Like so many origin stories before it (including the arachnocentric one from which I borrowed the image above) mine starts with a high school geek.
More specifically, the seminal moment in my quest to build self-confidence took place on a prototypical yellow school bus in a small bucolic town, as it transported a bunch of utterly average teenagers home on a perfect spring afternoon.
Dennis the Menace, Hodor and Shrek
Near the back of the bus sat a small group of 10th grade misfits.
Among them was a large, tubby and disheveled kid who was likely unaware they gave out grades higher than a C (think Hodor, minus the nobility); a tall girl who was cruelly (though not entirely inaccurately) called “Shrek” behind her back, thanks to an undeniable resemblance to the animated ogre; and a short but loud and utterly obnoxious kid with curly blonde hair reminiscent of early Justin Timberlake – think Dennis the Menace with a J-curl and you’re on the right track.
The Unholy Trinity
While they certainly weren’t sporting letterman’s jackets or cheerleading uniforms, high school is nothing if not hierarchical, even within the confines of a school bus.
And on this particular bus on this particular day, this hodgepodge of misfits happened to be at the top of the pecking order – which was very bad news for one geeky 10th grader on board, who found himself at the bottom.
Our Meek Geek
The aforementioned geek was a quiet kid with thick glasses and metallic braces, because of course he was. He wore the same ragged baseball cap and ill-fitting windbreaker everyday, and was so quiet it was like he would have preferred to be invisible.
Unfortunately for him, on this day he was anything but.
Seated just one row behind Dennis the Menace and his fellow hyenas, Hodor and Shrek, our meek geek quickly became the target of their unwanted attention.
It was Dennis who started it. First, he filled in his two allies – and the rest of the bus along with them – about an incident that had occurred earlier that week, on what was surely the worst day of our young geek’s life.
Dennis informed his posse that our hero had recently worked up the courage to write a love letter to his crush. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that he miscalculated; love letters are a risky business, and his would-be paramour wasn’t interested in his affection.
Worse still, she wasn’t much concerned about his embarrassment, either. Not only did she reject his love letter, she kept it, and mockingly read it out loud to all her friends, including Dennis the Storytelling Menace.
The Pièce de Résistance
As if the embarrassment of having your unrequited love letter read out loud to your peers wasn’t enough for our young geek, Dennis saved the worst for last.
His pathetic eyes twinkled as he revealed what he clearly considered to be his pièce de résistance: apparently, he informed the bus, not only had our geek failed to win the affections of his angel, but he hadn’t even spelled it correctly.
In the letter, he referred to her as “my angle.”
And now, on the bus, he simply sat there and cried.
A Boy, Broken
Our geek sat in solemn silence as insecure bullies made hay out of the most embarrassing moment of his life.
Though Dennis repeatedly tried to goad him into interacting as he regaled the bus with his story – “Did you really think she’d be interested in you?” – our hero wouldn’t dare.
He simply sat there, humiliated and broken, warm tears streaming down his red cheeks with increasing intensity. His love had been spurned. His crush not only rejected him, but embarrassed him. And now, already sad, humiliated and weakened, a bully tormented him further by publicly confronting him about his misfortune.
He sat there, a teenaged boy nearly bawling, unable to hide his tears. Even if he wanted to respond, he almost certainly couldn’t have – not without his voice cracking anyway, and giving Dennis and his menacing friends even more ammunition.
At this point I think I owe you an apology. You’re probably sitting there, feeling sorry for our meek geek and empathizing right along with him – right along with me, you’ve likely surmised.
And that’s why I have to apologize – I may have kinda, sorta, accidentally (alright, fine: totally, completely and very much on purpose) misled you.
I am not the meek geek in this sordid tale.
I was indeed on that particular school bus on that particular day, but I wasn’t actually involved in any of the action I’ve just described.
And I’ve felt guilty about that my entire life.
Let me explain.
When this story took place, in the spring of 2003, I was a senior in high school and about to graduate. While I was very much an introvert – I’ve always preferred quiet time to myself over loud social situations – I wasn’t exactly shy, per se.
My inability to keep my dumb mouth shut had, somehow, proven an asset during my four years in high school. Though I found it very difficult to do things like introduce myself to new people or strike up a conversation with a stranger (and in fact, I still struggle with these things), within the relative safety of my school I had little trouble doing things like putting up my hand to speak in class or getting involved in extracurricular activities.
A (Lackluster) Leader
As a result, teachers liked me. I did things like read the announcements on the PA system each morning and sit on the school council. (nerd alert!)
And because my motor mouth would occasionally produce jokes, other students liked me too. I had a fairly large group of close friends, and we collectively had an extended circle that encompassed most of our graduating class. I even managed to get nominated for valedictorian and give the commencement speech at our graduation ceremony.
In short, I was a senior who was well liked by both his peers and teachers. By just about any objective measure, I was a student leader.
A pathetic, cowardly, sack of shit leader.
Let me explain.
A Geek After my Own Heart
I didn’t actually know any of the kids from my story above very well. Hodor, Shrek, Dennis the Menace and our protagonist of a geek were only in the 10th grade when I was in the 12th, so we didn’t interact much.
But we lived in the same neighborhood and had been taking the bus together all year, meaning I knew them both by face and by personality. I sat behind them on the bus because, even though I was rail thin and not much of a presence physically, this was high school, and my status as a senior afforded me the “cool” seats.
