Held Back

“Well, to be honest, Chad, I don’t really know your son.” She turned her chair toward me, her hands in her lap, a smile on her face. She’d kept me waiting outside the office for an extra ten minutes while she’d helped a couple of ten-year old girls brush through their hair, the girls having dropped in at the start of the school day unannounced, giggling. She clearly adored her students.

“I wouldn’t expect you to. There are hundreds of students here.”

Amy kept her lips pulled back over her teeth as continued the perma-smile. “But let me restate what you asked me, to see if I got this right. Your son A, who is 6, has struggled emotionally somewhat in his first grade classroom, largely because he is one of the youngest students in the room, but he seems to be fine academically, right? His birthday is in late July? And now that the teacher is recommending holding him back to repeat the first grade for the next year, you are wondering if this recommendation is legitimate? And that’s why you wanted to meet with me, the school principal?”

I nodded, feeling strangely defensive despite the fact that she was kind and calm in her presentation. “Yes. It’s a bit more complicated than that, and there are a lot of details behind all this, but, yes, that is basically my question.”

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“Well,” she leaned back in her chair, “given our education methods here as a Waldorf style school, it wouldn’t be uncommon for a teacher to recommend holding a child back. As you probably know, we focus our education on the individual children, and what might be best for them. If a child is struggling behaviorally or emotionally, and they don’t seem to be on par with the rest of the students, then it is common to talk to the parents about the possibility of repeating a year so that the child can have a more consistent learning environment, one more suited to their individual needs.”

I furrowed my brown in frustration. “Wait, wait. ‘It wouldn’t be uncommon…’ Does that mean this is a regular recommendation? You are suggesting to many parents that they hold back their children to repeat a grade?”

Amy clicked her tongue and looked troubled. “Well, it isn’t as if we have a quota to fulfill. But in Wasatch learning environments, we focus on skill levels like integrating the five senses, handwork, hand-eye coordination, and–”

“Miss Lee, I’m sorry for interrupting, but I know about Waldorf learning. I enrolled my kids here. I don’t mean to be adversarial, but I feel as if sixty per cent of my conversations with professionals here are about the Waldorf learning method. I’m not here about that, I’m here about my son. I want to understand how holding him back would benefit him.”

The smile returned. “Well, let’s look at your terminology first of all. Listen to how negative it sounds. ‘Holding him back.’ Could I invite you to switch the words around to realize how much more positive you could make it sound? Let’s try this. Instead of using the words ‘holding him back’, why not try, ‘Let’s give A the gift of another year of childhood among his emotional peers, to provide the best and most effective learning method for his needs, rather than pushing him forward into an arena in which he is not equipped to handle?”

I glowered in frustration, and my tone took on a bit of sarcasm. “Let me turn that right back on you, regarding your terminology here. Can I invite you to switch your words? Instead of ‘pushing him forward’, why not try, ‘Let’s give A the gift of staying among his established peer group, in his ongoing classroom learning environment, rather than holding him back in an arena with a new peer group and covering material he has already effectively learned?”

Amy bit her lip, considering my unexpected words, and I kept talking.

“And honestly, I came in here to discuss concerns, and I feel like you are advocating for holding my child back when you began our conversation by admitting that you aren’t at all familiar with him! How do you know what he is ‘equipped to handle?” I noticed my voice had risen a bit, in both volume and passion, and I took a deep breath calming myself.

“I apologize.” Amy’s voice was soft, placating. “Let’s start again. Tell me your concerns.”

My words rushed out quickly. I explained how A had struggled emotionally in kindergarten the year before, being the youngest in the classroom, and how his teacher, though well-intentioned, had responded to his small outbursts by putting his name on the board and taking away privileges. “So his mom and I brought him here, to a new and more supportive learning environment, where he might thrive better. The learning environment here, with gardening, knitting, and story-telling in the classroom, is so much better suited to his personality. We love it here for him.” I talked about how A’s teacher was loving and supportive, but how she frequently provided behavioral reports on A that focused solely on his negative struggles and none of his strengths. “For the first two months of school, A wasn’t eating school lunches, and she never told us, so of course he was struggling with outbursts every day, he was super hungry. Since we have been packing his lunches, his behavioral struggles have dropped significantly.”

