When You’re Standing Right Behind Them.
A friend of mine recently went back to school, and in a tweet he spoke of an incident where someone was talking crap about him without knowing he was standing right behind them. When the truth dawned that my friend was, in fact, right behind them, the crap-talker quickly shut their mouths and all but scurried away. It reminded me of an incident that happened to me in college, and it was so cartoonishly insulting I didn’t realize it was actually happening to me.
From my freshman to junior years in college, I was an Acting major. I had dreams of being a stage or movie star, but mostly I wanted to play wizards in fantasy movies or monsters in horror movies. I was not very popular among my fellow acting students. The teachers* didn’t like me very much either. I was probably “that guy” to most of the other students, and that became apparent to me during a Scene Study class in my junior year.
*my freshman year acting teacher was amazing and warm and supportive and unforgettable, so she is not included in the above statement
I was assigned to do a scene from “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” where I was to play the role of the Player, head of a traveling theatre troupe. I always imagined him as big, over-the-top, and theatrical, so I played him that way in the scene I was assigned. I also liked acting with props. They helped me get into character. So I brought a cloak I’d purchased from a renaissance faire (because of course I own a cloak) to class that day and played the scene with my impromptu costume. I had fun. I thought the scene went well. For once I got feedback from my teacher that wasn’t condescending or insulting my intelligence. I had been considering dropping the Acting program, but maybe all I needed was to get more comfortable. Maybe props in future scenes would help me! I was in a good mood.
After the scene I returned to where the rest of my class was sitting and I began to remove my cloak. I was standing behind two fellow students, one of which I thought I was friendly with. Not friends (see above), but at least friendly. He proceeded to say to the other student in a stereotypical, nasally nerd voice, “Hi. My name’s Michael. I like wearing cloaks. I like playing Dungeons & Dragons. I think I’m a fucking wizard.”
The other student clued him in that I was, in fact, standing right behind him and heard the whole thing. He looked right at me. He knew he’d been caught. He gave me a sheepish grin, turned around, and didn’t say another word. I don’t know what my expression was, but I imagine it was a combination of incredulous and dumbfounded.
I was stunned, but not in a hurt or betrayed way. I was stunned in a way that comes when real life turns out to be just as awful as bad fiction. The sort of moment that you can’t believe is actually happening to you, because you only thought these situations happened on television or in the movies.
That was one of the last straws for me in the Acting program. There were other factors, but this one really pushed me away from the program, the teachers, and many of the students. A few months later I quit the program and changed my major.
In my youthful optimism I always dreamed of being in the company of fellow artists. I imagined it as a creative haven, to be surrounded by like-minded individuals possessed by the need to make art. I thought we would be united in our desire to separate ourselves from “popular culture.” Man, was I young and optimistic. Especially young. The last shards of that innocence were broken and I finally learned that everyone is equal in their potential to be awful.
I suppose it was all for the best, though. If I hadn’t changed my major to Writing I wouldn’t have tried writing a fantasy novel, which would turn out to be terrible. Then I wouldn’t have tried making webcomics which, looking back on my sixteen year career, turned out okay. Looking back through the grand scope of time, I would probably say “I’d do it all again.”
Actually, I would change one thing. I would change my reaction to that guy’s shit-talking from one of dumbfounded silence to a simple statement. A statement that I encourage you to use if this situation ever happens to you:
“Well. Fuck you, too.”