Even today, I can still remember the moment I realised I was different from all the other kids. I must have been about seven, and it was a beautiful spring afternoon during my third year in primary school.
Some kids found an interesting insect in the playground, and I called it a ‘bug’.
If you’re feeling confused, let me explain. I didn’t mean ‘bug’ as in the colloquial word for all insects. I meant ‘bug’ as in a specific order of insects otherwise known as Hemiptera.
You see, my parents were entomologists, and studying insects was part of their profession. Ever since I can remember, they taught me the correct, scientific names for all insects and their species, and I never thought anything about it. A wasp was a Hymenoptera, a stick insect was a phasmid, and that was that.
But not to everyone else.
As I lifted the bug out of the way and placed it in a nearby tree, I can still recall the other children coming around and looking on in interest. I didn’t understand the reason for their shocked and curious faces, but I soon found out.
The very next day, the few other boys I had been friends with refused to play with me anymore, and none of the other kids in my class even wanted to talk to me. I went the rest of the year without any friends, and I never knew why.
As much as I wish I could point to this one incident as some great turning point, it wasn’t the only one. My memories of primary school are of being lonely and having no one to talk to, of making friends only for them to up and leave abruptly one day, and of never fitting in. I tried playing sport, but the others kids never let me on their team. I tried to be nice, but that just gave them a reason to call me names. I tried to stay out of the way, but one afternoon, one of the kids took out their anger and frustration on my with their fists in one of the quieter spaces in the yard.
The teacher called a meeting, the kid was kicked out of school, and everyone knew the reason was me.
I hoped things might change in secondary school, but in the end, this was a trend that would follow me right the way through to graduation. Always, I would make some friends only to see them drift away, and nothing I ever did seemed to stick.
School was lonely.
School was harsh.
School was dark.
It’s only now, almost twenty years later and with a great deal more experience, that I’ve begun to see why. True, many of the kids were mean – some were downright bastards – and I was right to never make friends with them. Most of the time, however, I realise now that I was so focused on their actions that I never thought about my own.
In case it’s not clear, I’ll say this part straight up – you are not responsible for the horrible things others do to you, or the flaws that made them the way they are. You are just as deserving of love and attention as everyone else, and you are perfect the way you are right now. There are all kinds of people in the world, many of whom are different to you. But some – a small, select group – are just like you, you know. You are not alone, but you cannot find these people unless you know who you are.
When you were young, the differences between you and everyone else weren’t as easy to see. You did the same kind of things in the same kind of place, and your teachers and parents wanted you to fit in. They wanted you to be all right, to avoid hardships by being the same. But you weren’t, whether you wanted to be or not. You were different, you were new. Not something wrong, but something that is valuable on its own, something that not everyone else could or had to be.
Look inwards, examine those aspects of yourself that have become so normal to you that you take them for granted.
What do you like, and what do you like about what you like?
Where do people who like that kind of thing go, what do they do and say and enjoy?
How can you refine your message so you can be more comfortable around those like yourself and help others less in the know approach those same subjects?
What can you do to be you?
You don’t have to be lonely.
You don’t have to be scared.
Your people and your place are out there, but you can only find them once you know who they are.