I saw Amy jotting notes on a pad of paper. “Besides,” I went on, “despite his struggle in the classroom with transitions, such as from recess back to classroom activities, and despite the fact that he picks up material slightly slower than the other, older, kids, he is thriving academically and making major strides. He learns on his level, at his speed. Five months ago, we had a parent/teacher meeting to discuss his concerns in the classroom, and every one of those concerns is no longer a factor. The teacher told us that herself, on the same day that she recommended holding him back.”

Amy nodded. “And why is it that you feel so strongly against having him repeat a grade?”

I breathed deep again, slowing my words. “That just feels like it should be a last resort, not a common recommendation. I’m a clinical social worker, and I regularly meet with kids who are behaviorally or emotionally disturbed. I’ve done this for over a decade. And in all my time, when I see a kid struggling in the classroom, I’ve never recommended that they be held back. Instead, I see help the teachers and parents come up with a learning strategy that helps the kids succeed where they are. An individualized education plan, with strategies in place during times of trouble. I also talked about this with my mom. She was an award-winning first-grade teacher for over twenty years. She had kids in her classroom who didn’t speak English, who were in extreme poverty, who had major anger issues, who had developmental disabilities, and who had extreme difficulties with hygiene.  She couldn’t recount cases where she recommended holding a child back as a first line of strategy, particularly a kid like A who is already doing so well academically, and who has so much support at home.”

Amy looked up from the page where she’d taken a few notes. “To be honest, when we have kids who have long-term struggles, perhaps an Autism diagnosis or a significant developmental struggle, we wouldn’t recommend they be held back. Those are cases where an individualized education plan would be more actively recommended.”

I felt my frustration boil over again. “So kids who are actively struggling stay where they are, but kids who have minor struggles are recommended to repeat a grade! I am sorry, but that is infuriating!”

There was silence as Amy considered my words. She nodded, jotting another note. “Okay, the key difference here is that the teacher feels a certain way and you have reservations. That is fine. It is only a recommendation. Normally if a parent disagrees, we would simply advance the child forward. But in this case, your kid’s child’s mother, who has primary custody, feels like holding A back is the best plan for him. And in cases where one parent disagrees from the other, we have to follow the primary custodial parent.”

I nodded several times, ignoring the anguish in my gut over all of this. “I will work out co-parenting concerns directly on my own. But I do want to have a clear understanding of why this recommendation has been made for my son. Was protocol followed? Did he get the help he needed this year? What are the costs and benefits of holding him back versus having him move forward?”

Amy reasoned with me. “I’m a mom, too. And I  can see how much you love our son. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to feel like you don’t get a say, or that you aren’t being considered.”

“I had a nightmare a few days ago,” I told her. “I pictured taking my sons to the first day of school this coming year. They were in their new clothes, with new backpacks full of new supplies, with fresh haircuts and huge smiles on their faces. We take J, my older son, to his class in fourth grade and wish him well for a new year. And then we take A back to the first grade class, and he turns to us, tears in his eyes, and asks why we are having him do first grade over again.” I paused, clearing the image from my head. “In reality, he’ll likely be fine no matter what. But I also worry about years down the line, when he explains to others that he was held back as a kid. This becomes a permanent part of his story from here forward. If it is right for him, then I’m all for it. But I just can’t understand the pressure I feel to hold him back when it doesn’t feel right. I don’t understand why we are even having this conversation. I see him as succeeding right where he is. He’s beautiful, smart, creative, compassionate, and a leader. He’s already a huge success.”

The teacher shook my hand and showed me out. I walked through the school with a nervous feeling in my heart, to the sounds of children playing in classrooms all around me. And, with the thought of all of the parents out there advocating for their children to succeed, I felt my love for my children expand within me, occupying a larger space than ever before, something I never thought possible.

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the Lord’s University

BYU

“If you aren’t Mormon yet, just give it time!” the man laughed, running his hand through a thick red beard. “I always said I wouldn’t give in, but my wife convinced me eventually!”

I sipped my coffee, listening intently as the man went on and on, eager to have a captive audience. Only slightly frustrated, I heard his life story of growing up a “Jack Mormon”, but eventually marrying a “nice modest Mormon girl who turned my head right around.” Now, he said, they were living in a two bedroom apartment and she was seven months pregnant with their fifth kid. She stayed home with the children while he worked, as they kids were all under six and one was medically needy with regular seizures. He’d dropped out of college a few years ago, trying to make enough money to pay the bills, but now they needed the bishop to help regularly. He went on talking as I just smiled and nodded. I’d barely said a word, only mentioning that I wasn’t from this state.

