Translator: Joseph Geni
Reviewer: Morton Bast There’s so many of you. (Laughter) When I was a kid, I hid my heart under the bed,
because my mother said, “If you’re not careful,
someday someone’s going to break it.” Take it from me: Under the bed
is not a good hiding spot. I know because I’ve been
shot down so many times, I get altitude sickness
just from standing up for myself. But that’s what we were told. “Stand up for yourself.” And that’s hard to do
if you don’t know who you are. We were expected to define ourselves
at such an early age, and if we didn’t do it,
others did it for us. Geek. Fatty. Slut. Fag. And at the same time we were
being told what we were, we were being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always thought
that was an unfair question. It presupposes that we can’t be
what we already are. We were kids. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a man. I wanted a registered
retirement savings plan that would keep me in candy
long enough to make old age sweet. (Laughter) When I was a kid, I wanted to shave. Now, not so much. (Laughter) When I was eight,
I wanted to be a marine biologist. When I was nine, I saw the movie “Jaws,” and thought to myself, “No, thank you.” (Laughter) And when I was 10, I was told that my parents left
because they didn’t want me. When I was 11, I wanted to be left alone. When I was 12, I wanted to die.
When I was 13, I wanted to kill a kid. When I was 14, I was asked
to seriously consider a career path. I said, “I’d like to be a writer.” And they said,
“Choose something realistic.” So I said, “Professional wrestler.” And they said, “Don’t be stupid.” See, they asked me what I wanted to be, then told me what not to be. And I wasn’t the only one. We were being told
that we somehow must become what we are not, sacrificing what we are to inherit the masquerade
of what we will be. I was being told to accept the identity
that others will give me. And I wondered, what made
my dreams so easy to dismiss? Granted, my dreams are shy, because they’re Canadian. (Laughter) My dreams are self-conscious
and overly apologetic. They’re standing alone
at the high school dance, and they’ve never been kissed. See, my dreams got called names too. Silly. Foolish. Impossible. But I kept dreaming. I was going to be a wrestler.
I had it all figured out. I was going to be The Garbage Man. (Laughter) My finishing move was going
to be The Trash Compactor. My saying was going to be,
“I’m taking out the trash!” (Laughter) (Applause) And then this guy,
Duke “The Dumpster” Droese, stole my entire shtick. (Laughter) I was crushed, as if by a trash compactor. (Laughter) I thought to myself,
“What now? Where do I turn?” Poetry. (Laughter) Like a boomerang,
the thing I loved came back to me. One of the first lines of poetry
I can remember writing was in response to a world
that demanded I hate myself. From age 15 to 18, I hated myself for becoming the thing that I loathed: a bully. When I was 19, I wrote, “I will love myself
despite the ease with which I lean toward the opposite.” Standing up for yourself
doesn’t have to mean embracing violence. When I was a kid, I traded in homework
assignments for friendship, then gave each friend a late slip
for never showing up on time, and in most cases, not at all. I gave myself a hall pass
to get through each broken promise. And I remember this plan,
born out of frustration from a kid who kept calling me “Yogi,” then pointed at my tummy and said,
“Too many picnic baskets.” Turns out it’s not that hard
to trick someone, and one day before class, I said, “Yeah, you can copy my homework,” and I gave him all the wrong answers
that I’d written down the night before. He got his paper back
expecting a near-perfect score, and couldn’t believe it when he looked
across the room at me and held up a zero. I knew I didn’t have to hold up
my paper of 28 out of 30, but my satisfaction was complete
when he looked at me, puzzled, and I thought to myself, “Smarter
than the average bear, motherfucker.” (Laughter) (Applause) This is who I am. This is how I stand up for myself. When I was a kid, I used to think that pork chops
and karate chops were the same thing. I thought they were both pork chops. My grandmother thought it was cute, and because they were my favorite,
she let me keep doing it. Not really a big deal. One day, before I realized fat kids
are not designed to climb trees, I fell out of a tree
and bruised the right side of my body. I didn’t want to tell my grandmother because I was scared I’d get in trouble for playing somewhere
I shouldn’t have been. The gym teacher noticed the bruise,
and I got sent to the principal’s office. From there, I was sent to another
small room with a really nice lady who asked me all kinds of questions
about my life at home. I saw no reason to lie. As far as I was concerned,
life was pretty good. I told her, whenever I’m sad,
my grandmother gives me karate chops. (Laughter) This led to a full-scale investigation, and I was removed
from the house for three days, until they finally decided
to ask how I got the bruises. News of this silly little story
