Mining Your Memories, Two Steps Back Days, and A High Five for Glenn Burke by Phil Bildner
Earlier this year, Alexander Leon, a writer at the LGBTQ group Kaleidoscope Trust, tweeted the following:
“Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimise humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.”
The tweet, part of a longer and powerful thread, went viral. It resonated with so many of my friends and so many members of the LGBTQ community. The thread was actually adapted from an essay Leon had previously written.
The thread and essay led me to reflect on my new middle grade novel, A High Five for Glenn Burke, which tells the story of Silas Wade, a sports-loving, twelve-year-old boy who’s beginning to acknowledge his truth. The book shares many of the themes contained in the thread and essay.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to hear Meg Medina speak a number of times. When it comes to writing, I’ve heard her talk about the notion of “mining your memories.” It’s a form of deep and honest reflection. Often, it’s unpleasant and painful work, but in order for our words to capture and contain the truth and power we desire, the intense work is necessary work.
Around the time of my coming out in the 1990s, I wanted to journal. I needed to journal, but my pen couldn’t keep up with the rapid-fire thoughts overwhelming my brain. So instead, I used the micro-cassette recorder I still had from my days as an attorney to make tapes. I made hours and hours of recordings.
I saved them all. Kept them in a box for over twenty years. But never listened to them. Not until I was working on A High Five for Glenn Burke.
I was only able to listen to the tapes – now converted to mp3s — in bursts. At times, I had difficulty believing it was me saying those words. I didn’t recognize this person. It was a different person. It was a person who for years and years — for his entire existence — had played a version of himself, a person that had sacrificed authenticity in order to survive.
Some of the specific memories I no longer recalled. Memories require nurturing, and when we don’t do the work, they fade and eventually vanish.
But some were as vivid as ever. Like when the voice on the recording talked about two-steps-back days. Those were the days when I felt so low, alone, and ashamed, that on my commute to work, I made the conscious decision not to stand by the edge of the subway platform. I didn’t lean out and look down the tracks to see if the green light of the 4 or 5 train was approaching the station. So I stood two steps back in the middle of the platform.
I grew up hating myself. Though hate’s not a strong enough word. Not a day went by when I didn’t think about harming myself, and when I was a senior in high school, less than three months before graduation, I did and was hospitalized.
No kid should have to go through this. No kid should grow up hating himself, herself, or themself because of who he, she, or they are. It’s why I wrote A High Five for Glenn Burke.
After you come out, the self-loathing and self-hate doesn’t just magically disappear. It takes work, intense work that’s often unpleasant and painful, but it’s work that’s absolutely necessary. I put in the work. Every day is part of that massive task of unpicking which parts are truly me and which were created to protect me.
Recently, I read and re-read author Alex London’s 2016 BuzzFeed post, Why I Came Out As a Children’s Book Author.
“I don’t think my existence is controversial,” he wrote. No, it isn’t. That’s something queer kids need to hear. It’s something queer kids need to know. Their existence is not controversial. Alex knows, it’s the main theme of A High Five for Glenn Burke.
Visibility matters. Representation matters. Our truths matter.
Phil Bildner taught middle school in the New York City Public Schools for eleven years. He now runs The Author Village, an author booking business. He’s also the New York Times bestselling author of numerous books for kids including the middle grade Rip & Red series, and picture books Marvelous Cornelius (illustrated by John Parra) and Twenty-One Elephants (illustrated by LeUyen Pham). His new middle grade novel A High Five for Glenn Burke is published by Macmillan/Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR). Find Phil Bildner at www.philbildner.com.