Inciting Incident Blog #26 – From Given Up On To Giving It Up

I’ve told various parts of this story for years, and today is the day that I finally get to conclude this journey. Today is officially my last day as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, and it took me almost 32 years to get here, and I don’t think anyone ever thought I would. Let me explain…
In elementary school, I was bored. First grade saw me reading books while class was going on because I was tired of whatever the teacher was helping the other kids with. Eventually they put me on independent study, because I was reading at a way higher level than the grade would allow, and this continued all the way through fifth grade. It is my belief, in retrospect, that because of this, they weren’t looking for anything that would’ve retrospectively confirmed things like ADHD and gender identity. That, and I was in a snobby, elitist school district that at that time wouldn’t have fathomed something like that. Boy how things have changed!

The problem was, by putting me off in a corner and letting me do whatever I wanted for five years, they taught me that I didn’t have to pay attention in class, participate, learn how to work in a group, study, take notes, or anything like that. Imagine how that came crashing down once I hit junior high!

Getting into junior high was getting thrown to the wolves, and I never truly recovered. Even in sixth grade, my English teacher put me on the computer separately to write a book to send to President Clinton. Why wouldn’t I have assumed this was the way it was always going to be? It was how I was treated. That’s why I didn’t take to heart any of the warnings from my parents or teachers that I was not living up to my potential. I can’t deny my own responsibility in never trying to do so either, but once again, I’d already learned that I could get by and do whatever I wanted because I was really smart. It screwed me over in the long run.

I was also perceived to be a feminine boy, and that got me daily hazing from a variety of bullies. Then I’d go home, and I felt like an outcast from my own family, for reasons I won’t get into here. The worst incident was getting beaten with a baseball bat in my own driveway by two boys who called themselves “friends” because I was feminine. Or assumed to be gay.

In high school, the shit hit the fan. I was hospitalized three different times as a result of my ongoing self-crisis, running away from home when things got too much, and my general apathy toward school work. The teachers never forwarded any of the work I missed, so I failed ninth grade. I was emotionally distraught, desperately seeking love and attention, and that I believe covered up any of the aforementioned issues. That, and they’d given up on me. It only took them until tenth grade to do that.

They gave me a choice: reform school, or going to Florida to live with my grandmother so I could take the GED. I was an emotionally charged kid, but I wasn’t a criminal. I never got in any real trouble. The only time I was ever in the back of a police car was when they found me after I’d run away. I didn’t drink or do drugs, I was just desperate for love. And misdiagnosed with BPD.

In Florida, you can get your GED at age 16, as opposed to Pennsylvania, where your class has to graduate first. I aced the first test, so they didn’t think I needed the classes. But then they said I needed a second test, and I aced that too. Then, that’s where my grandmother says I really messed up, because at the actual GED test, I got one question wrong. Ruined everything! I got a real high school diploma instead of a GED because of that, so technically I graduated high school with a 4.0, despite passing exactly zero years.

It was around that time that I was in a small play at Little Theater. I was talking about my plans to get an early start at HACC and get ahead of the game, and there was this guy. Let’s call him Will C. He said, and I quote: “Yeah, you go ahead and go to HACC. Then one day you’ll be working for me.” I don’t know why that of all things stuck in my craw to this day, but it did. I hated him so much for it, because he’d always been cruel to me, snide, making remarks, and generally being a dick in my direction. I never forgot it.

I tried that whole HACC thing, but all of those problems were still problems. That, and being 17 years old, pretending to be male, and suddenly surrounded by gorgeous college women, I was going insane. I bombed out, and did pretty much the same thing at age 20 when I tried again.

I spent years working in retail, until I landed a pretty good gig working at Nordstrom at Mall of America. The average take-home was more than I’d ever seen in my life. One problem: they never bothered to tell me that it was seasonal. I moved halfway across the country for a seasonal job, and I was stuck yet again.

I moved home in August, and that weekend, the girlfriend who’d stuck with me the whole time cheated on me. So I was jobless, single, and seemingly without any path whatsoever. I went to my mother, who works at HACC, and said: “get me back into school, I don’t care what it takes. I’m never going to let this happen to me again.”

I got back into HACC. They let me only take two classes, and one of them was English Composition. I remember after the second class, the professor pulled me aside afterward and said, “what are you doing here?” It was my Billy Joel “Piano Man” moment. Despite the issues focusing, sitting still, and trying to cope with what I’d eventually understand to be my gender identity, I was destroying it.

I spent two years at HACC, and only got one B. The rest were A’s. This got me into Phi Theta Kappa, the honor’s society for community colleges. I was writing for the school paper, being published, and getting offers from all over the country. But once again, I had a girl in my life, and wanting to stay with her, I was looking for an option that would allow me to stay with her and pursue higher academia. That’s when Penn (not Penn State) had a session at HACC. I thought to myself, “wow, I could take the Amtrak everyday and come home to her! This will be great!”

