It all started with an embarrassing childhood picture. A four-year-old me, enjoying a nice autumn day at the park. It was a tad chilly, so I was wearing my favorite turtleneck, paired with my most stylish pair of overalls. I was holding a bag of marshmallows with one hand and picking my nose with the other.
When I was ten, my family and I moved to the small European country of Latvia. My new school was small, conservative, and Orthodox Jewish. My new classmates, on the other hand, taught me how strongly societal norms could influence a person’s perspective. In Latvia, it was considered socially unacceptable to pick one’s nose. While most Americans viewed my picture positively, these new classmates had a more negative impression. In fact, their view was so negative, that I was suddenly nicknamed “American nose-picker”. I was stuck in a very uncomfortable position- I was at the bottom of the social food chain. My options were slim: I could either pretend my shameful picture never existed in hopes of one day climbing my way to acceptance, or I could try challenging the rigid mindset of the locals. I chose the latter.
“Come on, team, your behavior is severely hypocritical! We are ten years old, a majority of us pick our noses!” I preached to my classmates in Russian, trying to trigger a social revolution where nose picking was embraced. Unfortunately, all my effort was to no avail. They were conditioned to accept a certain perspective, and no logic could get through. I felt like a modern Socrates, trying to reason with the unthinking masses.
Seven years later, my family and I moved back to America. Though my school was different, my classmates remained largely conservative and equally narrow-minded. I found myself in an alarmingly similar situation: I was a closeted homosexual in a homophobic environment. I was stuck in a crux: I could either live a life of lies and repression in hopes of one day achieving popularity, or I could do the right thing by fighting social oppression and showing that gays are just like everyone else. Just like Thich Quang Duc, who used self-immolation to protest oppression in Vietnam, I figuratively set myself on fire by facing a burning fear of disapproval and rejection. In 2009, I was the first open homosexual in Holmdel High School.
Though my new classmates gossiped about me, harassed me, and even tried to save me from my path to hell, I knew their intolerance didn’t come from a place of hate as much as a place of ignorance and conditioning. I work to change people’s perspectives so they can see all sides of a story, and all aspects of the world. Maybe, someday, everyone will think from a place of logic and understanding, not predetermined impressions. Maybe, someday, an embarrassing picture will no longer be looked at with disgust.