It was the summer of 1969. I was in Lawrence, Kansas, scratching chigger bytes, watching Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon, and attending journalism classes at the University of Kansas.
I was a high school kid attending a summer program along with a bunch of other high school kids. I was learning to write headlines and run a radio show. My roommate was studying fourth-dimensional math, something about turning a tennis ball inside out without harming it. Other kids were studying the trombone or, judging from observed behavior, card-playing.
For most of us, it was our first big trip away from home. It was the summer of all possibilities. It was the summer of growing up.
There was a kid down the hall that I didn't know very well. He was from Hannibal, Missouri. A slight kid, about two-thirds the size of his ox-like roommate.
The roommate liked to peel fruit with a machete that he kept hidden in his room, against dorm policy. Also against dorm policy, the roommate had taped "glamour posters" to the wall, moved all the furniture around, and made an aquarium out of a five-gallon carboy. He pretty much ruled the roost while the slight kid cowered.
One night several of us boys were walking down the dormitory hall when the slight kid came stumbling out of his room, red-faced, coughing, and clearly disturbed. No, the ox-like roommate hadn't done anything bad, at least not at the moment. But the slight kid had.
He had wrapped a belt around his neck. He had tried to hang himself in the closet.
It wasn't much of a suicide attempt. You can't do yourself in by hanging yourself from a closet pole that's at eye level. But he had tried.
Frightened and confused, he stumbled out into the hall. And there we were, wide-eyed and unprepared. When you go off to summer camp, nobody gives you a "dealing with suicides" kit.
Having been dealt this hand, we did our best to play it. For hours we walked round the KU campus, talking the slight kid through his forest of personal demons. After trying and failing to kill himself, things got worse, not better. His conservative religious upbringing had taught him that suicide was a sin. Now God would surely condemn him to burn in hell for his clumsy stunt with the belt in the closet.
Not being scholars in such things, we were not well equipped to engage in the argument, but we did what we could to calm him down. We walked and talked until curfew sent us all back to the dorm.
I don't know how the slight kid turned out, but he did survive his summer in Kansas. We all did.
I don't know whether the slight kid was gay. But his roommate treated him the way many bullies treat gay teenagers. Gay teens are not the only victims of cruelty -- anyone who's different is a target -- but they are particularly vulnerable.
I thought about the slight kid this week when I heard the news about Tyler Clementi, a talented young musician who went away to college at Rutgers and wound up jumping to his death off the George Washington Bridge. Tyler's roommate had set up a webcam that had caught him making out with another boy, broadcasting the encounter live on the Internet.
It happens, over and over again. Big kids, little kids. In Texas, a 13-year-old carrying the double burden of sexual orientation and religious differences blows his brains out. In Rhode Island, a college kid majoring in culinary arts hangs himself in a dorm room.
When we are young, everything is too big. Our joys may be too big. Our despairs are always too big. If our older selves could step in, they'd wisely advise us: "I gets better." But our older selves are not there, and if we make the wrong choice, they never will be.
If you haven't watched Dan Savage's video advice, you should. It's about being a gay teenager, and it isn't. It's good advice for everybody. Straight kids have problems, too. Adults have problems. We all have problems. It gets better.
Watch the video: http://www.youtube.com/user/itgetsbetterproject#p/f/0/7IcVyvg2Qlo