What kind of man do I want to be? What does it mean to be respected and respectable? It’s a question that I’ve had to answer since puberty. How do I earn the respect of my peers. Every man has to deal with what his manhood entails?
I recently had an eventful encounter with the super of my building. It has pushed me to start thinking about how important being respected is to the idea of a ‘man’ and how it has played into my own anxiety(ies) and self-image. There seems to be so many men silently begging, each in their own way, ‘I want respect‘.
Sometimes, I have to actively remind myself that these ideas mean different things to different people. As a result, I have to know that the things that may gain the admiration of one group may negate your ‘credibility’ altogether with someone else. In the same way that everyone won’t like you, I have to accept that everyone won’t respect me. It’s hard but I have to be okay with that. I can’t demand respect from people on my terms. I always try to be nice/respectful but that isn’t (wasn’t) always reciprocated.
***⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓DRAMATIC MUSIC FOR FLASHBACK SCENE⇓⇓⇓⇓⇓ ***
Once upon a time, I went to school in a former neglected part of what is now gentrified Brooklyn. To enter my high school, I had to go through a metal detector/ bag scanner, and then get patted down. A handheld detector then checked my shoes and body for additional weapons that may not have been picked up by the machine. Finally, our bags were searched and we were off to our teenage shenanigans. There’s nothing like preemptively preparing future criminals for prison.
There was also a NYPD TIPS van that always parked near the entrance. It blared recent crimes and reminded us that we could call the cops anonymously and report anything that we knew. Oh, and we’d get money. anonymously? I was afraid. A scared, clueless immigrant.
I was most afraid of being jumped. I ate lunch the first day in the bathroom then slowly summoned the courage to listen to my disc-man alone in the lunchroom (toilette-free) for the next week. It was a bit of an accident. I went in for a bit of a reprieve, the way you do at an uncomfortable dinner, but couldn’t convince myself to go back into the cafeteria. Honestly, I wish I could get away with eating lunch in the bathroom as an adult. At least I’d be protected from my colleagues. I felt at peace there. Does that make me a weirdo? Making friends is hard in high school and I hated sitting by myself. Those were the longest 45 minutes of my life. I never had these problems at my old school. Then again, they didn’t have metal detectors. I think I remember someone talking to me at some point or the other but I would feel like I didn’t belong there. It took so much effort to pretend that after the first month, I spent every lunch period in the school library. And if the library was closed, I just went home early.
My very first week at school, I was on my way to the men’s room when I had to pass a group of red bespoke gentlemen sitting on the stairwell. No sooner had I passed, that I felt a solid punch into my spine. I instinctively turned around to face my attacker. Before me stood, 5 of the largest brothers I had ever seen. Red, red everything. red sneakers, durags, jeans, shirts, jackets. At the time, I thought it was weird.
I wasn’t yet aware of bloods, crips or gangs in Brooklyn. I was truly scared. I had no group. I was the new kid facing these rather exceptional brutes. Did I carry myself so as to attract this sort of attention? Was I a punk? Was I supposed to fight? Was this like prison, where I needed to prove myself? I had never asked myself these questions. I never had a reason to. I backed up, and then ran back to my classroom. No respect.
You tried not to waste time making yourself a bigger target by ‘telling a teacher’. Besides, they can’t protect you outside the building. I sat in class dumbfounded. It was surreal. Would this be normal? Would it be a one time deal. I felt safe in class but scared to go to the bathroom. I spent a lot of high school successfully navigating the criminal elements of these boys gone wild.
I didn’t recognize him, the puncher, until a few weeks later. He was in my Algebra B class. How could I not recognize him? There were only four people who showed up to algebra B even though there were 30 on the register. Algebra B, where that bitch would always ask Mr Claymore, who got the highest after every exam. And then tell her friend, “Of course he did (me). He’s a faggot.”
No respect! I think everyone in High school wanted to be liked and accepted for who they were. And everyone who was different had to struggle through. For us, we had to deal with things like one-day rumors in chemistry that you were bi-sexual. They were correct but the specificity bothered me. Why didn’t Carla/her minion just say gay or fag? Or having to quickly duck because a measuring scale came flying at my head soon after. I couldn’t prove it but I knew it was them. Many belated thanks to the friends around me for pretending not to know who threw it (snitch-code is stupid). Bisexual accusations and attempted battery in the same class period. You have to love high school in America. Zero respect.
