<i>MY NAME is Micah Johnson, and I guess you could say I’m a former arsehole.</i>
<i>If they had meetings for former arseholes, this is how I would introduce myself. I would have to stand in front of the group—I assume it would be a fair size, as there are many former arseholes, and even more who refuse to admit they are one—and freely admit my shame.</i>
<i>But I think I’ve overcome this shame now, or at least, I’m improving myself. I was once described as having “a chip on his shoulder the size of Uluru.” This cannot be understated. I was angry at the world, and truth be told, I sometimes still am. There is a lot to be angry about in the world. But there is also a lot to like.</i>
<i>You just have to find those things.</i>
<i>I felt I had a lot of reasons to be angry. The main one was that I was outed under what some might say were less than ideal circumstances, but the less said about that the better. I felt ashamed, and exposed, and rather than try to deal with that and move forward, I turned it inward. I thought it was better to act like a total shit and make people dislike me straightaway than have people come to dislike me of their own accord. Because I didn’t feel like I was likable. It was normal self-esteem issues, which I’m sure all of you sitting here understand. No teenager ever feels completely good about themselves.</i>
<i>It can be harder when you also happen to be gay. Peer pressure at high school is the worst, and you can find yourself doing or saying things to protect yourself rather than draw attention to yourself. The spotlight was already on me, so I was always on the attack.</i>
<i>I’m probably going off track here, and I know your teachers are probably shitting themselves at the amount of times I’ve sworn during this speech already, and I guess, like Britney, I just did it again. Oops. But I am here to use my powers for good instead of evil, and that’s why I’m doing this talk at your fine school today.</i>
<i>Maybe if I’d had a GSA at my school, like your principal is proposing, I would have found other ways to deal with it. Maybe not. But knowing it was there, that would have made a hell of a lot of difference.</i>
<i>I’m also a jock, as shocking as that may be to some of you who believe in the stereotypes associated with gay people. I’m sure you’ve heard of Declan Tyler, the ex-Bombers player. He runs a charity called GetOut, which has agreed to sponsor your GSA when it begins. GetOut have helped me a lot, especially when it comes to dealing with bullying in school.</i>
<i>Gay students, or even those who are suspected of being gay, are amongst the worst bullied in schools. GetOut wants to help those kids, gay or straight, and combat bullying both on the sports field and within the school environment.</i>
<i>I’m here because I know it works. If you had asked me six months ago, I would have said it didn’t. But that was because I wasn’t really giving it a proper go. Chip the size of Uluru, remember? The thing is, we all need help in our lives. And we have to know when to ask for it, instead of just thinking that we can deal with it by ourselves. Some issues are too big.</i>
<i>So if a GSA sounds like a thing that could help you, I encourage you to join it. If you are a member of the Friends of Dorothy gang like I am, GetOut also holds meetings and get-togethers where you’ll get to meet students from other schools across Melbourne. It may have started out to help gay kids who play sport, but it has become much more than that. And you’ll also get to meet Declan Tyler, and I know from experience that’s a pretty big drawcard.</i>
<i>I also know from experience that he really cares about the kids he mentors at GetOut. I would not be standing here talking to you today if he didn’t. But before I start singing “Kumbaya” and asking you all to hold hands, any questions?</i>
“I HAVE one” came a voice from the back of the auditorium.
Micah inwardly groaned and shielded his eyes from the light shining directly into them, so he could at least see her better.
Emma Goldsworthy, her long auburn hair tucked into a no-nonsense ponytail, stared at him without remorse. A veritable spider leading the fly into her web. Lucky she was actually his friend.
“Do you even go to this school?” Micah asked.
She waved that concern away. “As a former arsehole, what have you done to redeem yourself?”
At this line of questioning, the principal jumped up and pushed Micah aside from the lectern. “I think we’ve had enough of the foul language. From both the speaker and the questioners.”
“There’s only been one question,” Micah pointed out.
“Regardless,” said the harried-looking woman, who Micah had only been introduced to an hour before. “Maybe you can rephrase your question, Miss?”
“It’s Ms., actually,” Emma said with a wide smile that broached no prisoners.
The principal shook her head and allowed Micah to come back to the microphone.
“I said I was still trying to improve, not that I had magically turned into a better person overnight.”
“Oh, okay. So you think you are better than you were six months ago?”
By now the students were watching with more interest than they had when Micah was speaking before. Of course, they had perked up when Declan Tyler was mentioned, but they soon lost focus again. “I like to think I am,” Micah replied.
