I have out on my bulletin board."
"I was wondering, even if Jack wasn't," Keith said then.
"Uh huh. That's a former student of mine, a boy named Gerard. He was also gay."
Keith squinted. "Was?"
Mr. Lowery grunted. "Poor choice of words. He's still gay, I guess."
The import of that remark dawned on me, and Keith and I exchanged what could only be described as cautious looks. "What does that mean?" I asked.
Mr. Lowery steepled his hands on the desk and briefly brought his fingertips back to touch his nose. "Well...this happened about eight years ago. I was teaching history at a high school down south. I won't say where, because it doesn't matter. Gerard was a student in my class."
Keith tossed a thumb at the classroom door to the hallway. "He gave you that picture?"
"Oh, no. I'll tell you about that later." He sighed. "Gerard was a bright guy, nice looking, and he came from a family with some money. You could tell by talking to him that he had grown up in a tolerant atmosphere, and that he was used to being open about things." He smiled. "I guess most guys have gaydar, and I'll tell you now that Gerard set mine off the first time he showed up in my classroom at the start of the semester."
I huffed. "Well, if he was dressed the way he was in that picture, it'd be hard to miss!"
"He wasn't. He dressed like everyone else, pretty much. He dressed like you, even."
I looked down at my clothing. "I didn't think I dressed gay. Or at least, not so you could tell."
"You don't. And if I just saw you going by out in the hallway, I would probably have never guessed you were gay. You don't have the" -- he brought his hands up and bent the first two fingers on each hand twice in a set of quote marks --" classic gay mannerisms at all."
That made me bristle. "You mean the stereotyped mannerisms, don't you?"
"Take your pick. You come across as a guy, jack. As a matter of fact, most gay guys are just like you. Those with effeminate traits are actually in the minority."
"I don't flame, you mean."
Mr. Lowery frowned. "That's a derogatory description, actually."
I laughed. "I felt safe using it, being an insider."
He rolled his eyes, but the smile returned. "No, you don't flame, then."
"And this Gerard did?"
"Well...he had some effeminate mannerisms, yes. The way he spoke was also noticeably effeminate. But he was a bright and sweet kid, very outgoing, and most of the other students liked him. His problems only started when he decided to come out."
I made a rude noise. "How about that!"
Mr. Lowery was unfazed. "It began slowly. He told a few of his friends. A few of them dropped him, but most stuck by him, as long as he was keeping it quiet. But he didn't. I guess he felt emboldened by not being rejected outright. A few of the guys he knew cautioned him, but he didn't seem to want to listen. He went from being on the down low about it, to being very open about it."
"And that didn't go over well?" Keith assumed.
"It didn't. His remaining friends bolted, and he soon found himself alone, and on the outside of school culture." Mr. Lowery sighed. "There's this thing about being alone in human society, Jack. When you stand by yourself in any given situation, and everyone is against you, some of the animal instinct in people kicks in. Having no support whatsoever from others marks you. It makes you a target, and people lose their social inhibitions against acting out against you. Gerard became the subject of bullying. Quite a lot of it."
"What did he do?" Keith asked, almost a whisper.
"He fought back, as well as he could. And he got mad, just like you, Jack. He felt his rights were being violated, and that he was right and everyone else was wrong."
I took a deep breath, thinking about that. "He was right."
Mr. Lowery nodded. "Yes. To some extent, anyway. But being right won't always cut it, Jack, not in this world. 'Right' is a consensus issue. The majority opinion is what is right, at least to that majority. And no amount of legislative action can force them to change their minds. People are stubborn, Jack. People are selfish. And, at the bottom of it all, most people run on emotions, and they're just not very smart at the social level. You've heard the term, 'social IQ?"
I nodded. "Yeah."
"Most people have fairly low social IQs. I'm not disparaging people; it's simply a fact. Most people will go along with the consensus, the majority opinion, simply because it's too much work to go against it, and if they do, the result can be detrimental to their own standing in the community. The human animal is a lazy thinker, far too often than is good for the individual or the community."
I wasn't sure where he was going with this, but certainly could go along with the idea that there were a hell of a lot of assholes out there. "So what exactly are you trying to tell me?"
Mr. Lowery sighed. "There's a big difference between being who you are, and demanding that everyone else respect that, Jack."
I still wasn't sure where he was going with that, and said so.
He nodded. "Okay." He seemed to think a moment, and then nodded again. "You are who you are by birth, Jack. You really don't need a right to be gay, because nature has already assigned you that role. Understanding who you are is really very easy for you. Understanding where you fit into society as a gay person requires more consideration. Here is where social IQ comes in. Here is where you have to be smart to survive."
I thought I did get it then. "You're saying it's better to stay in the closet. I don't agree with that."
He smiled that pretty smile again. "Actually, I'm not saying that at all. You can tell anyone or everyone you are gay if that's what you choose to do. But realistically, you cannot expect everyone - or even most people - you tell, to accept it." He pointed a finger at me. "Ever heard the expression, 'know your audience?'"
