For the Boy in the Gift Shop

"The Seed, Or Grace of God, is small in its first Appearance, even as the Morning Light; but as it is given Heed to, and obeyed, it will increase in Brightness, till it shine in the Soul, like the Sun in the Firmament at its Noon-day Height." Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655-1685

It is 2016 and I am standing in the middle of a classroom at Portland State University.  It is the second annual Portland Public Schools Gay-Straight Alliance Summit, and I'm setting up the powerpoint on the projector as I hear the shuffle of feet start to move through the ceiling above me.  Less than a minute later, the door to the classroom nervously creeks open, a high school student pokes their head through.  I look up, smiling.  "Are you looking for the LGBTQ history workshop?"  The student nods vigorously, "yeah!"

"Well you are in the right place! Come on in!"

The student smiles and opens the door wider to reveal more students behind them, and they all begin to file into the seats that form a circle around the projector.  

I make a little conversation with an adult volunteer who is also in the room, and check the room at the appointed hour.  It is pretty full, with a variety of middle school and high school students, I still can't help but smile.  I dig into my right pocket and pull out my presentation remote.

"Welcome everyone!", the door flings open again with a student who looks a little out of breath.

"Come on in there are a few chairs right over here! We are just getting started!"

"Thank you all for coming,  before I start I'd love to get to know who is in the room, so if we could go around the circle and do our names, pronouns, and why we came to this workshop."

As the circle proceeded, most gave an answer that they simply wanted to know more about the topic.

"Ok well I heard a lot of you say you wanted to learn something new, and I am pretty sure I can do that at least one time today."  We all share a short laugh, and I click the button on the remote in my palm.

I went on to start painting a picture for them, and watch them connect in a new way to what had always been within them...

It is July 2006, and I step off a tour bus, sweaty, into an entirely too humid day in Washington D.C.

I'm with over a hundred other high school students, or soon-to-be high school students.  It was the summer before I would start as a freshman at Gladstone High School.  I'm part of a group of students from around the country, all having been recommend by our teachers to go on this week long People to People Leadership program in the capitol.  

To say that I was awkward and extremely uncomfortable in my own skin at this point, would be a tremendous understatement.  More than the normal awkwardness of teenage years, I hated the feelings that I had inside my heart.  I hated the attractions that would not go away.  I completely hated myself.

I hated that I was...that word.   

Even while holding that inside, I could still manage a facade well enough.  The group had spent a lot of time visiting monuments and Smithsonian museums for the first few days, but today's stop on the itinerary was the Holocaust Museum.  The time would not be so structured here, and we were invited to move through the museum at our own pace.  

I felt like I knew a lot about World War 2, and was familiar with general facts and a rough timeline of the Holocaust.  Even with that though, I would not be prepared for what would hit me as I went through the halls.  

There is something about being in front of a pile of hundreds of boots from people who were systematically annihilated, that can not be known by just reading about them.  I felt fear move through my body even being around instruments of death and inhumanity that had not been touched for decades.  The worst though, was when I came face to face with a picture in an exhibit of a particular line of men in a concentration camp.

On their miserable uniforms, was sown an upside down pink triangle.

I read the bit of information about why they bore that mark, and felt a soul sickening chill.  I looked back up at the picture, and could not move my eyes away.  I made my way quickly to a bathroom and locked the door to a stall in the far end, and was overcame with grief. 

How could such hatred be in this world? What had these men done deserve this kind of death? Love other men? 

After some time, the flow of tears started to slow.  

No.  The world can be different than this.  I feel responsibility for a world that can be good.  

I exit the restroom and return to the place in front of the photograph, and look again.  

For the first time I let myself feel something that I had been denying.  These people were of me, and I was of them.  

I commit these faces to my memory, and turn on my heel and walk forward with purpose.  I had been given an idea to do something that I could not even say out loud.  Something so out of character, but a thing that something inside of me said I must do.  

I see the gift shop across an indoor courtyard.  Before I can convince myself otherwise, I slow to what I presumed a natural nonchalant pace looked like, and entered. 

I was a 15 year old boy on a mission.  Taking a quick look around, I noticed there were two other older people in the store with me and a cashier in his early twenties if I had to guess.  Good, this should work, now to find what I'm looking for.  I made my way down the small isles, and midway down a shelf, I thought I caught a glimpse of what I was looking for.  However, in case I was being watched, I would not stop directly in front of it.  I overshot a few steps, and started scanning the nearby items to feign interest, doing my best to appear like I had no direction at all.  One of the other shoppers left.  

I could feel my heartbeat start to increase in pace, yes, that was a display of pink triangle pins.  Looking only through my periphery, walk past the display, grabbed one in a quick motion, and continued to the next isle.  My heart was really racing now.  The second person left the gift shop.  And it was just me and the cashier.  This was my window.  The awful voice of self-doubt begins to shout in my ear.  

A.J. have you lost your mind?! You CAN NOT buy that! The cashier will KNOW! The cashier will know you are GAY! Gay people are the only people who would buy such a thing! 

Maybe he won't look at it closely, maybe if I lay it face down so he just sees the back of the pin, he won't even turn it over to see.  Yeah! That will work!...Oh my god this will never ever work!  He is going to know.  I can't do this.  

I look to the exit.  

No.  A.J. you have to do this.  You are running out of time, more people will come into this store soon.


No...I can't!

A.J. move your feet! NOW!

With each terrified footfall, I get closer to the cash register.  Ok A.J., this is critical, just act natural.  I get up to the counter and place the pin face down on the glass countertop.  Smooth.  I'll pay with cash so there is no electronic record of me spending money here.  Brilliant! 

I reach for my wallet in my back pocket, but my nervous shaking grip flings it open in such a way that a couple bills and a handful of coins fall out.  I see them fall in slow motion, hear each coin impact the floor like a church bell. 

"I'm sorry!" I croak as I reach down to grab the bills.  Screw the coins that went every direction under displays, I have got to get out of here! 

To my horror, when my eyes move above the countertop again,  I see him looking right at the pin in his hand, and then his eyes look at me.

I prayed for God to strike me dead right there.  He knows.  My life is over.  

"Do you want a bag for this?" 

Bag?...yes! I do want that! Talk A.J.! TALK!

"yes please." I mutter. 

He slips it in a small flat brown paper bag and starts pushing buttons on the register, taking the bills I had sat on the counter to make change.  He pulls out the receipt and sets it in the bag, folds the bag, and hands it to me along with my change.  

"Have a nice day."

"You too." says the sweaty boy who is coming down off an adrenaline rush.  I make my way out of the gift shop as people start to enter, and outside into the entirely too humid day.  I don't dare retrieve it from the bag,  but I do feel the pin through the brown paper bag with my fingers.  A smile forms across my face, and I store it in my backpack with great care. 

It is 2016 and I am concluding a workshop that I am giving at the second annual Portland Public Schools Gay Straight Alliance Summit.  I end on a strong note of hope, thank them for coming, and accept their applause with a humble bow.  They start to get up and move towards the main ballroom for their lunch, and I take a deep and satisfying breath, and move to start disconnecting my laptop from the projector.  After the door shuts behind the last student,  I take another deep breath, and lean against the media stand, pausing to let my head hang a little.  

I reach up with my right hand, into the left inside pocket of my jacket, and retrieve a small pin.

I look down at the tiny pink triangle in my hand, and wipe a few joy filled tears from my eyes.

They are of me, and I am of them. 


  1. Lovely A.J., just lovely. They are of me and I am of them. May the kinship you feel with past generations continue a hundred fold into the future. - Lola



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