Yesterday, on a picture of my grade school, Washington Elementary, that I had posted to Facebook, my friend Julie commented that she had a picture of me that had been taken years ago on the playground of that school. I’d love to see it, I told her and a few minutes later, she posted the picture, this picture, in the comment section. I had not known exactly what to expect and yet, I was not completely prepared for what I saw. A t-shirt that clung to my chubby stomach and love handles, oversized glasses, Sears “husky” jeans, shaggy haircut and an extremely effeminate pose.
What was I thinking, I wondered. Did I think I was Kelly Garrett or Kris Monroe?
I looked at this little guy and thought, well, I can’t let Eric see this. In fact, I can’t let anyone see this.
Julie told me that written on the back of the photo was, “Ray Louis Barnhart Jr, 6th, 1980.” I would have been 11.
And while I was afraid for people to see this picture, I couldn’t stop looking at it myself. I found myself awash in memories of those years. Like the time I told Julie and another friend Jennifer that I wanted to lose 10 pounds in a weekend and Julie gave me a list of the foods I was allowed to eat. The only item from the list I remember was pickles and now, to this day, I think of Julie every time I eat a pickle. Also, I remembered attempting a fast and shamefully breaking that fast with a cold roast beef sandwich and a sleeve of Thin Mints.
In my mind, I remember those grade school years as a time when I was anxious or depressed about any number of things: my weight, being called names, feeling like I didn’t have a lot of friends, feeling different, being unskilled at sports.
And yet, this picture is proof that I must have had some good days, happy days, gleeful days. I’ve tried to remember what was going through my head on this day when I posed, and I do mean POSED, for this picture, but I just don’t know.
Our memories, they are sometimes so complicated when we take them out of envelopes in our chest of drawers and scan them to our computers and then zoom in on the details of afternoons from decades ago.
If this was a picture of a boy from the eighties that I did not know, that maybe I’d stumbled on it in a bin of old photos that antique stores and flea markets sometimes have with a sign that says, “25 cents or 5/$1.00”, if I had just randomly come upon a perfect stranger, I could have loved this kid without reservation. I could have looked in those eyes and seen enough of myself to root for him and wonder how things turned out, hoping “it got better.”
At 11, I did not have the skills to take a dishonest picture. As I got older, I learned to butch it up in photos, to affect a manlier pose. My high school and college years, I have so many memories of modulating my walk or my speech in a way to come across as straight and masculine. (Perhaps you knew me then and are thinking, well, you weren’t as successful as you thought. And if that’s the case, that’s okay, too.)
Perhaps I have never taken a picture that reveals the me that is most me than this. This guy loves chocolate cake. He loves his hometown (orange and black t-shirt). He loves playing with girls at recess. His favorite part of the Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog is the Barbie section. He dances and sings to Shaun Cassidy’s “Hey Deanie” and Leif Garrett’s “Surfin’ USA” in his bedroom. He loves being silly. He knows he is not like everyone else and he revels in his uniqueness.
It breaks my heart a little to think that my first thought when I saw this picture yesterday was shame, that I needed to hide this. That I had to take a minute and step away to realize how great this young man is.
Over three hundred years ago, William Wordsworth wrote a poem called My Heart Leaps up about his love of rainbows and realizing he’s always loved rainbows even since he was a small child. That who we are when we are young sets the stage for the person we will be our entire lives.
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is the father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
I could not escape this kid if I tried, and I did try, and sometimes, I still do try. I mean, I went to Bible college in an attempt to make myself straight, that’s how desperately I wanted to be someone else. It’s been a long road to self acceptance and it frustrates me that at almost 50, STILL, some days are better than others. But I have to be honest, this guy, this spirited young fellow, he is my hero. When I really think about it, I realize he is everything I aspire to be. So, despite some hesitation, I am sharing him with all of you. I hope you love him as much as I do.