“Anyway, now that you live in Utah, you’ll join up eventually.”

“Probably not,” I smiled, choosing what I wanted to share about myself carefully. “I have a boyfriend.”

“I knew it!” He pumped his fist in the air. “That’s way too nice a shirt for a straight guy! But you don’t seem gay, like, at all. Wait, are you one of those gay guys who gets, like, all of the girls? If so, we totally need to hang out. You could pass them on to me.”

I laughed, and winked. “Wife? Four kids, one on the way?”

And he deflated. “Oh yeah.”

Awake from the coffee, and with a few hours to kill before my next work shift began, I considered what to do, and realized the BYU campus was nearby. In my 8 years in Utah, I had never once visited the campus, having no reason to go there. As I drove there, I took time to realize that this was maybe the one place in Utah I would be nervous to hold my partner’s hand–I think I could even do that at Temple Square comfortably, but not at BYU, that was different somehow.

I came here once back in high school, for a summer youth program. But I’d never been back. The grounds are clean, and the campus is right at the base of beautiful, snow-capped mountains. The buildings are unique and uniform at the same time, and the campus felt full without being crowded. I walked the grounds, meandering in and out of buildings that all bore the names of old or dead white men, all leaders in the Mormon church at some point. Though most of the student body was white, there were touches of ethnic diversity, and overwhelmingly everyone seemed happy, young, and modest. It really was a lovely place.

While I never attended BYU, I did go to its sister BYU campus in southern Idaho, a slightly smaller version that was much the same, also uniform, in the mountains, with smiling students who were mostly white. There, it wasn’t strange for math class to begin with a prayer, for students to bring up scriptural references in history as if they were concrete fact, or for a religion class to fall between science and communications. I remember the great sense of belonging that I felt there, a sense that everyone had the same values and morals that I did. There were large buildings devoted to theater, music, and the arts, as well as enormous churches and religious institutions everywhere. It was the Lord’s University, and I got to be a part of it.

Walking the campus now, though, as an ex-Mormon, a gay man, someone who no longer belongs, it didn’t feel safe. It was familiar, but uncomfortably so. All of the inconsistencies and cracks showed themselves, almost too quickly. I found myself wondering why I’d come here, and if it had been to look for these cracks. Why couldn’t I just look at the pretty campus and not see the flaws in the system?

I saw a sign advertising a board games club, and immediately thought of the LGBT student organization not being allowed to meet on campus, instead relegated to the city library. I saw a couple holding hands with a new baby wrapped tightly against the mom, and I knew they were likely living in married student housing nearby, but I could only focus on the young gay men like me who were marrying women because they felt they had no other choice. I saw a group of guys devouring piles of burgers and fries, and I could only think how coffee and tea were forbidden but not high fructose corn syrup. While most universities emphasized individuality and the finding of self, this one demanded obedience and conformity. It was very Stepford Wives at its essence.

Little stories began flashing through my brain, all of them painful ones, but they didn’t bring any feelings with them this time, they were only there, for me to bear witness. I thought of my friend who was subjected who electro-shock treatment years ago, here on campus, for being gay. I thought of another friend who was kicked out of school for dating a man, losing all of his college credits and facing disgrace in his family. I thought of a close friend who, just a few years ago, told me how he walked this campus and looked for just the right building to jump off of because he couldn’t face being gay anymore. I thought of the client who reported to her bishop how she’d been raped on campus, and his only response had been to ask her what mixed messages she might have sent to the young man before reminding her that she would now need to repent. Isolated stories, yes, but far too familiar, especially given those that I spend my time with in my day to day life. It was impossible not to hold them in my heart as I viewed all of the green trees and the white smiles. The Mormons were my people: we had a culture and an upbringing in common, and the gays were my people, having a shared experience of growing up different and coming out. But more than anything, the gay Mormons were my people, and if statistics held true, then about 8 per cent of this campus was gay, and that was a whole lot of people.

