Johnson at MIT
Meet Johnson, an Independence High School Camp Everytown alum, who is finally telling his story...
"Growing up I was naïve and excited about everything around me; where I thought cartoons and happy meals were the best things in life. I was pretty social, had some good friends, was OK in school. I always had a smile at school because it was my outlet. It was my safe place to be that wasn’t home.
I was living in a home with domestic violence, abuse and poverty – and being a naïve kid, I thought it was normal – but that doesn’t mean those things didn’t affect me. My mom had a gambling addiction and my dad had a life of secrets and adultery. Almost every night there was fighting – the hearing of breaking dishes became routine. I could take the loud arguments, but when my parents got physical, it left a scar. Instead of happy childhood memories, most of what I can remember was trying to pull my dad off my mom.
When I went on to middle school, I had a new fresh chance to start over. We’d moved so I went to a different school. This was my chance to focus more on my grades and surround myself with good influences and I was doing just that. I had a 3.8 GPA, all A’s except in math, and I made new friends easily. My school life was better, but sadly my home life was just getting worse. My dad had left us and my older sister moved out. That was when I started to experience the awful things that went on at home by myself. There were times we didn’t have electricity or water at home, let alone anything in the fridge.
And my mom’s new boyfriend had a gambling addiction too, so fighting was inevitable.
This violence didn’t make it easy to do homework, but again, school was my outlet. I relied on my friends for happiness and tried to stay away from home after school as much as possible.
Luckily, my confidence was building due to my success at school. At the age of 12, I felt comfortable enough to tell people at school that I was gay. Of course I did experience some hate, but I wasn’t bullied too much because I had a good amount of friends and overall I was OK. Even though I had the confidence to come out, I still didn’t have the confidence to tell someone about what was happening at home. I told myself “Why do I need to? I can handle it. I don’t want to be a burden or a “downer”, I’ve always been that person who loves to make people laugh and smile; and most of all I thought it was all normal. I thought parents had a right to call you horrible names and that every dad got physical with their wife -- I thought it was all okay. I thought feeling worthless was okay but then later, I believed I was worthless.
In the beginning of 8th grade, I was arrested for the first time in my life. I just didn’t care anymore. I hung out with the wrong crowd and made some bad decisions, many of which were illegal. As I was being talked to by law enforcement, all I can think about in my head was “No one cares about me, so why should I care.” After my arrest, I had an epiphany. I remember just telling myself I’m not going to be the bad person that my mom said I was and I wanted to show my dad what he’s been missing out on by leaving. So I started making better decisions, hung out with more positive friends and I was able to graduate middle school with a 4.0. I finally got that “A” in math class I’d been dreading. My mom was shocked! Of course she didn’t say she was proud of me, but it was still the best reaction I ever got from her.
High school was a new adventure and another chance to make a fresh start, and I started my first year at Independence High School in east side San Jose with a new mindset: to help others. I joined multiple organizations including local clubs in high school and organizations outside of school that focused in public service. I felt like I finally had a purpose in life. I was supported and complimented by manyy people for the commitment I had. I was able to experience some amazing opportunities, and one was Camp Everytown. It was an experience I will never forget.
To be honest, my intentions with Camp Everytown weren’t the greatest. I said to myself “Yes! I get to skip school and get free food? Hell yeah Im going.” Never thought I would be returning to school as a changed person. I came to camp thinking we were going to do the stereotypical activities we see in movies: making bracelets and singing around a campfire, but boy was I wrong… Camp Everytown was raw. We did activities about real issues affecting society, youth and ourselves - both the good and the bad, no sugar coating. I was blown away. Never would I have thought that adults would be talking to us about these issues at our age, let alone that we students would start to open up like we did. There was crying, hugs and tons of emotions erupted from people I never expected.
