High school is a time many of us hated. We hated how the jocks and popular kids were cruel to us. After all, teenagers can be hormone-filled idiots that disappoint their parents. But what happens when a majority of the people you went with don't really change? What if the town you grew up in just gets... worse?
That's the case with me, where I didn't have the best memories at Romeo High School. Growing up, I was subjected to homophobic slurs, including an Eminem-lookalike who followed me around while calling me a "queer." It seems par for the course that someone who looks like Slim Shady would do this based on Eminem's less-than-stellar history of xenophobia (aside from African Americans, whom he respected.)
There were also members of the hockey team that would also call me these slurs while tugging at my shirt and trying to get a rise out of me. There was a high school senior named Frank who wanted to beat me up for the hell of it (there were a lot of young people like Frank at Romeo High growing up). There was also a 6'5" bully originally from Armada who got into my personal life and made me EXTREMELY uncomfortable.
I was even a target before high school, being subjected to a fixated dude punching me whenever he had a chance. There was an air of machismo that every guy in middle school had to prove, trying to outdo the other. Whether it was a Fonzi ripoff or a hockey jock, I was always targeted. It felt as if I was hopeless and could turn to nobody for help aside from my family.
This was especially true in 8th grade when I quit the football team due to depression. I was asked why I quit and I responded that I was depressed about life. That led to me being cast aside from my teammates and left with no one to talk to. It sucked not having a good friend to not question my being because I felt suicidal.
There were so many instances of people who picked on me at Romeo High School, making fun of my appearance and judging me as a homosexual. Granted, I'm a straight man. But such homophobic remarks shouldn't be directed at anyone, especially if you don't know what their life is about.
I wasn't the only one, though. There were others who were beaten up and humiliated, having their glasses knocked off in an embarrassing fashion. Others were called "fags," "queers," and made to look effeminate. There were even slurs directed at Albanians, with classmates calling them "terrorists".
Even living in Romeo after high school, there were instances of ugliness and racism. There was an older gentleman who grew annoyed at me while I was driving down Main Street (I must've not driven to his liking). He caught wind of me listening to Dr. Dre and immediately called me a "ni**** lover." He drove off and laughed in a maniacal manner, even cutting me off.
The thing is that I'm not the only person who went through or is going through such trials and tribulations. Over 17% of teenagers have committed suicide. In fact, suicide overtook homicide as the second-most common death amongst teenagers in 2016.
In an age where social media is a daily part of most of our lives, it makes dealing with adolescence much tougher. When teenagers are posting about their lives on Instagram and TikTok, it leaves them open to severe judgment and bullying from their peers. As a result, it causes them to feel worthless and seek ways to end their suffering.
Yes, I've engaged in such horrid acts myself, making fun of people for being different. However, I apologize to those I've hurt and I will tell you that I was a complete idiot during my adolescent years (my mom would definitely attest to this).
Unfortunately, there are some who haven't changed a bit and still remain "young at heart." That was the case when I came across two loud drunk girls at my high school reunion. One of them made up a pretend boyfriend for a girl that I liked, which broke my naive heart. The other went up to me and yelled, "I'M SINGLE" for some reason. Luckily, that didn't draw my ire as much as it made me cringe.
What drew my ire at my "hometown" was when I made a Facebook post about jokingly "settling" some things at my High School reunion. That prompted a message from one of the organizers, saying that she and the others were concerned that I'd do something.
I know, the first thing I shouldn't have done was post something like that since people can't detect sarcasm over the internet. But it felt like I was still treated like an Elliot Rodger when I wouldn't do such a thing to anybody. Besides, I have no access to firearms nor do I have a general interest in such an activity. It felt like nobody knew who I really was.
Later, I learned that I wasn't the only person that dealt with unwarranted xenophobia and attacks. I joined a group centered around diversity and inclusion within the Romeo/Washington community and learned of many unpleasant stories shared by fellow Romeo High School alumni.
There were stories of members of the LGBT community being made fun of for their sexual orientation. There were stories of African Americans being called "ni****" by fellow classmates. Even football players, a beloved commodity in Romeo, weren't exempt, with the previously mentioned attacks applying here along with anti-Semitism.