I left campus soon after, and drove up the hill, toward the large Y on the mountain. I parked the car and got out, sitting on the hood, taking in the city below from a higher vantage point. The lake, the house, the roads. It was stunning from here. Breathing in the fresh air, I thought about the reading I had done the night before, for a small crowd, from my book. I’d read about what it had been like being married to a woman as a gay man. And though I had shared the story many times before, I’d been surprised by a heavy vulnerability, having to pause a few times to not cry. Those in the audience had listened with rapt attention to the painful experiences, and their eyes on me as I read opened up the wounds, in health and fulfilling ways. It was wonderful to share. Sometimes it felt so nice to stand up and speak my truth.

And other times, more than anything, I needed to be anonymous in a crowd of strangers, observing from the inside and then retreating to the hills above.

Greying Temples

I was blonde and chubby when I was born. My hair was soft and thick, and I had the customary cowlick or two, in unmanageable places. (Every kid should have a few cowlicks, in my opinion). By the time I went to grade school, my hair had turned a chocolate brown color, or perhaps it was more chestnut.

I looked just like my dad growing up, brown hair and brown eyes, just like my brother and two of my sisters. You could line the five of us up, even now, and say ‘yup, those people right there are related.’ My other three sisters, they looked more like my mom, blonde hair, a bit prone to curl, and blue eyes. They might be a bit more difficult to recognize as my siblings.

My mom was a beauty growing up. A teenager in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in the era of poodle skirts and stacked hair, she was the American beauty ideal. “Blonde, with peaches-and-cream skin”, she would say. A Prom photo of her, hanging in grandmother’s study for all those years, showed her with lean face and pink lips, her hair swirled on top of her head like a soft-serve ice cream cone.

And my father, he was uncharacteristically handsome. Old photos of him, from the early 60s, show a lean and strong farm boy, in a suit or a military uniform, classic smile on his face, his dark brown hair, nearly black, combed perfectly.

Five years older than my mom, he swept her off her feet. A nice, handsome, returned missionary Idaho boy from a good family. They dated slowly, carefully, and then he proposed, and she said yes. She’d had many marriage proposals before, but she’d turned them all down, seeing some boys as better for “kissing up a storm” in the back of a car than for starting a family with.

And soon they were in the house on the hill overlooking the river, and the following twenty years brought seven children, varying in their complexions. Blonde, brown, brown, brown, blonde, brown, blonde.

In grade school, in the early 80s, I remember sketching pictures of my five sisters and my mother, little stick figures with round eyes and orange slice smiles, perhaps the only way to distinguish them being the varying styles of their hair. Mom had a yellow perm, rather like Betty White. Michelle kept hers short and feathered back in waves, reminding me of Shirley Partridge. Marie wore long braids and ponytails, much like Jan Brady. Lynn’s hair was shoulder-length and a little shaggy, like Farrah Fawcett. Marnae kept hers short, a tom boy look that she loved, one she could wear hats over. And little Sheri, her long, light blonde hair went all the way down her back, stretching to the lowest vertebra, a cut she would keep until she dramatically chopped it off in her 20s; she even adopted a red mohawk for a time. My only brother, Kenny, had long hair, down to his shoulders, and would sometimes perm it into curls. Dad had his Burt Reynolds mustache. And me, I kept mine short, simple, just enough to keep it out of my eyes.

In sixth grade, when I was 12, everyone sold their jeans and replaced them with the parachute pants popularized by MC Hammer. The brighter and more audacious the colors, the better. Neon pink covered in green watermelons, sharp yellow with black and purple polka-dots, puke green with haphazard silver stars and moons covering them. They were baggy and roomy, and truly horrible. I was awkward then, with my first zits, my voice starting to squeak ever upwards, resulting in Mom calling me a ‘Squawk-Box.’ And to top it off, the customary bowl cut, leaving hair thick around the top in a bowl formation while shaving the hair below it.