Penn was the only place I applied. Penn was the only place I was accepted. Fall 2013, I started at Penn. They gave me the impression that it would take two years to graduate, but then they only took six of my classes as transfers, and only one was used as anything but a free elective. I essentially went to college for two years to get into college.

The first two years, I commuted via Amtrak, and it averaged being late or canceled about half the time. Plus, there were two trains leaving back to Harrisburg: 8:15 and 11pm. Having to take night classes (damn LPS), most of the classes ended at 8 or 8:30. So I could either leave class early, which they didn’t care for, or find three hours to kill, usually at a bar, get home around 1am, and do the whole thing over. Halfway through, I started driving instead, and that unleashed a whole new set of problems: I-76, the Sure-Kill. It doesn’t matter what time of day you hit that road, you will inevitably be in stopped traffic.

The girlfriend I had broke up with me at the end of the first semester. I still continued this commute, because I was determined to see it through. That, and I met my would-be husband soon after. I was dealing with all these feelings that were finally bubbling to the surface as well. Was I a girl? Had I been a girl this whole time? What was this going to mean? Would anyone ever accept me? Could I be safe in this world?

Then I won the 2015 Hershey Student Film Festival with a film I wrote about suicide, something near and dear to me, and a huge problem at Penn. That was the last film I’d ever write though, because as I learned, I have a degree in cinema to learn that I don’t really like cinema all that much. But I still dealt with the internal struggle of gender identity, which was delayed for almost two years by people who didn’t bother to learn about consent.

You all know the Pastor Carl story. That was how I kicked down the closet door and became who I truly am. Within months, I was out to the school and the world, had my name legally changed, affirmed my identity, been on HRT, and published two books during that time. The podcast grew into a huge success, I met so many new friends, guested on dozens more podcasts, and saw bookings for speeches, lectures, and appearances start to roll in. School became secondary, and after four years of a 100-mile daily each way commute four times a week, I was not only out of gas, but different opportunities and activities were taking my attention. I was no longer the 27-year-old pretend male with hopes and aspirations of a 4.0. I was a married 31-year-old transwoman finding success on her own and running her own business. As I used the metaphor many times, I had to take a knee and run out the clock, because I had no more energy to give to Penn academics. I needed to get through the last semester passing, and that’s all I cared.

Finally, my issues with language were taken care of after a year-plus of trying. I accepted neurodivergence, was exempted from having to learn a foreign language, and that saved my college career. It’s literally that I cannot do it, I can’t process it, and without that exemption, I was never going to graduate. It took getting a second evaluation and pressing hard to do so, but it finally happened. That, and CAPS doctors helped me get the medical assistance I needed with ADHD, anxiety, and the one that truly surprised me, PTSD. That explained my night terror attacks, my over-sensitivity to bright lights, loud sounds, and being startled. Dealing with all of this, the gender transition, the commute, not to mention an Ivy League education despite never having passed a year of high school and having to work through it, definitely took its toll on everything. I’m amazed I can still wake up in the morning.

But this morning I did. I finally reached it. The last day of undergrad. Six years of college, plus years of being confused, tortured, bullied, misunderstood, and doubted have finally culminated in this. So, I can only say one thing on this momentous day of finally completing a journey…

Fuck you, Will C.

And thank you. I couldn’t have done it without you.


Inciting Incident Blog #1 – The Cliquish Nature of Your 20s

      Welcome to the Inciting Incident blog, a sub-project of the Inciting Incident podcast. I’m Al Laiman, the creator and main host of the podcast, and I feel like there are topics about which I can write that aren’t necessarily good for entire episodes, but are good to discuss regardless of the medium. Maybe we’ll end up addressing them on shows based on the responses, but I think it’s worth starting it up and seeing where it goes, but for now, consider this a place for separate topics and possible follow-ups. I am at heart and in original passion a writer, so perhaps this will be a way to hear my words in a different medium. Here we go.

     Given the controversial nature of the podcast at times, it may seem odd that I’m kicking off the podcast with something that seems rather tame by comparison. If you looked at the title, what I’m looking at is a bit of a transitional state of life. I’ve addressed this a lot, including on my recent appearance on the Secular Stories podcast, but this is a bit more specific in my intentions, at least for this post.

     Full disclosure if you’re not aware, I’m 31, but I’m a non-traditional college student, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. I was last in high school in 2002, and thanks to the advent of social media, I’ve been able to keep up with friends that I had back then. Because of the unique and strange nature of my journey, it’s fair to say that I’ve had a different experience than a good majority of them. Based on posts I see a lot, I thought it was a possibly helpful idea to discuss the decade of your 20s, and what changes transpire throughout them, especially once you’ve reached the end of it.

     Keep in mind that any generalizations I may make always have exceptions, so please don’t rail me if this doesn’t apply to you specifically.

When we leave high school at ages 17-18, regardless of whether or not we go to college, the habits we’ve spent most of our lives being socialized with end up carrying through for a good ten years at least. When you’re in college as a traditional high school graduate, college can very much be an extension of high school, except you get to sleep over and drink beer, sometimes even legally! There’s always an urge to, if not conform, to at least find your place.