One member said that "Romeo only cares about you if you're an athlete," which was a strong message about the town's priorities. The amount of hatefulness, racism, and evil emerging from these stories was overwhelming.
Then came the cherry on top. This was the famous Romeo Rock that's painted whenever someone has a birthday or there's a big game on Friday. During the summer of 2020, some residents painted "FUCK BLM NI*****" on the rock, prompting an upheaval and residents to guard the boulder.
If you're wondering about Romeo having a "country club" feel, then you're right. It felt like this for hundreds of residents in the small town that didn't fit the "white and straight" mold. It felt like they didn't have a chance to enjoy life with everyone else, only to be ridiculed and mocked for being different.
It isn't just the rock that was a problem in the community, though. It was also threatening to "fight a black boy" and wanting to bring their fellow "country boys" over. As mentioned in the article, such threats were found on social media, proving how ugly the platform can be for others.
What's strange is that Romeo wants to become this bigger town. Having just annexed Armada Township, the "small town" wants to be on the same level as Macomb, which has Macomb Dakota. If anybody in metro Detroit knows Dakota, it's that they're known for having an elite football program and strong athletics.
You see this with the wave of Romeo singers making it on The Voice or American Idol. It's not just the singers, though. It's also aspiring models and dancers who dance for big names like the Dallas Cowboys and Cirque du Soleil. However, I doubt that Dakota has blatant racism and hatred painted on their town rock (if they had one, that is). This "small town" doesn't deserve any superstars or celebrities with its bigotry problem.
On a more serious note, I'd like to ask fellow members of the Class of 2009 a few questions (even those that didn't graduate the same year as I can ask themselves these questions). What could you have done differently to make the lives of other people better back then? What could you have done to be more inclusive towards other people, not just those who were white, straight, and came from a middle-class family? Instead of supporting the pretty girl who went on to become an NFL cheerleader, will you support everyone in their journey to success?
I ask myself this every time I look back at my high school years. Hell, the past week has been going through my emotions and asking why I felt anger and rage. I know I was an asshole back then and I sincerely apologize. Again, my mom can attest to the fact that I wasn't the nicest person in high school. But I'm working on myself every day and learning to become a better person. Perhaps you can, too.
I'd also like to ask the faculty members in Romeo a few questions. In what ways will you or are you making your community better? Are you providing students with the necessary resources for when they experience bullying or discomfort? What will you do to ensure that toxic behaviors like toxic masculinity and bullying are reduced to nothing? Are there stronger disciplinary policies in place to discourage such behavior? It felt like students, specifically the more-popular people, joined causes like Peer Mediation just to earn style points rather than care for the well-being of others.
Finally, I'd like to ask the town of Romeo a couple of questions. Are you taking measures to care about providing an open environment for different communities, such as African Americans and those from the LGBT community? Does becoming the next hub of "celebrities" or your high school becoming the next Macomb Dakota matter to you as much as providing an inclusive community? If you truly want to become Michigan's version of Hollywood, you have some things you need to fix.
The truth is my experience living in Romeo sucked. Whether it was the myriad of meatheads trying to outdo the other lunkheads in toxic masculinity, the blatant homophobia, and racism coming from the populace, or my awful high school experience, I don't want to return to a place where I had a forgettable time growing up.
This is the life of many people who don't fit the "mold" in Romeo. They feel ostracized from Bulldog society because of their skin color or who they love. They don't get a chance to form meaningful bonds with other people because other people don't give them a chance.
That's why I'm thankful for leaving, like many others. I've met people from different backgrounds, experienced life in new places, and have grown as a person. I wouldn't have done this if I stayed in the same place with the same thing going on every day. Many others felt the same way after leaving, specifically if they were from the LGBT community.
Now, I'm more than willing to return to Michigan whenever I please. I love talking about how life is going with my family and seeing them (I don't plan on ever moving back, though). Many other Romeo ex-pats have left for places like Lake Orion and Rochester, i.e. communities that welcome them regardless of who they are. It doesn't matter if you're of a different sexual orientation or skin color, you're more welcomed there.
Now I'm not asking anyone to change their religious or political beliefs. What you want to believe in is what you want to believe in. I can't do that, even if I tried extremely hard. What I'm asking is for empathy and kindness for others, especially if they're different. Otherwise, you're not going to have many people on your side.