As a sophomore, I started caring about my appearance, at least moderately. After years of Hypercolor shirts, or more frequently shirts brandishing images of my favorite cartoon characters, ranging from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Animaniacs, I started wanting shirts with patterns and variable colors. I wanted to catch an eye or two from time to time. My hair remain thick, and had a tendency to curl at the ends when it got long. And when I was 15, a friend showed me how to use a combination curling iron/blow driver device, a long rod with comb-like spikes in it as well as a little curling iron clip attachment that blew warm or hot air out of holes in the rod while you used it. I would get out of the shower with hair still soaked, dry it just a bit, add a tiny bit of mousse, and then begin taking sections of hair in the clip and twisting them backwards as the rod dried the hair. Arranging it all over the part, it would take me ten minutes or so to style the hair in a feathered back wavy look, rather like something Zac Morris might wear in Saved By the Bell, and for the first time in my life I got compliments. It worked for me, and I kept the style all throughout high school.

My hairstyle has stayed pretty consistent throughout my adult life. Through my 20s, there was just enough to comb (though there was that brief few months when I got blonde high lights and grew a goatee). In my early 30s, though, when I lost all my weight, I buzzed my head for the first time, cropping it close to my scalp, and the cut worked wel for me, making me feel slimmer. For the past few years, my temples have been growing grey, climbing a millimeter at a time toward my ears. Every few months or so, someone will notice, as if they’ve never seen it before. “Chad, you’ve got grey hair!” But I like the grey, it gives me a distinguished feeling, and it gives me a bit a clout, taking the attention off my baby face and making me, somehow, more legitimate as a father, a writer, a therapist, and a speaker. People take a different kind of notice.

I’m a dad now and my sons have the fortune or misfortune of looking just like me. They have the same thick hair that started a bit more blonde and ended up more brown. J, my 9 year old, prides himself on how soft his hair is. He washes it it and it falls easily in place without a comb. Lately, he likes shaking his head back and forth and feeling it bounce off his scalp. A constantly has bedhead, his cowlicks more unmanageable than mine ever were, always returning no matter how much water or hair gel plaster them down. His hair is more coarse, and he couldn’t care less how it looks, happy to pair it with a backwards shirt and a pair of pants stained with chili. So long as he can run and play, he gives zero thought to his appearance.

And it doesn’t feel like it will be long before they are the ones that are going grey at the temples, and I’ll be watching from behind.

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Animal Doctor

Animaldoctor

“GrrrhissgrrhssssgrrROARslurp!

A, my 6-year old son, lurked down the hall in a crouch, curling two fingers on each hand into twisted claws. He rounded the corner, making a series of growls and hisses before he made a small roar. He finished off the monster song with a long slurping sound of spit being sucked through teeth.

When he noticed me sitting on the couch and looking at him, he immediately straightened up to a human posture and began explaining. A can talk for several minutes without interruption, and I’ve developed the skill to patiently listen and give him all of my intention, letting him know that each word of his is important to me.

“Oh, hey, Dad, I was being a raptor. You know, like those little T-Rex creatures from Jurassic Park? They walk differently than humans so I was putting my butt back and sticking my head out and then kind of walking like with my feet forward and out like this.” He gave me a quick demonstration of his posture again. “And then I was sticking my fingers like this for claws. I was pretending that I was like hunting some prey down a hall here and then I hissed to scare it and then roared when I attacked it, and did you hear that like spit sound at the end, that was me eating the creature. I had to make a wet sound because that was the sound of the creature’s blood and wounds and stuff.”

I winced a bit at the graphic nature as he continued talking. A has been fascinated by predators his entire life. He loves all animals, but, rather like Hagrid from the Harry Potter series, he has the most fondness for the ugly, toothy, craggy creatures, and he automatically sees them as cuddly and misunderstood all at once. Tigers, sharks, hyenas, falcons, gross bottom dwellers and fierce meat-eaters. Anything with claws or rows of teeth automatically makes his favorite list. Yet at the same time, he coos and fawns over baby animals of any kind, but especially mammals. A tells stories constantly, and his epic tales generally star a baby mammal of some kind with a fierce predator of another kind who comes to protect it. He stories commonly result in bloodshed of some kind or other, but it is almost always evil humans who meet grisly ends. It’s never animals.

At the same time, A has a tremendous sensitivity about him. Violence in any form, particularly directed toward animals, leads to long piercing cries. He despises cruelty. I’ve been reading my sons the Wonderful Wizard of Oz books recently, the original ones from 1900 and on. In the original book, in one scene, the massive Kalidahs (with heads of tigers and bodies of bears) attack Dorothy and her friends, and the Tin Woodsman casually lops off the heads of the beasts; in another chapter, the Scarecrow rings the necks of 40 crows and the Tin Woodsman kills forty attacking wolves. Each of these details has caused a crying spell in my sensitive son, who now hates Dorothy’s companions for their wanton violence. “I hope the Tin Woodsman never gets his heart!” he yelled after yet another beast, a wildcat, was killed.