One activity we did that really hit me was the privilege line, where we all held hands and were asked a series of questions. Some examples were if you ever had to worry about your next meal take a step back and if you were ever told by your parents that they loved you and were proud of you, take one step forward. In the end, if you were standing in the back, you were the least privileged and if you were in the front you were the most privileged. I ended up in the middle-back, but boy was I astonished, looking around some of my friends were standing all the way in the back and my heart dropped. These people I knew who had the brightest smiles at school were standing there. They had gone through things I could never have imagined and some similar things that I’d experienced. It was in that moment, I felt my mind being opened for the first time.
Being caught up in the cycles of my chaotic life, I wasn’t aware of my surroundings -- all I could think about was me. But in that moment, looking back and seeing my friends at the back of the privilege line, I realized this is happening all around me.
Several activities after that, as we all got closer, and I felt safe enough to tell my story to one other student. I can remember my voice trembling as I was trying to hold my tears and the weight lifting off my shoulders as I felt I’ve been carrying this heavy backpack my whole life. I was only able to tell him, though, because I felt safe knowing that the people around me would understand and that I wasn’t the only one going through this stuff. I made tons of new friends from my own school and students from Foothill High school who attended camp with us. And I am proud to say I still keep in touch with them today. Going back home, I looked at the world in a whole new light. I felt enlightened and excited about life again. I became more compassionate towards other people and became more empathetic to their problems no matter how big or small - even if I couldn’t relate to them personally.
Towards the end of my sophomore year, I finally snapped. I was tired of everything and felt helpless. I had nothing to live for. I attempted to end my life. It was a really bad time. Afterward, when talking with the support center at school, I felt numb. I felt no one genuinely cared. Just people trying to make sure I wasn’t crazy.
After that, I didn’t feel anything anymore. I stopped going to school all together for the last month. In my junior year, I officially dropped out. I felt like I was in a vortex of darkness that no one could understand and that boy who was once naïve and happy was gone.
It took time, but through good friends, I began to have hope again. I had that memory of Camp Everytown and the moment where I realized that I’m not the only one going through things, that other people have power to keep going so why can’t I? The moment where I am able to tell people what’s going on with me. I rushed to a computer and I emailed my school counselor and poured everything out to her - that I wanted to have a second chance to go back to school and to graduate with my friends. My counselor helped me get back on track with school. That was the moment I finally started to feel like my life could mean something again.
I got back into school courses and was back at city hall, but this time with a paid internship. I actually had two jobs then so that I could buy a car!! That was huge after using public transportation my whole life! I felt OK for once in my life, where I wasn’t worrying too much and that I was on the right path.
Believe it or not, I did graduate with my friends and with honors. At senior honor night, I spoke in front of everyone about my story and I ended my speech with a quote. A quote I follow and hold dearly. Muhammed Ali once said “I hated every minute of training, but then I said ‘Don’t quit - suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” At that moment I felt like a champion. That was in 2014.
A lot has changed since then - a new outlook on life. Telling my counselor my story gave me the courage to open up to others and I am blessed to have gained countless friends and mentors on the way who helped me become who I am now.
A few months ago, I was able to visit Boston to visit one of my mentors - my first time ever visiting the east coast. I was able to visit places like Harvard and MIT, places I’ve only dreamed of visiting. In Boston, the memory of Camp Everytown arose again. Because of what I learned about myself in those 4 days, and being able to share and open up with others, I was given so many opportunities and even that amazing visit to Boston and to stay with people who care about me.
Camp Everytown made a huge impact on me. Sure I made friends and people cried, but more than that, it lit a fire inside me that I didn’t know was there. Camp Everytown gave me the tools in here to allow myself to connect to others. That’s a big part of what saved me – the people who heard my story -- heard me -- and cared. I learned to open my mind to what’s going on around me, to be self-aware, and to be brave. The result is that I have built my own support system and a family I’ve always wanted. And with that I say thank you FACES and to the Camp Everytown Family.
Moving forward, I want to inspire other youth who don’t have that support system, who think they don’t matter, just like how I felt all my life. Guess what? They do matter. No matter where you come from, what you’ve been through, the color of your skin, your gender, your sexual orientation, we all deserve to know that we matter. Just like one of my mentors always says “I Matter. You Matter."