“And you think this has been due to GetOut?”
“Yes. I know it has.”
“Maybe we should let another student ask a question?” the principal yelled out, her voice carrying amazingly far throughout the auditorium even without a microphone.
“I didn’t know there was a limit?” Emma asked before she was silenced by a young-looking year eight boy standing up in front of her.
“You have a question?” Micah asked. “Hopefully not about me being an arsehole?”
He heard a strangled protest from the principal.
The boy grinned without guile. “What’s Declan Tyler really like?”
“THAT DIDN’T seem to go too bad,” Emma said as Micah approached her after the Q&A session—more about the exploits of Declan Tyler, AFL Legend™, than anything else—finally came to a close.
“It helped that I had a Dorothy Dixer,” he replied. “Thanks for coming, by the way. Having somebody start them off always helps.”
“No problem. Next time I have to give a talk, you can do the same for me.”
“Ugh, I was hoping I would never have to do this again.”
“It’s part of giving back to GetOut, remember?”
“The cult of Declan Tyler, you mean.”
“Which you’re a card-carrying member of,” Emma reminded him. “Don’t you diss Dec. I know you love him. That man has done more for you—”
Micah held up his hands. “I know, I know. The guy is seriously the best.”
“Why, thank you,” Dec said drily, from behind him.
Micah jumped at the sound of his voice and glared at Emma for not warning him of Dec’s arrival. She cheekily gave him jazz hands. “Surprise! Didn’t I tell you Dec could make it?”
“Must have slipped your mind,” Micah said through gritted teeth.
“I’m running a cult now, am I?” Dec, as usual, didn’t seem perturbed. Laid-back was his natural resting state.
Micah, who had gone through another growth spurt, still had to look up to meet Dec’s eyes. “A good one! You’re not like… I don’t know, the Church of Scientology or something.”
“We should put that on the pamphlets,” Emma said. “<i>GetOut: We’re not Scientologists.</i>”
“It’s a ringing endorsement,” Dec agreed. “‘Not as bad as other cults!’—Micah Johnson.”
Micah nervously scratched his nose. “What are you doing here, anyway? Checking up on me?”
“Settle, Gretel,” Emma warned.
“I guess you could call it checking up on you, but really I just wanted to show my support.”
“Yeah, remember the last time you had to give a speech?” Emma asked.
“Thanks, Emma.” Micah hated being reminded about freezing in fear at a fun run raising money for GetOut, and taking off from the stage before finishing his first sentence. Just one more memory of him fucking things up.
“I’m just saying, you’ve come a long way.”
“Listen to Emma,” Dec said. “She’s smart.”
“Smarter than me, you’re saying.”
“Well…,” Dec said.
“You’re a better footy player than me,” Emma offered.
Dec laughed but stopped when Micah shot him a withering look.
“Mr. Tyler! Mr. Johnson!” came an exasperated voice from behind them. It was the beleaguered principal of the school.
“Carla,” Dec said warmly. “How are you?”
“Already fielding complaints about your boy here,” Carla said. If looks could kill, Micah would have been laid out on the floor.
“What did I do?” Micah asked, and Emma giggled.
“Oh, it’s not just you, it’s your little cohort too!”
“Me?” Dec asked.
“No, her!” Carla cried, pointing at Emma.
“Me?” Emma asked, all innocence.
“There were parents and media in that audience,” Carla said. “They had been invited especially because we wanted to help you get your message across. That language was unacceptable!”
“Arsehole?” Micah asked. “It’s a pretty common Aussie colloquialism. I’m sure they’ve all heard it before.”
“Micah,” Dec warned.
Instantly, Micah turned. His tone became more honeyed, his stance more rigid, and his body language less threatened and wary. “Carla, I’m really sorry. I just wanted to get through to them, you know? So I was speaking to them like I speak to my friends. If I crossed the line, I really do apologise, and I’m happy to write a formal response to include in your next newsletter. Or come to your next assembly and do it in person.”
Astounded, Emma picked her jaw up off the floor. Even Dec looked stunned.
Carla appeared somewhat mollified. “Well, thank you. I don’t think I’d want the risk of you appearing at another assembly, but a letter….”
“Micah, why don’t you and Emma go to the milk bar across the road, and I’ll meet you there when I’ve spoken to Carla?” Dec asked, taking Carla by the arm. They could hear him say, “Let’s talk about the specifics….”
“I suppose I could kill a milkshake,” Micah said.
Emma was still lost for words, but he knew it wouldn’t last long.