“They didn’t have to do that!” he exclaimed. “They could have just hided or scared the animals away! Why did the author let that happen!”

A has been telling me recently that he wants to be an animal doctor, a veterinarian when he grows up. I’ve been telling him that he’ll have to go to college and learn a lot, how he’ll have to choose an area of specialty.

“Some veterinarians work with small animals and pets, like cats, dogs, birds, and lizards. Some work on farm animals. And there are special kinds that work on zoo animals, like elephants , and they have to get special training. Some work on big cats, some work on predator birds, some work on large fish. What kind of veterinarian would you want to be?”

I assumed his answer would be all about predators. But he surprised me. “I think I’d want to work on cute little animals and kittens.”

Just yesterday, I found A, and his brother, J, playing with their collection of animal toys. My boyfriend and I have been slowly getting them a collection of rare animals: a black rhino, a cassowary, a rhinoceros hornbill, a lynx, an octopus, a water buffalo. The boys have dozens of them. From the next room, I heard them playing out a scenario.

“Doctor Otter! The wolverine has been injured! He needs a surgery!” J said.

A put an official tone in his voice to respond. “Well, luckily, I am specially trained. I can treat his wounds, open him up, fix him, and then tuck his meat all back in. He’ll be better in no time!”

Friday night, I had friends over to my home to watch an old movie, Out of Africa. In the middle of the film, A came to sit on the floor, watching as Meryl Streep led her allies on a trek across Nairobi. As the humans slept, a pair of lions attacked, scattering the oxen and killing one of them before the beasts were scared away. A stood up in the center of the room.

“Wait, did those lions actually kill that ox?”

“Not in real life, but as part of the story, yes.”

“WHY! WHY DID THEY DO THAT!”

“Well, it was part of the story. You know how lions hunt zebras, gazelles, wildebeests, and other animals, right?”

“Well, yes, but they didn’t have to show it!” He began shaking and crying as he climbed up into my lap in tears, snuggling me tight for comfort. “They didn’t have to show it!” he cried again.

“Son, they didn’t actually show anything. But really, lions should only hunt when we can’t see it!”

“Do you think the humans should hunt down the lions now?”

“No! Of course not! They were only trying to survive!”

A few minutes later, nestled into me, no longer crying, he muttered softly. “I just don’t want anyone to get hurt. I don’t want to see it.”

This from my raptor child who mimics the sounds of meat being eaten, from my carnivore who pretends to be Dr. Otter packing the meat back in, from my sensitive child who cuddles into his father for comfort. This, from my complicated, beautiful son.

“I don’t want anyone hurt either, son.”

And soon he fell asleep.

Hot For Teacher

Jonah

“You can’t understand the story of Jonah without understanding the culture of the times.” I picked up the dishcloth I had brought from home to use as a sweat rag and dabbed it against my forehead. “Here is what most people know about Jonah, much like the one you might read in the Children’s Bible: Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh but he refused, so God humbled him by having him swallowed by a whale, and the whale then delivered Jonah to Nineveh to preach. Can anyone think of other any individual details?”

I dabbed the cloth along my neck line and looked out at the crowd over the 100 or so members of my Mormon ward. The bright pancake lights above hit me brightly as I looked over the faces of the crowd. There were young mothers with newborn babies, elderly couples who had been been attending weekly Sunday School Services for seven decades, and every shade of person in between. Most Mormons, even those who actively read their scriptures and lived their religion, didn’t take much time to study the Old Testament, so sharing content from these stories always brought me joy. With enough research, I felt like I could truly enlighten those in the room and leave them feeling inspired. Sunday School teacher was my very favorite church calling.

I would spend hours researching my Sunday School lessons during the week, reading the content and taking pages of notes, looking into supplemental articles, cross-referencing pieces of history. I would often prepare a lecture that could last for 2 hours, and then I’d pull out the most fascinating content, enough to fill about 40 minutes, which would then leave 10 minutes for discussion. Even paring things down that much, I tended to get overly enthusiastic, rushing my words to fit as much as I could before the bell rang for the next class to begin. I had to learn, slowly over time, that it was best to teach just a few things effectively rather than a bulk of things in a huge rush. It was much better to have people leave the class inspired, with a new sense of understanding, rather than a wealth of new information that was rushed. (This approach would later help me to become an effective college teacher).