With everyone fighting for respect, school was a dangerous place. Respect was in how well you could fight/which gang you belonged to/how scared students were of you. And there were real reasons to be afraid. Where else would you see a hockey game become a battering fest before the eyes of helpless traumatized kids. We watched as dude broke his hockey stick against other-dude’s back. (They really should have invested in padding.)
Every kid in my school knew to instinctively go against the wall, hands up and stay there if anyone got violent. Such as when dude walked into the middle of our math class and started bashing the face of other-dude (one had said something to the other and probably taken his respect. He came to get it back). Some kids would be shaking in fear. This was definitely not an environment for learning. How could I not be upset having to wash specks of blood off my bag that evening. Neglected kids. I think I was one of them.
By Junior year, I had survived 2 years. I had great strategies for maneuvering the entire school. I was in the middle of taking a test in earth science when a guy came up to me in front of the teacher and handed me a note. This was a guy who had been in the class for the previous 6 months almost. He sat at the lab table across with his own group but I had no reason to believe that he would have ever seen me as a target. I was wrong. The note said,
Give me the answers to the test, or else.
Or else? I looked at the paper and showed it to the female classmate next to me. There was always a part of me that was jealous of girls not constantly having to prove themselves as much as boys. Why did boys? Girls are allowed to be quiet, mean, talkative and everything imaginable. Boys are expected to be tough. Damn.
I was upset. And scared. But I more upset than scared! This was unfair. Why did I have to be in this environment. Why couldn’t I be at a school like the kids on TV. Why did I have to get scanned to get into the building. I picked up the note, crumbled it and dropped in the lab drawer. Then I finished my test, took it to the substitute and walked out of the classroom, ran down the stairs, out of the building and straight home.
In this environment, how do I earn the respect/acceptance of my peers? I felt I couldn’t. I hated going to lunch. I hated going to gym. For months, I left my school and went to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and then returned whenever I felt like. I loved being alone in the gardens. At school, I never felt at peace or comfortable in my own skin. How could a science fair/Model UN nerd feel at home in this environment.
There were times that I attempted to fit in (cornrows and baggy clothes). And both times, I got too lazy to keep making the effort. The nerd in me always won out.
As senior year began, things changed. After years of neglect, my classmates started becoming more concerned with their academic prospects. Rude girlz started wearing turtlenecks and dressing studiously. Kids started showing up to classes. Maybe it had something to do with stories of students being put out of the school, others unable to graduate, others sent to special schools. Unlike most of the seniors/graduating class, I knew I was going to college. I worked for it. Is it wrong I felt vindicated? Still, as high school coming to an end, I could tell there was a dark reality waiting for many students.
Senior year, I saw Carla from chemistry class at the subway station. She smiled at me, and I smirked back. She had to transfer schools because her grades were too low. Is it okay that I felt justified in her misery? Maybe, I didn’t want to be the bigger person. My last day in the gym, after senior picture, I saw another dude. A really cool dude, who asked me, ‘Are you graduating?‘ I responded, ‘Of course!’. His face went red (he was light-skinned). He added, ‘You don’t have to say it like that‘. I walked away from that brother and out of the gym.
As I stepped into the auditorium in my suit and tie on graduation day, a stranger stopped me and said, you are going to do great things, I can tell. Be a respectable man, and you will get your own respect, on your terms. I respected myself. I was lucky to have a good support structure, a good mother and a great community. I was given goals, expectations and values. I don’t take it for granted.
All things considered, I feel I had a fairly okay high school experience. Sure, there were a few times of targeted bullying, constantly feeling like the outsider, and having to navigate a dangerous and often hostile school environment. But, I also had friends, and classes/teachers I liked. I had science fairs and Model UN (I can still tell you the history of Eritrea). Still, the person who I was as I left high school was definitely a socially anxious/low self-esteem type. I wasn’t sure what kind of man I was or whether I would/could be respected. Looking back, I can see that it followed me for some time after high school as well. Still, I hope that my former classmates found the respect they needed within themselves. I hope they became successful and happy with themselves, in spite of the poverty, disenfranchisement, harassment, dangerous/neglectful housing environments, abandonment, over-policing and all the things they should not have had to deal with at such a young age. Today, I truly hope they found peace.
Once in a while, I remember/feel like that high school nerd still fighting for respect. And other times, I drive-by certain social media profiles. And smile. I promise I will stop doing that some day. Stay Different! -Anxious Brother