While every person is entitled to his secrets, no one should have to feel silenced for fear of judgment from others, confesses Yeewen New.
Whether I walk down the school hallway, stop by my neighborhood’s grocery store, or read a book in a local coffee shop, I often wonder about the stories behind the faces around me. Watching a young woman argue heatedly into her phone, or observing the exasperated way the Starbucks barista runs a hand through his thinning hair, I think: What struggles are you hiding behind your mask? What secrets are you hiding in your life?
For a while, comparable to Beloved’s Paul D with his tobacco tin box, I hid a fair share of my life away in my heart. At the beginning of sophomore year in high school, my father was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a terminal illness that would take away his ability to use his hands, arms, and eventually all motor functions. Although I was committed to taking care of him at home, I was embarrassed to go out in public with him.
What would my peers think of his atrophied arms and trembling hands, of how he needed my mother’s assistance to zip up his coat and even use the bathroom? Looking back now, I feel ashamed of my immature attitude toward his illness, but I can still vividly recall my desperation in wanting to keep him home at one of my school’s parent nights, away from my classmates’ curious eyes.
A few weeks later, I attended a convention that would drastically alter the way I felt about my father and my peers around me. Among over a thousand fellow high schoolers at the diversity conference, I watched as a stream of students approached the open microphone to share their secrets, fears and the prejudices they faced because of their race, socioeconomic status, or disability.
One girl shared her fear of being judged by her private school classmates if they discovered that her father was the cab driver that took her home every day. One boy came out as gay for the first time, in front of an entire audience of strangers.
Do you too feel a guilty embarrassment about your secrets?
The story that resonated with me most, however, was one girl’s confession of the simultaneous protectiveness and guilty embarrassment that she felt toward her autistic brother. Her honest admission to an auditorium full of strangers helped me recognize the immaturity in my fear of revealing my father’s condition. When all fourteen hundred students at the conference raised two fingers to show solidarity for one another, I started to understand that we needed to accept the people around us as they are. Though I struggled with how the disease affected my father, I realized that its manifestations had become a part of him; I needed to come to terms with his condition while supporting him unconditionally.
As I began to reach this conclusion, I also realized how many of my fellow students, like me, hid aspects of their personal lives from others for fear of shame and judgment.
Are you too keeping a secret about someone’s illness?
A year later, I founded an after-school program, aiming to ensure that the middle school students I taught would never feel pressured into suppressing a part of themselves. During a workshop discussing disabilities, Benjie, a 6th grader, suddenly announced without any seeming fear to the class that his father was paralyzed from the waist down, his brother was blind in one eye, and his sister was autistic. His lack of hesitation showed his unconditional love for his family. Moved by Benjie’s bravery, I opened up about my father’s story to the class as well. When I looked into my students’ eyes, I saw none of the judgment I had anticipated from my school peers on that parent night so long ago — only compassion and kindness.
Share the secrets about your life without fear of judgment
I was lucky to have found two such safe spaces in both the diversity conference auditorium and the sixth-grade classroom, places where one could share any aspect of his life without fear of judgment. In daily life, however, such a naturally supportive community is a rarity indeed.
Everyone has hidden aspects of their lives that others are unaware of. While every person is entitled to his secrets, no one should have to feel silenced for fear of judgment from others.
When I walk the stage this June to accept my diploma, officially graduating at setting off to study at Columbia University, I will look out into the audience and meet my father’s gaze with a smile. That tobacco tin box will be opened, and I will no longer hide.
What secrets are you hiding behind your mask? Share your stories with us!