My wife, Maggie, came in an out of the room a few times, taking care of our infant son, J, who was now getting more mobile and difficult to contain as he crawled rapidly, exploring every corner of the room. He wouldn’t be old enough to attend the nursery program for a few more months yet, and sometimes it was easier to just let him roam the halls rather than expect him to sit still.

I fanned my suit jacket open a few times, able to tell the white shirt I wore beneath it was already soaked through with sweat. I had taken to wearing baggier clothing lately, now that I was 255 lbs. My pants were now at a 39, where just a few years ago I had worn a size 32. If I wore layers, others couldn’t see how think my sweat was, except along my forehead and neck line. My face glistened in the bright lights. I hated how much effort just standing here and talking took out of me. It made me thirsty. And hungry. I always felt hungry. I woke up in the night to eat sometimes, and I ate between meals, always feeling full yet always wanting more. Sometimes I wondered what had become of myself. How had I sunk this far?

The clock ticked by as I discussed theories about the whale in the Jonah story being metaphorical versus theories that it was literal. We discussed the wickedness of Nineveh and what made the city unique, and why Jonah had been reluctant to go there. And then I tried to make Jonah real, illuminating for the class how much effort it would take to face an impossible task given to us by God, one that had to be taken on faith. I asked some of the class to share the difficult things they faced in their lives, and what made them a bit more like Jonah, weathering through illnesses, family struggles, or crises of faith. And somewhere deep inside, I faced my own Nineveh task, unable to reconcile being gay with Mormon.

Soon, the bell rang, and people began filing out the door, significantly lowering the temperature of the room as the doors opened and the air circulated. I stepped off the side, leaning against a wall slightly, out of the hot lights and somehow sweating more as my body seemed to realize class was over. Several people stood up at the front of the class, making comments from the lesson, asking questions, some reminding me how much they looked forward to my lessons.

With the room nearly empty now, Maggie made her way up to the front of the class. My son J patted at my calves, and I bent down to scoop him up careful to hold him out on my arm so he wouldn’t be pressed against my sweaty face. He grinned at me, silly and happy with a full tummy, and I squeezed him in close. As Maggie asked me how I felt about the lesson, I noticed Brother and Sister Markel, a couple in their late 70s, casually waiting behind her, and I beckoned them forward.

“Brother Anderson, thank you as always for your wonderful lessons.”

“Thank you!” I exclaimed back.

Sister Markel opened her shoulder bag. “Brother Markel and I have noticed you seem a bit… uncomfortable lately. We got you a small gift that might help.”

Using my third grade sense of humor, I took the present from their hands, immediately quipping, “Why Sister Markel, does this gift mean you’re hot for teacher?”

Maggie rolled her eyes as Brother Markel laughed heartily. Sister Markel looked surprised, then smiled gently. “I… I guess you could say that. Open it up.”

I opened the gift and found a small battery-operated fan inside.

“You seem to get very warm up here. We thought a small fan on the table might help keep you cool. So it is a ‘hot for teacher’ present, I suppose.”

I thanked the Markels, turning bright red, not wanting to even talk about the noticeable sweat. Instead of staying for the third block of church, I took J and went home early. There, I poured myself a bowl of cereal, a snack before the later lunch, and, noticing the small fan on the counter, thought that one of these days I needed to do something about my weight problem.

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Bucket O’ Crawfish

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“You guys can choose something fish-y if you want to.” I put on a determined face as I drove.

“You hate fish,” my boyfriend, Mike, responded.

“We can get anything. It doesn’t have to be fish. Let’s go somewhere you would like,” my best friend, Tyler, reasoned.

“No, no,” I said, a touch of the martyr in my voice, “I’m not hungry. Plus you guys never get fish when you’re with me. It’s the holidays. Treat yourself. Just pick something nearby.”

We scanned the map and, determined to show them that I could do it, I picked the fishiest sounding place possible and drove there while they both tried to talk me out of it. Bucket O’ Crawfish. How bad could it be?

