When making friends means being exploited

I remember one scene particularly well: It was in Ms. Brown’s biology class, and it must have been Year 9, because I didn’t have a class with her before then, but Simon wasn’t in my class afterwards.

This is part three of my ongoing project to write out my personal history in an effort to untangle the emotional history and stressors of my life. Read Part One: Three, two, one: What do I do when I fall in love with another boy?, and Part Two: My first trip to CAPS, then the ER

As far as I can recollect the moment, Ms. Brown has posed the entire class a question. I, being the collective class know-it-all as I was, knew the answer, but Ms. Brown asked me not to answer it — I can’t remember why, but I feel like there was some kind of class-wide reward behind it if someone knew the answer, because otherwise, why would Simon quip up and try to persuade me to break her request and answer it?

Ms. Brown had chuckled after Simon’s quip and said, “Hey, Leo, he’ll only be nice to you because it’s useful to him.”

It was a casual remark, but it’s stuck in my head ever since. Because she was right — Simon, one of my classmates, rarely ever talked to me before that moment. It’s not that he was a bad person who hated or bullied me, but I think we just didn’t have much in common. But he’d never expressed any care towards me and how my life was going, not even a cursory, “Hey, how are classes for you?”

I know that scene was so memorable because it shifted the way I thought about my fellow classmates and how I was going to make friends going forward. I realised, then and there, while sitting immediately to Ms. Brown’s right — a position that allowed us to chit-chat quietly while everyone else was completing the work I had already finished — that these people around me would only care about me or talk to me if I was useful to them, and they’d dump me to the side as soon as I wasn’t. I resolved to never allow myself to be taken advantage of again.

My hand, which had been steadily creeping up to answer the question, slid back down onto the desk.

I have always struggled with making friends. After so many years, I can’t remember exactly why that was, but I’m pretty sure my teachers were right when they talked about how irritating I was to get along with.

There was once, when I was about 10, when our music teacher asked us to form groups to perform. I asked to join a few people sitting next to me, and they agreed, but they both ditched after one of their friends called them over. Another time, in secondary school, I sat by myself, many seats away from others, in religious studies class because I didn’t want to have to admit that I didn’t have any friends.

Being lonely and socially unpopular is awful. I remember talking to my parents and my sister about it, trying to understand why I was so disliked. I’d never said anything to hurt my peers, I thought. Why can’t I get them to like me?

In retrospect, I can now see just how much of a jerk I was. I was smart. I was clever. And I didn’t hide it. I didn’t think I needed to, but I also wasn’t sensitive and didn’t understand that other people might not be able to just skim through the textbook and be done for the day. I can see why they would have resented me for it, especially at my age. (Young Sheldon is uncomfortably relatable.)

It was about that age, though, that I met one of the few teachers who actually understood me and knew where I had to growth. I can’t remember which grade I first met Ms. Salter, although I do remember our first interaction — an after-school first-aid training session I participated in took place in her classroom as she was working, and she overheard my answer to a question I don’t remember and quipped “That’s the best answer I’ve heard!”

Salter’s positivity, and belief in everyone, was infectious. As my teacher, she guided me for an entire year, and gave me confidence that the knowledge in my head and the analytical and technical skills I was demonstrating — at or around age 12 — was worthwhile and valuable, and not just something that would label me as a “nerd” or “geek” and unpopular with my classmates.

During a parent-teacher conference, she used an analogy with my father that has stuck with me for a decade: She pointed at the tabletop and said “this is the baseline,” then held her hand a few inches above it, said “This is where everybody in Leo’s age group is, on average,” and then moved her hand higher and said “This is where Leo is.”

I felt pretty good about that — validation from others is still something that I live for — but then she delivered: “Look, there isn’t a ceiling. Leo can still keep climbing.” Her point was clear: I might be excelling compared to my peers, but there’s no limit to how far up any of us could go.

In retrospect, that was probably my first lesson in humility.

By the end of that grade, my parents and friends noticed that I had picked up a few twangs of her South African accent. I lost that soon afterward.

After I graduated from primary school, I went back to visit her to present an Oscar statue I had bought in a Los Angeles gift shop on holiday: Best Teacher.

She left the school soon afterwards to pursue better opportunities, and I didn’t see her again for years. I don’t know what happened to the statue, but I’ve never gifted a teacher anything like that since.

Soon after Ms. Salter, I graduated from the primary school and shifted over to the secondary school across the parking lot, where I would attend for the next seven years. (In British educational systems, secondary schools are equivalent to a combined U.S. middle and high school.)

I was probably around age 11 or age 12 when that transition happened. It’s distinctive because it was the first major life transition that I can still remember — anything before then was stuff I only knew because of photos and family anecdotes, not personal experience. I remember being really shocked because everyone was so much older — and taller. Before summer, I was among the tallest students in the school, but now, in this new school, I was again one of the youngest.

These two schools that I attended were unusual in that it was a feeder system — graduates from the primary school, where I was taught by Ms. Salter amongst others, were essentially guaranteed a spot in the secondary school.

As far as I can remember, only about a half-dozen new students joined my grade as we entered secondary school. It also meant that, out of about 150 students, there are only six people who didn’t know me before we met.

So making new friends was no easier after the transition than before. I still had no friends. I still sat alone during lunches, and struggled to find partners during classes. I had no friends.

