Dear young lady with the question,
You asked me a question today. I tried to answer – and I failed. I knew I’d failed, which is why I wanted to talk to you after the session. You had to leave before I could talk to you, so it was important that I find you. No, I still don’t have the answers, but was so very important to me that I find you.
I remember you; in fact I can’t forget you. It’s a five hour drive back home from the conference, and for that entire time I let one song simply repeat on my iPod. It popped into my head instantly after you asked your question, and I used it like a digital brand, to sear into my mind and soul who you were. I won’t say that what song it was isn’t important; it’s very important. But it’s not right now; you are what I want to talk about.
You were sitting there, about 20 feet from me, sitting in the last chair in the front row on my right. It was 2:20 p.m. on Saturday, the eighth of April, at the Journalism Education Association conference in Seattle. You wore glasses, maybe a tad horn-rimmed, if I recall right. They didn’t hide your eyes, nor what I saw there: The hope for an answer – and I didn’t give it to you.
You asked me a question I’ve never had before. You see, before you the questions were always about me. How did I handle my transition? How do I deal with other people’s intolerance? How I stand up at conferences and radiate confidence the way I do? But your question was about you: What do you do when you’re in a school where you’re called names for who you are? When the people that are supposed to support you, don’t?
I didn’t have an answer for a lot of reasons, I suppose. For one thing, where you describe is not my school. My school supports me, my school loves me. It not only allows my differences, it lets me embrace them, so that I can be who I want and need to be. I’ve always admitted that was a kind of privilege, and I never take it for granted. That’s why I do what I do; I need to create for others what I have. Suddenly, though, it’s not enough. Because there is you.
It is one thing to know in abstract: that there are voices that cry out in the darkness. It is one thing to know that they are hurting for what they cannot find. But to have that voice call out to me? And know that I did nothing? That is another thing.
In my defense, a weak one, I’d plead it was not for a lack of caring; it was for a lack of knowledge. As learned as I am – two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree, and a Ph.D. (hopefully) on the way – I am very used to thinking I’m the smartest person in the room. But I am keenly aware that my life is no one else’s. I have never pretended nor wanted to tell other people how they should live, and so it’s been fairly easy to never actually give advice. And then you asked me your questions.
You looked to me for an answer that I had no idea how to give. Standing there, behind the podium, I babbled about internet user groups, and other such nonsense. I wanted so badly to tell you something that would make it right, and feared so greatly telling you something that was wrong, that I said nothing. Nothing that really mattered, at least.
I look at this moment now and I curse myself for my stupidity, my selfishness. I know to so many of you I speak to that I am a role-model, someone to look up to. I say that with neither ego nor arrogance; so many people like you have told me. It is an honor.
But until now it was an honor devoid of responsibility. Yes, there were the obligations I put upon myself to be the type of person I would want my daughter to respect. Learned, humorous, self-assured: I wanted to be support you just by “being” – whatever that means. Right until you asked me that question my life, for all its grand goals, had been about finding answers for myself. What other people learned from that, I simply assumed they would figure out for themselves.
Answers, however? Those I did not ever pretend to have; my life was an example of what was possible, and I guess I thought that was enough. But it is not enough, not anymore. No, I’m not ever going to have all the answers; I will never pretend to have those. I get an hour, maybe 90 minutes, to field dozens of questions. Maybe that’s why I’ve never thought about the answers beyond myself; there wasn’t time for anything else.
But there has to be. You made me realize that – and that’s the song I played all the way home. “Time is waiting. We only got four minutes to save the world. No hesitating…” It’s Madonna, Justin Timberlake, and Timbaland. It’s my generation, it’s yours, and they’re right. Trust me, I played the song 78 times in a row. It’s now at the top of my “most played” queue, so I know I’ll hear it again – and I promise not to forget.
I’ll be ready for the questions, and I’ll do better. I’ll start first by walking away from my podium, and then I’ll go to where you are sitting. I’ll give you my card, and make you look into my eyes and promise to call me. And then I’ll ask you if you want a hug.
When you call me back – and I so very much hope you will – I want to hear every question you have, every answer you seek. I will go try and find you an answer. I’m a journalist, I’m a researcher, I’m a scholar; as the Gods my witness, I will try to find you an answer. And when I can’t, I swear to you I’ll listen. That, at least, is something I can promise.
Before that, though, indeed right now, I will answer the most meaningful of the questions I heard you ask. “What do I do when I feel so alone?” Honestly, I don’t know if you asked me in those literal words, or perhaps it lie between the lines. But I heard it. Here’s what I should have said:
“I know what you feel. Even surrounded by family and friends that love me, wrapped in the figurative and literal embrace of a school that empowers me, emboldened by my academic understanding of what it means to be me, I know how you feel. Even with all of those people I have days when I feel like I am the only soul in my universe. No, they have not abandoned me; I know they are there. But I cannot feel them, I cannot touch them, and I feel so very, very alone.
“Only the knowledge I have, of them, of my past, of my hopes for the future remind me that I’m not alone in that universe. It’s not something I can touch, nor even really explain. It is, to put it inelegantly, the residue of everything I’ve ever been. It, when logic and experience fail me, is what’s still there to remind me of who I am. And more than anything else in this world, I cling to that.”
That’s what I should have told you. And while I hope you have that, too, your question makes me think you don’t – at least not always. I am worried for you, because I’ve been there – and on many days I still am.
People assume so many things about me that aren’t true. It’s because I let them, you know. I guess this letter is about as close as I come to admitting that not only do not know everything, I very often feel as though I know nothing. Though I did know one thing.
I knew to keep trying to find you. I knew to use all those things they taught me as a journalist, a researcher, a scholar, and refuse to give up. I had hope that it would be enough to put these thoughts into the universe hoping that someone – you - would find them.
And you did.
How can I help you?