I’d been fully vegetarian for a number of years (not vegan, but vegetarian), and I was generally fine with people eating meat in front of me. I don’t like looking at or touching raw meat, and I definitely can’t handle animal carcasses of any kind (it makes me shudder even writing that), but cooked meat being eaten is fine. But there had always been something about fish. Even from my earliest days, the sights and smells of cooked fish gave me a gag reflex response and left my whole body feeling weak and woozy. I have a very difficult time watching someone eat fish, but I can’t stand smelling it being cooked, and I despise tasting it afterward. Not just fish, but seafood, including crab and lobster. Conversely, I love live fish and think they are beautiful.

On rare occasions, when Mike would order fish in front of me, I would respectfully place a menu in front of his plate so that I couldn’t see it, then I would focus on my food and just remind him that I wouldn’t be kissing him until later, even after he brushed his teeth (cause I can definitely still taste it). One weekend while I was traveling, he cooked fish in the house, and upon returning I could still smell it; I deep-cleaned the kitchen, opened the windows, and lit candles, and could still swear I smelled it for a full day. He’s never cooked fish at home again.

Upon walking into Bucket O’ Crawfish, I immediately knew I’d made a huge mistake. The room was well lit, with wooden tables and chairs, and I directed us to a back corner table where I could look out a window without obstruction. The entire room had a thick, cloying, dense smelled of cooked shellfish and pepper-y, heavy, Old Bay seasoning smells that had me gagging. I gave myself lots of positive self-talk as I took short small breaths.

Tyler and I made small talk, avoiding my pale face as they looked over the menu. I had insisted on coming here, and I would stick it out. The waitress soon took their orders: a bag of shrimp, a bag of crawdads, a bag of mussels, some varying levels of spicy seasonings and sauces, and a few beers. (The word ‘bag’ in the order immediately sent me on a spin of nausea and I found myself looking at the floor). Me? I ordered a single cob of corn.

“I’m vegetarian,” I pathetically explained.

“Oh…”, the waitress responded, as if to say, “you fool, what are you doing here!”

Within minutes, plastic bags filled with dead shellfish were placed on the table, steamed and hot, and although I was trying not to look, I realized the shells were still on the crawdads, the tails still on the shrimp. And then I was not okay. Mike reached into the bag for the first mussel and hot fish smells hit the air, leaving me wanting to hide my face in my shirt. I heard the slurp-y sounds of his first tastes, followed by his moan of pleasure from the flavor. Tyler grabbed a crawdad and I listened as he cracked it’s little shell off and then sucked the meat out, followed by a gulp of beer.

Go to your happy place, go to your happy place I muttered to myself in an effort not to be ill, and I thought of a river bed or a beach until I realized the water-y bodies were full of life that men wanted to devour with tangy sauces, and I went even paler. I placed my hands in front of my face to avoid all eye contact, unable to watch them, knowing that a view of those plastic bags full of corpses would cause me to empty the contents of my stomach. Tyler and Mike muttered ‘this was your idea!’ and ‘you can wait outside!’ but I wouldn’t hear it. I would show how tough I was.

The waitress brought out my corn cob, a small yellow thing that looked overcooked. It glistened with red, salty spices, and I quickly devoured it with hearty bites, desperate to be tasting something besides the fish fragrances in the air. It wasn’t until minutes later that I realized it had been cooked in the bags with the fish themselves, and then my face went from pale to red.

“I made a mistake!” I exclaimed softly and went outside the establishment, gulping in oxygen outside until they finished their meals. When we got into the car, I realized my clothing had soaked up the fish smells, and I suddenly wanted to burn my clothing. I drove home with the windows down, despite the winter air. At home, I tore off my clothing and threw it violently into the washer, angry because I knew my car’s interior would still have the scents in the morning. I gulped glasses of water to purge myself.

Later that night, feeling like I had just overcome the stomach flu, I cuddled up tightly to my boyfriend, refusing to kiss him. I looked him in the eyes. “That was my fault,” I said. “I was trying to be brave and do something nice. Never, ever, ever let me be that nice or brave again. That was horrid. God, I’m so stupid.”

Mike wisely stayed silent and just held me close. I soon fell asleep with the realization that I’d just faced my own personal version of Hell, and I’d survived.