As a result, I had listened to them prattle on all year and I knew them well enough to realize that Dennis the Menace was an obnoxious little runt. Even though I myself was a scant 18 years old, I could sense that his brashness was actually just a thinly veiled disguise for his insecurity.
I remember thinking that if I hadn’t caught a couple breaks in the ninth grade, my high school experience might have been very similar to his.
Nerds of a Feather
I was likewise familiar with our geek. I would see him on the bus and around the school, though I can’t remember ever seeing him speak to another student. His shyness must have been crippling, and very painful for him.
Even though I don’t think I ever spoke to him, I always felt a kinship of a sort with him. We looked a little similar, both scrawny and bespectacled, though he was a few inches shorter.
I remember thinking that if I hadn’t caught a couple breaks in the ninth grade – a few good teachers who encouraged me to speak and get involved at school, a few close friends who did the same in social circles – my high school experience might have been very similar to his.
I may have been more popular, but I was (and remain) a geek at heart, so I related to him easily.
Paralyzed by Fear
All of which is to say, I understood all too well the dynamic at play that day as Dennis the (motherf@¢&ing) Menace laid into that poor kid.
And more to the point, as a senior with some pull in the school both academically and socially, I had the power to do something about it.
But instead I just sat there – and didn’t do shit.
A Sin of Omission
Even now, it’s hard to describe the emotions that coursed through me on that short bus ride. At first I was annoyed that Dennis was at it again, bothering the whole bus with his blather.
Then, as his jibes got increasingly intense and personal, I empathized with our poor geek. My empathy turned to outrage as Dennis continued, pushing his victim to an emotional precipice he’s probably still discussing in therapy today.
And finally, as the anger swelled up in me and my conscience practically screamed at me to intervene, I felt fear. A deep, paralyzing, all-encompassing fear.
So I sat there, just a few seats back, watching Dennis smirk as our geek – my geek – bawled.
And I did nothing.
Too Little, Too Late
Well, that’s not entirely true. When the bus finally stopped and we all got off, when the crowd cleared and neither our geek nor anyone else was left within earshot – that is, when the stakes were as low as possible and there was no social risk to me whatsoever – I finally said something to Dennis.
I don’t remember my exact words, but I remember thinking that they were weak and ineffectual, even as I said them. My message to leave the kid alone was both too little and far too late, and we both knew it.
Looking back on it now, separated from this seminal incident by 13 years worth of time and personal growth, I still feel a deep, pervasive sense of shame.
A Resolve Born of Regret
One of the reasons this incident still haunts me is that, given my position as a leader in the school, I almost certainly could have done something about it.
It’s true that my physical presence wasn’t going to intimidate anyone, not even a kid two years my junior, but my social presence loomed larger. I had a lot of friends, a lot of pull, and the ear of just about everyone in the school – I could have threatened to make Dennis’s life a living hell for a few weeks, and the threat would have carried water.
But I didn’t threaten Dennis. I didn’t stand up for my geek. I just sat there, paralyzed, some small part of me grateful that at that particular moment, it was him and not me bearing the weight of a bully’s ire. I was all too happy to hide in the anonymity which, at that moment, he so desperately wished was his.
While I’m more comfortable with it now then I used to be – Brene Brown’s work on shame has certainly helped – there will probably always be a part of me that deeply regrets not intervening on that kid’s behalf.
Not standing up for what I knew was right. Not defending someone with whom I so closely related from a bully who, in that moment, I so loathed.
I didn’t have the self-confidence to stick up for someone who both needed and deserved defending, and as a result, I’ve carried my shame with me for more than a decade, while he has undoubtedly endured years of pain.
I never want to feel that way again. I don’t want anyone to feel that way.
My Redemptive (if Irreverent) Mission
That’s why I’m here.
If I’m being honest, the guilt brought on by my inaction is probably a big reason why, about a year and a half after this all took place, I threw myself wholeheartedly into fitness and nutrition, and eventually took a job editing fitness magazines. I wanted to build a physical presence that would make me more comfortable standing up for myself and others.
It’s at least partially why I’m so conscious of my clothes and personal appearance, too. There’s a lot to be said for the look good/feel good philosophy, and I want my external appearance to reflect the internal strength I’m trying to build.
It explains why, after a few years focused exclusively on fitness, I got deep into intellectual and emotional self-improvement. Whatever psychological roadblock kept me from speaking up that day had more to do with my mind than my mouth, and I don’t ever want it to happen again.
And it’s why I quit a great job as an award-winning travel blogger (humble brag!) to tell shameful and embarrassing stories about myself on the internet. I never want another young man to feel that geek’s pain, or my enduring shame, ever again.
Instead, I want to help guys build the sort of real, authentic and lasting self-confidence that allows us to embrace life’s hardships, and enjoy its many pleasures.
I’m sure as hell not perfect, but I’ve come a long way since that fateful day on the bus. And if I can share a single shred of advice that will make guys more self-confident, then that’s exactly what I’m going to do. (Partly because I feel like it’s my duty, and partly because I’ve already quit my aforementioned job – so I really don’t have much of a choice!)
So, there you have it, my origin story, and my mission. It may not involve a radioactive spider, and it’s wordier than “with great power comes great responsibility” by about 2,300 words, but it’s mine.
And I have to own it.
What’s your self-confidence origin story? Can you relate to my lack of action? Have you been in a situation like me – or worse, like our geek? If you feel comfortable sharing, let me know in the comments below, or tweet me @IrreverentGent.
Or, if you’d prefer to reach out privately, I’d love to hear from you. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.