As the years passed, though, things did seem to be getting a little bit better. I was making connections with some of my peers, getting better at sympathising with their experiences and emotions. I learned to shut up and got better at listening. My self-confidence improved.

I feel that I began to be more accepted as we got older and good academic grades, rather than the size of your play-mates circle, became how our social popularity was scored. I didn’t always have the top grades in the class, but my name would always be there near the top. I had already discovered that I could learn things faster than the people around me, a skill I had been using to coast through my classes and focus on other parts of personal development.

But one day, people began to sit next to me during lunch, and we’d talk silly things like trading card games and complain about the orange duck sauce served at the cafeteria. A few months later, I got out of class a little late and was held up in the queue waiting to pay for lunch, but when I turned up at the usual outdoor lunch table, they shuffled down the bench to make room. As it neared summer, it began to rain — and the first lunch break when it rained out our outdoor seating area, I found that one of them had used their bag to save me a seat in the crowded indoor cafeteria area.

Oh my, I thought. Maybe I now have friends.

As we got older, it got easier to talk to people. Girls would start coming to me to talk about their problems, particularly with boys. (Does this happen to all gay men, I wonder?) A lot of people would ask me for help with their homework and assignments, which I would courtesously give, but point out that I wasn’t their after-school tutor.

I shook off the perception that I was the geeky, physically-inept nerd when, in physical education classes, I scored a penalty shot in basketball on my first try to give our team the opening lead (after no one else could for about a dozen rotations) and blocked a goal-score attempt by a much taller opponent in netball.

The cheers and roars of the people around me are still seared into my memory.

As my popularity grew, so did my self-confidence. I no longer took the dark, inner corners of the changing rooms, but would throw my bag and kit onto a much more exposed bench instead. I felt welcomed. I felt accepted. It was a good feeling.

But I still felt sad. Things didn’t feel right. I felt as though I was missing something, like there was a puzzle piece in my life that wasn’t in the box as I was putting it together. Looking back, now, I realised that I was still denying the truth abuot myself, and I was performing a masculine, butch role to compensate for the insecurities present in my childhood — to try to be liked by others, and never be that guy who couldn’t find a group in music class again.

I’m deeply indebted to a lot of my teachers, nearly all of them predominantely women, because they acted as the mentors and provided the guidance that my own mother didn’t, or couldn’t, provide.

Ms. Brown is among one of them. I think it took her about ten minutes to figure out who I was, and what stereotypical high school role that I played in her classroom. That I chose to sit next to her was no coincidence, but she expressed a level of interest and care in my well-being that other teachers had not.

Her caring for her students didn’t extend to just me, though. Our class was moving faster through her biology curriculum than expected, so she announced mid-term that she was prepared to cancel our last session of the term before examinations since “there isn’t anything else left to teach” and just make herself available in the classroom for anyone who had questions.

After she learned that our class was struggling with physics topics (we had the same classmates for biology, chemistry and physics), Ms. Brown asked all of us if we would like to revise physics topics in the last class session instead (a resounding oral ‘Yes’ from nearly everyone) — and proceeded to teach us an hour of physics material, despite it being neither her speciality or her obligation.

Looking back, I think Ms. Brown realised that there wasn’t a lot of biology — or science — that she could really teach me. But she still put effort into teaching me the things that I hadn’t learned, like how to be sympathic towards other people, consider others’ feelings, but also to live with and be OK with myself. She was the first teacher that I met who expressly supported and rewarded my intelligence and academic excellence, but tempered it with the tough-love that I needed to adapt my ways to be more accomodating of others.

Ms. Brown would teach me for another two years in biology with a different group of students — many of whom I would become friends with over the years. In my last two years before college, I had no classes with her, but I still would often seek her out to chat and catch up with each other, and to let her know how my life was going.

I don’t harbour any ill feelings or thoughts towards Simon, either, because I don’t think he did anything malicious. As kids and teenagers, we were all pretty awful people, and I’m certainly not proud of who I was. But I also don’t ignore the reality that he was a character playing a part in what was a particularly emotive and negative moment in my life, and I think I would like to avoid reminiscing about that moment.

But this fear of being alone — and being exploited when not alone — has stuck with me over the years, and continues to play a factor in how I make friends, seek romantic partners, and even my sex life. Rationally, I know that I’m in a much better situation now, and I’m more able to both take care of myself and to recognize when someone’s just trying to use me.

But at a deep, primal level inside me, there’s still a 13-year-old Leo who just desperately wants to emotionally connect with other humans, but is terrified that doing so is going to make him vulnerable and other people will abuse that to get what they want.

This fear continues to drive my decisions today.

This fear is why I keep so much of my personal life a secret — and why so many people don’t know my favourite food, or my favourite coffee blends, or where I like to go when I’m alone.

This fear is why I rejected all my friends’ blanket-wide requests to share location in Apple’s Find my Friends feature, because I didn’t want people to know where I was, where I was going, and how I get there.

This fear is why I have multiple phone numbers and email addresses — so I can disclose different contact details to different people for different needs, and know that they can’t use that information to stalk me and find out information that I didn’t want them to know.

This fear is why I don’t go out with random hookups from Grindr, because I’m terrified that I’m just going to used and then ditched when I’m done — and I don’t know if I could live through that again.

This fear is a part of me now, and somehow I’ll just have to make my peace with that.