I had. "Some stand up comic said it, I think."
"There you go. That's true for a comedian, definitely. But it applies to anyone speaking or performing before the public. It applies to anyone presenting themselves before the public. It refers to the idea that knowing what your audience will accept beforehand will go a long way towards having them accept you in what you say and do. Most successful speakers, at least, know their audience." He made a small, disparaging laugh then. "And it certainly works for politicians, who know just what music will make their target audience dance."
I frowned at that, having already seen myself that people would believe any dumb thing that some politicians told them. I had thought at those times that people sure could be stupid...so maybe I did see where Mr. Lowery was going. "So it's okay to be gay around some people, you mean?"
"What I mean is that it is dangerous to assume that the law will protect you from ignorance and bias, Jack. Those protections too often are applied as corrections after the fact, and do nothing to keep you from being harmed in the first place. Only you can look out for yourself."
Keith sat forward then. "What happened to Gerard?"
Mr. Lowery gave a pained look. "Well, as I said, he came out fully. And he got mad when some people wouldn't accept him."
I knew what that was like. I could sympathize. "Yeah. Especially if he decided to dress like he was dressed in that picture."
"No. He never came to school dressed that way. He continued to dress just as he always had."
"Then what happened?" Keith demanded.
Mr. Lowery licked his lips. "He had an accident one day in gym class. He was hit in the head with a steel weight. Everyone said it was an accident."
I felt a breathless terror come over me at that. "But it wasn't?"
"A lot of people thought it wasn't, yes. But the boys that were there all stuck to their stories, No charges were ever filed."
"Gerard died?" Keith asked. "You just said he was still around!"
Mr. Lowery spread his hands on the desktop. "He was not killed. But he suffered some brain damage, and was unable to continue at the school. His parents had a whopping lawsuit against the county, and there was even more whispering that it was a deliberate act on the parts of some of the boys. But a judge threw the case out for lack of evidence, and no one was ever prosecuted."
I leaned forward. "What happened to Gerard?"
"I don't know. His family moved away, and that was the end of it." His expression grew grim. "But that incident is what caused me to leave my teaching position in that school - in that state. I came here, looking for something better."
I shook my head."And it's not better."
He smiled then, a beautiful thing. "No, Jack. It's much better here. There is ignorance and bias everywhere in the world, but some places are better than others, definitely." He waved a hand at the classroom windows. "Go thirty miles that way, into the city, and being openly gay will net you very little trouble. It's not perfect there, but it's fairly safe."
"But out here, we're in the sticks."
He laughed at that. "Not really. Where we are here is safer and more accepting than many cities in other parts of the country. This is what I mean about knowing your audience, Jack. Being different always means you'll have to fight at some point. All I am saying is that you need to pick your battles. You need to disregard the small stuff, and concentrate on the bigger picture."
I sat back in my seat. "I have no idea what the bigger picture is."
"But you will. As you get older, and experience more, you will. You'll soon see what the important battles are, and what is just a waste of time." He pointed at me, and then at the classroom door. "That whole thing with Perry Hart. What was the point of that? Do you really feel a need for a guy like that to accept and respect that you are gay?"
That made me smile. "I can't stand the guy! I...well. I thought I didn't care what he thought."
That made Mr. Lowery laugh. "I understand that. Acceptance is a human need, Jack. We all have to have it, from someone. But too often we waste our efforts on people we shouldn't."
"Those people can be dangerous, though," Keith said. "It's the people that act like Perry that create all these laws against people like...like Jack." He grinned then. "And maybe like me. Once I'm decided., that is."
The teacher nodded approvingly. "You are absolutely correct. That is a larger war that should be fought. You can become an activist yourself, but you have to understand there is a price, and a danger that goes with it. Or, you can simply support these large groups that are fighting for the same things that you are, and that have lawyers and backing to go after those who want to institute oppressive laws. That, in my opinion, works better. Strength in numbers."
Mr. Lowery sighed. "The main point I am trying to make is that you need to be smart to survive, Jack. That means not letting people like Perry Hart sway you into acting irresponsibly. That means keeping your eyes open, constantly assessing your audience, and always - always - not giving power to those that will use it to hurt you. And if that means not being openly gay around some people, then that is what you do."
It was starting to make sense to me, and I couldn't help smiling. "You're saying to be selectively gay."
He laughed. "Pretty much. You are what you are, Jack. And being gay is something that nature offers. It's not a choice, it's not some game that some people play, and it's not the horror or bad conduct that some groups would rather believe it to be. It is exactly what it is. One more facet of being human. There is no shame in it. But you do have to understand that we live in a world that doesn't always like it. So the primary consideration in your life should always be to be gay with people you trust and care about, and treat all others as problematic."
"What about celebrities that come out?" Keith asked. "They're putting their careers on the line, sometimes. But they want people to know who they are."