quickly spread through the school, and I earned my first nickname: Porkchop. To this day, I hate pork chops. I’m not the only kid who grew up this way, surrounded by people
who used to say that rhyme about sticks and stones, as if broken bones hurt more
than the names we got called, and we got called them all. So we grew up believing
no one would ever fall in love with us, that we’d be lonely forever, that we’d never meet someone
to make us feel like the sun was something they built
for us in their toolshed. So broken heartstrings bled the blues, and we tried to empty ourselves
so we’d feel nothing. Don’t tell me that hurts
less than a broken bone, that an ingrown life
is something surgeons can cut away, that there’s no way
for it to metastasize; it does. She was eight years old, our first day of grade three
when she got called ugly. We both got moved to the back of class so we would stop
getting bombarded by spitballs. But the school halls were a battleground. We found ourselves outnumbered
day after wretched day. We used to stay inside for recess,
because outside was worse. Outside, we’d have
to rehearse running away, or learn to stay still like statues,
giving no clues that we were there. In grade five, they taped
a sign to the front of her desk that read, “Beware of dog.” To this day, despite a loving husband,
she doesn’t think she’s beautiful, because of a birthmark that takes up
a little less than half her face. Kids used to say,
“She looks like a wrong answer that someone tried to erase,
but couldn’t quite get the job done.” And they’ll never understand
that she’s raising two kids whose definition of beauty
begins with the word “Mom,” because they see her heart
before they see her skin, because she’s only ever
always been amazing. He was a broken branch grafted
onto a different family tree, adopted, not because his parents opted
for a different destiny. He was three when he became a mixed drink of one part left alone
and two parts tragedy, started therapy in eighth grade, had a personality
made up of tests and pills, lived like the uphills were mountains
and the downhills were cliffs, four-fifths suicidal,
a tidal wave of antidepressants, and an adolescent being called “Popper,” one part because of the pills, 99 parts because of the cruelty. He tried to kill himself in grade 10 when a kid who could still
go home to Mom and Dad had the audacity to tell him,
“Get over it.” As if depression is something
that could be remedied by any of the contents
found in a first-aid kit. To this day, he is a stick of TNT
lit from both ends, could describe to you in detail
the way the sky bends in the moment before it’s about to fall, and despite an army of friends
who all call him an inspiration, he remains a conversation piece
between people who can’t understand sometimes being drug-free
has less to do with addiction and more to do with sanity. We weren’t the only kids
who grew up this way. To this day, kids are still
being called names. The classics were
“Hey, stupid,” “Hey, spaz.” Seems like every school
has an arsenal of names getting updated every year. And if a kid breaks in a school
and no one around chooses to hear, do they make a sound? Are they just background noise
from a soundtrack stuck on repeat, when people say things like,
“Kids can be cruel.” Every school was a big top circus tent, and the pecking order
went from acrobats to lion tamers, from clowns to carnies,
all of these miles ahead of who we were. We were freaks — lobster-claw boys and bearded ladies, oddities juggling
depression and loneliness, playing solitaire, spin the bottle, trying to kiss the wounded
parts of ourselves and heal, but at night, while the others slept, we kept walking the tightrope. It was practice, and yes, some of us fell. But I want to tell them that all of this is just debris left over when we finally decide to smash
all the things we thought we used to be, and if you can’t see anything
beautiful about yourself, get a better mirror, look
a little closer, stare a little longer, because there’s something inside you
that made you keep trying despite everyone who told you to quit. You built a cast around your broken heart and signed it yourself, “They were wrong.” Because maybe you didn’t belong
to a group or a clique. Maybe they decided to pick you last
for basketball or everything. Maybe you used to bring bruises and broken
teeth to show-and-tell, but never told, because how can you hold your ground if everyone around you
wants to bury you beneath it? You have to believe that they were wrong. They have to be wrong. Why else would we still be here? We grew up learning
to cheer on the underdog because we see ourselves in them. We stem from a root planted in the belief that we are not what we were called. We are not abandoned cars stalled out
and sitting empty on some highway, and if in some way we are, don’t worry. We only got out to walk and get gas. We are graduating members
from the class of We Made It, not the faded echoes of voices crying out, “Names will never hurt me.” Of course they did. But our lives will only ever always
continue to be a balancing act that has less to do with pain and more to do with beauty. (Applause)

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