Breakthrough

Jack Andraka

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The summer before eighth grade also meant my return to math camp. This year’s camp was held in Wyoming, and during the first week, I met a boy named Anthony. He was smart and fun, and he had the same interests that I did. We quickly became great friends, but by the second week of camp, my feelings for him had grown into the more-than-friend territory. I liked him. I was getting the vibe that he liked me too. There was just something about the way he looked at me.

Never had I so enjoyed working on math problems with a partner. We laughed and talked as we raced through the quickest ways to solve problems. There were also these moments, like the one night when we were sitting together on the sofa watching the World Cup, and I could feel that tension building up in the pit of my stomach. I wanted so badly to tell him how I felt. He was accepting and kind, I told myself. It would be safe to be my true self around him.

“Anthony?” I said.
“Yeah?”
every time I tried, I just couldn’t gather my nerves. I was afraid talking about it would mess things up. “Oh, nothing.”

As time went on, I felt an increasing pressure to be honest with him about my feelings. I knew that after math camp was over, there was a chance I’d never see him again. What if my cowardice was jeopardizing what could be the greatest relationship ever?

Finally, on the very last day, I decided—Screw it, I got this. The whole camp was playing capture the flag. We were running together when I said, “Stop, there is something I need to tell you.”

“What?”

I wanted to tell him everything I had been feeling over the past month. I wanted to be open about who I was, but I couldn’t get it out. As the silence grew uncomfortably longer, he began to give me this confused look.

“Yeah?” he said, prompting me to speak.

I knew it was now or never.


"I’m gay,” I said.

He looked frozen. Now that I had gotten that out of the way, past the point of no return, I went for the kill.

“And I think you are pretty cute.”

“Okay,” he said. He took a step back. Then he turned around and ran in the other direction as fast as he could. I crouched down on the ground and covered my face with my hands.

He never spoke to me again.

I spent the flight home bawling my eyes out. No matter what I tried, nothing seemed to work. I began fearing that I had become that kid who spent time in his basement experimenting because there was no one who wanted to be his friend.

 

 

Over the next two years, I had seen my two best friends move away, been shunned and humiliated by my classmates, come out of the closet, attempted suicide, and lost one of the people I felt closest to in the whole world. I figured eventually things had to get better because I didn’t see how they could get much worse.

This year’s camp was being held in Colorado. On the first day of camp I met a counselor named Jim. He was smart and I liked the light, easy way that he spoke. Jim didn’t seem to have a care in the world. The first weekend of camp, we went on a field trip, and on the bus ride home, I overheard someone mention that Jim was gay. I couldn’t believe it. Unlike me, Jim seemed so well adjusted and devoid of any internal chaos. How did he do it? I wanted to learn more. As soon as I got back to my room, I wrote a two-page letter spilling my heart out. I told him about my struggles. About hiding my sexuality. About Anthony. When I was sure no one was looking, I quietly walked to his cabin and slipped the letter under his door.

A few days later, he pulled me aside.

“I got your letter,” he said, looking concerned. “Let’s talk.”

Jim told me his story. He had fought many of the same battles that I had, and he shared his experiences in coming out to his friends and family and overcoming the hatred people felt toward him. Jim was the first person who understood, intimately and personally, what I had been through. But more important than sharing the story of his past, Jim shared with me his hopes for the future. When I looked at Jim, I thought to myself that I, too, could have that kind of future, and more important, that I deserved it.

“Listen, Jack,” he said. “You are a smart kid. In the end, it is all going to work out.” Jim was the kind of guy who could explain complex math problems in simple language and remain calm in a sea of crazy teenagers. When he said that things would work out for me, I believed him. The two of us talked late into the night.

The last weeks of camp went by too quickly. On our final day, a group of campers and I decided we needed one last adventure. We piled into a car and drove up to Pikes Peak. I didn’t have the stomach to look down as the car climbed higher and higher. It was so high that even in the dead of summer, the road was coated with ice and snow. once we arrived at the top of the 14,115-foot mountain, we jumped out of the car and took positions behind the rocks and trees and started a massive snowball fight. When we were fully drenched with slush and hoarse from screaming and laughing, we retreated to a nearby doughnut shop. We sat, dripping, in one of the booths to dry off while we drank hot chocolate and ate doughnuts. sitting with my friends, I could see down to the surrounding peaks out the window. For the first time in a while, life felt easy.

That night was filled with long good-byes to all the new friends I had made. Before leaving for the airport, Jim approached me. He had one more piece of advice.

“You have heard a lot about my story and how I got through it,” he said. “But Jack, now this is your story. We all have our own paths, but the only one who can decide where it goes from here is you.”

Talking to Jim had helped me fully understand that there wasn’t anything about me as a person that needed to change. I was done with pretending to be something I wasn’t to make other people like me. In accepting that there really was nothing wrong with me, I could deal with the haters in a whole new light. I could choose to ignore them.

Breakthrough Jack Andraka