"Yes, and that is their choice. Public personalities operate under different rules than the rest of us, though. Neither of you is a public personality. You are just two more faces in the crowd. Deliberately drawing attention to yourselves when that crowd may be hostile is simply poor tactics on the battlefield of life. And that is what I have been getting at all along. Coming out is a choice you make. But you cannot be angry at others if it turns out to be a poor choice, and those around you don't accept it."
I felt Keith looking at me then, and smiled at him. "I've been acting mad for a long time?"
He rolled his eyes. "More than a year now. Since you came out, about, I'd say."
I searched inwardly, and knew it was true then. I had been mad at the world, because it had not responded like I'd wanted it to after letting everyone who I really am.
"I'm sorry," I told him. "I sort of didn't know."
He nodded. "I know. Everything seemed to set you off. I didn't know how to talk to you about it."
I remembered then, the ease with which he had withdrawn at the lunch table during my rant. He was practiced now!
"Wow. I didn't know. Really."
Keith smiled at Mr. Lowery. "You're not saying we shouldn't come out. You're just saying to do it with the right people."
The teacher sat back in his seat and sighed. "Exactly. There is a very big fight going on in this country today. Human beings can easily be separated into two camps: those that are comfortable with change, and even embrace it; and those to whom change is anathema, something to be avoided at all costs. This second group is fearful of any change that my alter their status in life, and they will fight tooth and nail to protect what they feel are their rights. Even at the price of your rights. Being open with this group is something you do extremely guardedly. Understand? That's what I mean about knowing your audience. Be aware, observe, consider, and take the action that applies to the situation. If you are not a public figure, coming out should be a selective issue that best benefits you and those you care for. It's that simple."
Keith frowned at that. "Some people would say that's punking out."
"Let them say it. They are not living your life. You are. Being gay should be a joy just as any other joy in life. But this is one joy that currently needs to be safeguarded. Who you are is only important to those around you that you care about. It's just my opinion, but I think it's a good one."
"So do I," I admitted. "I was getting crazy, I see that now."
Mr. Lowery nodded. "Be a Jack, Jack. Not a Gerard. Nor anyone else. Anger works against you, son. Be who you have to be, but be that person smartly." He looked at his watch then. "Well, I have to get ready for my next class."
"I guess we do, too," Keith said, rising. He smiled at Mr. Lowery. "Thanks a lot."
The teacher stood, and so did I. "Yeah," I said, meaning it. "Thanks. A lot."
"A small thing, really. Come on out in the hall a moment."
He headed for the door, reaching into his pocket as he did so. We exited into the hall, and Mr. Lowery turned towards the bulletin board. He had a key in his hand. He unlocked the glass, reached inside, and carefully removed the picture and the attached caption, and offered them to me. "For you, Jack. And with one last bit of wisdom, I hope."
I took the picture automatically. "You're giving this to me?"
"Yes." He closed the glass and relocked it. "I was Gerard's homeroom teacher. When he left the school, I was in possession of the combinations for the lockers, and so assigned to clean out his. I found this picture inside." He pointed at the print. "It nearly made me cry. I realized that this was how Gerard saw himself. This was who he knew he was. His shirt was both asking for love, and offering it. What happened to him was a crime." He clapped a hand on my shoulder, and gave me a gentle squeeze. "One that shouldn't be repeated, understand?" He lifted his hand, and patted the picture." I cropped out has face, as was only right. But it has served its purpose now, and I want you to have it."
I stared down at the picture."Its purpose?"
The man smiled. "It got you here, didn't it?" He patted me on the shoulder. "Say hi to your sister when you talk to her. Tell her her wish has been granted."
I gaped at that, conclusions rushing at me now. "She...my sister? She put you up to this?"
Mr. Lowery smiled. "Its always the ones that love us that are most anxious to look out for our welfare, Jack. She wanted so much for you to have the rainbow you wanted. If you will examine that picture, you will see that you have it."
He turned to go, while I stood and stared at the picture, at the colored bands on the socks that Gerard was wearing in the picture. A rainbow.
Oh." Mr. Lowery turned back to me and smiled. "One more thing to remember, Jack. The rainbow comes after the storm. You get my drift?"
I laughed, and nodded. "Yeah. Thanks."
He nodded, entered the room, and closed the door.
"Wow," Keith said softly. "Makes me wish I'd taken the class."
I nodded. I could see now how my sister had been changed by Mr. Lowery. She had listened.
There were other people in the hallway, and I didn't want them to see what I was holding. It was mine now, it and its message. I rolled it up carefully and put it in my shirt pocket.
A bell rang then, the five minute bell before the next class. Keith and I both had English together. We walked towards our lockers, which were about five doors apart, and when I got to mine, someone had written faggot on it again in black magic marker. This time, though, I just looked at it, feeling none of the old fury and rush to get it cleaned off. I opened the door, got out my books, and closed the door again. Keith was there, looking at me.
"You're not going to wipe it off?"
I shook my head. "Nah. It's just a locker door. It doesn't even belong to me. Fuck 'em."
He grinned, clapped me on the shoulder, and we headed on to our next class.
This story is part of the 2021 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: of Books and Covers". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 30 July to 20 August 2021 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.
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