     Jobs are very much similar in that regard. Have you ever noticed that most restaurants, retail stores, and other entry-level jobs feel like high school a good bit of the time? Cliques emerge, the popular ones go out with each other afterward, and those who don’t make a concerted effort to assimilate are mocked and excluded. It’s not unusual.

     However, when you reach your late 20s, and I often see these posts from social media from people my age, there’s this epiphany you have where you realize: “I don’t have any idea who I am!” For many of us, it’s transcendental, because we’re raised in a society that teaches us that we’re already special, individually unique, and encouraged to be who we are. We’re also told that once we hit the age of 18, we’re considered an adult, and with that comes the pressures of acting like one. American youth become terrified when they go to college in their late teens, early 20s, or when they are working in their young 20s and they don’t already have it all figured out. That creates an incredible amount of stress that some of us can never escape.

     If there’s a flaw in our educational system, I think it’s that we’re expected to go immediately to college after high school and already have in mind what we want to do with our lives. But as someone who failed at that twice, and then went back to community college at the age of 25, I have a different perspective on that process. In the eight years between when I first tried college and the successful return, I gained experience in the workplace, learned what I absolutely hated, and what I didn’t want to happen to me for the rest of my life.

      On the other hand, many of the kids I spend time around are putting so much pressure on themselves to already know what it is before they’re 30, lest they be considered failures or underachievers. Because of this, we end up with jobs we don’t want, degrees in studies that we end up tiring of before we graduate, and a sense of a need to be at places in an emotional capacity hard to attain for many young people.

     Once you realize you have no idea who you are, it becomes time to rebuild yourself from the ground up. Of course you keep things that you like, and perhaps opinions you had grow, become rationalized, and better articulated, and others you drop like a bad habit. Your judgments of other people decrease, you become more sympathetic to others who are different from you. You’re not so inclined to draw the line in the sand or categorize everything in black-and-white terms.

     Over the course of those few years, some people leave your life while different ones become closer than ever before. But while your foundation is being rebuilt, it feels like everything is in flux, and that anxiety of being a failure increases. Sometimes we end up married because we think we have to, or having children before we’re ready, in addition to the stresses we’re already facing. The barometer of success feels comparative, both to others your age and to what the expectations are.

     One day, maybe you’re about 30, and you might be looking back at On This Day on Facebook or wondering why you no longer feel the desire to go out, even when you don’t want to. You joke about how you feel old, how you want different things, or how staying inside and reading a book feels more desirable than getting trashed or being at a club. And if you didn’t do any of those things in the first place, it just feels more acceptable to do so.

     What’s happening is that you’re losing the power of cliques. High school trends encompass so many of our actions well beyond your high school graduation, and that mentality drives us to do things we don’t want to do for people we don’t like. But once you start figuring out who you are, as opposed to the you that you want to present, things change drastically in a relatively short amount of time. You spent so much time crafting an image for yourself and a particular group of people with whom to associate. Comparatively, you feel old because it’s been such a short time that reading a book and cooking dinner makes the partying days feel like ages ago.

     When I went back to school, especially once I got into Penn two years later, I saw many of my old behaviors manifested in my younger classmates. Motivations made sense, I could see them playing out to the T of thoughts I had when I was young. But at the same time, I was way more focused on schoolwork, studying, and making good grades than I was when I was younger. Prioritizing, working while being a student, having that life experience to keep me motivated, no longer wanting to return to live paycheck-to-paycheck drove me that much harder to succeed.

     Those experiences define you, not because of who you were, but who you became. You can’t recreate an experience you’ve never had, and it’s much harder to fight to prevent something that you’ve never had to deal with. If you’ve never had to work through college or on minimum wage, you cannot possibly empathize with that situation. If you’ve never had to take care of your own kids while thinking you’re still one yourself, it’s impossible to realize what it’s like.

     But at one point, when you no longer care about what others think, when you aren’t driven to wear certain things or go places because others think you should, that’s when you’ve become an adult. When you see yourself as who you are rather than who you want to be or how you want to be seen, your perspective shifts so dramatically that it causes a crisis in your own mind. I must be getting old, I’m not cool anymore, I should feel bad about what I like now… Nonsense.

     You are who you became as a product of having to deal with things on your own. When you have to work until midnight for tips, you stop caring about what kind of clothes you wear on your day off. When there’s no break between classes and work, what your fellow classmates think of your phone case is irrelevant. When you’ve got your own kids in school, dealing with what other children think you should be becomes completely disassociated with your philosophy.

     That’s growing up. That’s becoming a person. Never be ashamed of it. Do what you like, learn new things, explore new places, and read new books; not because you think you should, but because they contribute to the overall personhood you’ve made through your own hard work and not the pressures and stresses of how much other people in large groups can really suck a majority of the time.

     When people say “You do you,” that is what they mean. You won’t realize it until you get there, but it’s always worth the ride.