When You Don’t Love Your Home
A requirement at my high school is to write a senior speech delivered at one point during your last year. When I first heard about it, I was thrilled, and immediately started writing multiple drafts on a variety of topics. I have chronic depression, generalized anxiety disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and on top of all that, I’m a gay transgender guy.
There’s a lot to talk about.
And I wanted to talk about it all. There is so much I could say. So many words I could use to show what my life is like, who I am. With this realization, I decided to talk about something that can be important to anyone: a place. Maybe it’s a bedroom, a hallway on the third floor of school, a park in the city.
For me, that place is on Ruppstrasse in Bemidji, Minnesota. A German Language Village named Waldsee. Shortly before I turned twelve years old, I spent a week at Waldsee as a Teilnehmer, or participant. I loved my camp counselors and the activities I did, but I just didn’t get along with my roommates. The girls were mean to me, excluded me, and generally just didn’t seem to like me. So I spent most of my time with the people who taught me my modal verbs and met with me every night to talk about how my day went.
The next year, I doubled my time at the camp and became a Kurzteilnehmer (short participant). I spent two weeks learning German by being hunted by zombies, going to discos and restaurants, playing capture the flag, and meeting great friends. The next year, I relived that experience and met even greater friends. These great friends helped me accept myself as something that I had denied for years: queer. I was out. I was proud. My friends supported me. My friendships were lining up perfectly so I could be a credit villager for four weeks the next year, the summer before my sophomore year.
Then I auditioned for a week long opera camp put on by the Minnesota Opera, and was lucky enough to be accepted into the program. However, the week interfered with the four week village session I was planning on attending. I still wanted to go to Waldsee, so I signed up for a session ending three days before the start of school. I didn’t actually know that Waldsee had two halves of the summer, and my first three years had a different dean from the one I was about to meet.
I was so worried that I wouldn’t know anyone.
But my first day there, I met Petra, Liane, Hugo, and Babsi. Of course, these are their German names, but they only knew me as Maren. These four people ended up being some of the best friends I’ve had, and for the first three weeks they didn’t know my name, my real name.
But more than anything, during those four weeks, I became more confident in who I am. That was the summer I first started realizing that I was transgender, and the people there were so supportive of my journey. I made so many important memories there, and decided that the next summer I would return to Waldsee as a Lehrling, or an apprentice. I would stay at Waldsee for another four weeks, and I’d get a chance to see what it was like to be a counselor.
As a Lehrling, I was reunited with Liane, Hugo, and Babsi, who were also Lehrlinge. I reconnected with Petra, and met Kaspar, who helped me accept myself as a trans guy as he shared my experience with me. I also got to assistant teach a group of twelve to sixteen year olds about Minnesota nature and camping. That month was one of the best in my life, because it was one of the first times I felt comfortable in who I really was. I loved myself. I had been suffering with untreated depression and anxiety for about three years by then, and Waldsee was the only place where I felt like I could cope. Because it was the only place where the people I was with gave me the space to cope with the things I was struggling with.
When I got back from my apprenticeship, I was formally diagnosed with depression and anxiety. After experiencing a place as open and warm as Waldsee, the transition back into my life in St. Paul was not an easy one. I was no longer in a place where I was loved and accepted the same way. My life spiraled downward during my junior year. I was living in the closest, and only three people knew about how much I was struggling. I was so afraid of who I was; what I was struggling with; how much I was hiding from everyone I knew. Most of my friends, my family, my teachers, everyone. I was collapsing in on myself, and in the process my grades took a downward turn as well. I got more and more anxious about tests even though I had tried three different medications starting in January. But nothing seemed to be working.
And then in April of 2016, I came out as transgender to my family and to the school. A huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders, for sure, but my general struggles with who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, and being myself, hadn’t really left me. I was still lost and directionless.
I had recently been hired by Waldsee to be a junior counselor, which meant I would work half time in the kitchen and half time as a counselor, starting in July. I got to get away from school and St. Paul; just live as myself, or create a whole new persona for myself. I could be who I am. I was going to be responsible for myself and have control of my life for once in a place where that was encouraged, not frowned upon.
When I was at Waldsee last year, I was like a different person. I was happy, in control and capable. Of course I still felt down and anxious and all that, but something was different. I felt like I could handle it. Waldsee gave me the space to grow into myself; space for me to grow into the boy you know and love, Nick. Funny enough, I was given the space to accept Nick where everyone only knew Maren. Maybe because no one there, not one person, knows Grace, who I used to be. None of them have ever met her. And so I made friends who I still keep in close contact with, I worked with kids that I loved, and I spent seven weeks in the place where I learned to love myself.
Waldsee isn’t only like that for me. I watched kids and co-workers blossom in ways they didn’t know they could once they stepped through the arch in the Bahnhof that marks the entrance of the village. I don’t know how one place can provide so much joy and love to so many people, but Waldsee does. And it did for me, too. I spent a total of 20 weeks of my life at the German Language Village. And every single one of them shaped who I am today.
And you know what? I want to go back. There are people at home who love me but it does not feel the same as the love I feel at Waldsee. My father and I had been psychologically enmeshed (a condition where personal boundaries between family members are blurred and everyone shares emotions and thoughts) throughout my childhood, and my gender identity sent him through the roof. He was angry and he didn’t accept it. He put me down constantly, mocking my appearance and my attempts at masculinity.
I was emotionally abused and harassed by someone at school for two years, and he got off scot free because we both were assigned female at birth. He tried to touch me. Manipulated me into being his friend, and threatened suicide when I tried to leave the friendship. When I cut ties with him (or at least attempted to) they claimed I was bullying him and that I was the reason he was depressed.
And I didn’t have to deal with any of that when I was at Waldsee. There, people loved me more than anything, supported me, cared about me. They were there for me, protected me, and they continue to be the closest people in my life.
This is an edited version of the speech I delivered during my senior year. I couldn’t give this version, because my dad and my ex-friend were in the audience. The original version talked about acceptance at school, which wasn’t a problem until after I gave the speech. In a forum in which I was supposed to show my true self, I couldn’t talk about some of the biggest things in my life.
I didn’t have to censor myself at Waldsee. That’s why I love it.