Interview with My Stepfather

October 7, 2013
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The cool crisp air, the delicious smell of dinner still lingering in the house, and the sun setting on the horizon marked the ending of a perfect autumn day. After dinner, I sat down on the couch beside my stepfather with a tape recorder in my hand and my pen positioned on top of a notepad. He was wearing a white button-down shirt with a dark blue tie and khaki pants. He just came back from work, and his face was lined with exhaustion. However, he relaxed and his eyes twinkled when I started asking questions about his past. He recalled distant memories about his adolescence and friends. Michael Dwyer’s high school experiences taught him to get involved in different activities, to think independently, and to stand up for what he believes.

Michael Dwyer was born in 1971 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and grew up in a Catholic family. His father was a medical doctor, and his mother was a computer consultant. He was about three when his family moved to Indianapolis, Indiana. He is currently a Japanese teacher, but he is also licensed to teach Earth & Space Science, Social Studies, and Anthropology. He attended North Central High School, on the north side of Indianapolis. In high school, Michael was interested in science and National Geographics. “My favorite class was actually a botany class; that’s where we studied about plants. My teacher said I was the best student he had ever had,” he recalled fondly. He said that being interested in photography and traveling influenced his decision to try to become a photographer for National Geographics. Gesturing with his hands, he explained, “To travel and take pictures has always been a dream of mine, so I wanted to major in photojournalism. Things changed along the way. I was a little bit undecided here and there. I did take a lot of science and anthropology/archaeology classes. I enjoyed that a lot.” His parents and peers were also a big influence on Michael’s attitude throughout high school. He said that his parents wanted him to do well in school and encouraged him to get good grades. His father, who was very religious, encouraged him to go to the Catholic youth group activities, which he really enjoyed. The relationship between Michael and his best friend, Joe Wang, affected his attitude as well and made him begin to think about things in a more realistic way. “Joe Wang got me into the chess club, and he was a really good chess player. I played him a lot, and he almost always beat me. It was a little bit competitive between us, but in a fun way. We enjoyed doing those things. He was actually a year older than me, so he went off to college at Purdue. That made me really start thinking about college in a more serious way,” he said thoughtfully. Michael was interested in Japanese animation, so he went to some club meetings for that. He read Japanese comic books and manga in his free time. He was also in some musicals and school plays in high school. With a proud smile on his face, Michael mentioned that he took more pictures for the yearbook than anybody else in his senior year, so it was pretty cool.

Being involved in different extracurricular activities in high school helped Michael to learn to be more outgoing and open up a little bit. Unlike most teenage boys, Michael was not an athlete in high school. He played soccer in middle school, but when he got to high school, North Central was such a big school that even though he showed up at all the practices in the first year, it was just too competitive and he never got to play in the games. There were so many good players that he could not compete with, so he just decided to do other things. In a soft voice, he admitted that he was a little introverted when he first started high school, so getting involved in club activities helped him learn to socialize and become more open-minded. “As the photographer for the yearbook, I got to meet a lot of people I would not normally have met, from all different groups, even the really popular kids. I was welcomed by them, and I also had the chance to go to a lot of activities that I might not otherwise have gone to. It was a lot of fun,” he continued in an animated voice. His eyes lit up with confidence as he told me that the best thing that happened to him in high school was when he passed the audition for The Music Man and realizing he could actually do something like that. Michael was also in the school band. He was the only one who played bass clarinet and the only one who marched bass clarinet in the marching band. He benefitted from participating in different events. “If I had just been shy and stayed at home, I would not have seen a lot of things. But by doing extracurricular activities, I got out into the community. I made a lot of friends that way. It also looked good for college, and it was fun,” he concluded thoughtfully. Getting involved in the yearbook and other extracurricular activities helped Michael to learn to manage his time and become a little less timid, and passing the auditions for the musicals helped him realize his potential to become anything he wanted to be.

Michael’s high school experiences also taught him to think independently, to stand up for what he believes, and to be responsible for his actions. Chuckling, he said that even something as silly as seeing an undercover student publication secretly distributed by some of his friends can affect a person’s values. He realized that the administrators are not always right, and sometimes people, even students, should stand up for what they think is right. They could have a voice of their own. That was not a lesson he could learn in the classroom; it was more about the social and moral sides of it. He learned to think independently, and that was an important lesson for his coming of age. Frowning at the memory, Michael said that he was bullied in elementary school and middle school because of his small size. But by the time he got to high school, he had finally started growing. He was not the smallest kid in the class anymore. “When I saw my middle school bully again in high school, he tried to crash into me in the hallway but I braced myself and he bounced off me, surprised that I have grown. He did not bully me again after that,” he said with a relieved sigh and a grin, wiping a hand across his eyebrow. The experience of being bullied and finally standing up to the bully made Michael realize that unfortunately, sometimes the only thing that stops bullying is when the bully realizes he is not an easy target. Sometimes he really had to defend himself to prevent becoming a victim. Michael felt that he did his best for most things, and if he could go back in time, he would not change too much. However, he looked away a little uncomfortably as he told me about one mistake he would like to change. He fidgeted nervously as he stuttered, “Once, there was a really mean girl who said some very mean things to me and played a bad trick on me. After that, I said something heartlessly cruel to her that I did not even believe that could’ve come out of my mouth. I regretted that for many years. Only about a year ago, I connected with her on Facebook and apologized to each other. We forgave each other, so now I do not have that regret anymore. If one goes off in the wrong direction in life, he or she often cannot go back and change that. Even if he or she tries to go back and get a GED or try to fix things, it often does not work out as well and he or she might miss chances. I think that people should try to ask for forgiveness if possible, then they will not have as many regrets. Sometimes it’s not possible, but if it is, try to.” Coming of age is all about making mistakes. Michael’s experiences of being bullied and meeting new people taught him to be more open-minded and independent, to stand up for what he believes is right, and to decide the kind of person he wanted to be.

In some countries, one becomes an adult at a certain age. In the Jewish faith, one comes of age at about thirteen, when he or she has his or her bar mitzvah, and he or she is an adult. In Japan, when one reaches twenty, he or she is an adult. But in America, we tend to break it down into several different categories. One has to be sixteen years old to drive; one has to be eighteen years old to vote; and one has to be twenty-one years old to drink. When Michael was eighteen, he did not really feel completely like an adult. He was still dependent on his parents for financial support and in so many ways that he did not feel very independent yet. Going off to college, however, was a point and time when he was finding independence for himself. He was living away from his parents and making his own choices. When he finally went off to live in Japan after college, he really felt like he was an adult. “I was completely independent, making my own money, living away from my family,” he concluded. “So that was certainly the coming of age moment for me.” Michael’s coming of age experiences in high school provided him with the independence, skills, and wisdom to be successful when he became an adult. As I wrote down his last words, I thanked him again for his time and reflected on what he had said. When I grow up, I want to become a person like my stepfather. I want to try my best in everything I do and experience different things. I will follow his advice to try to take advantages of the good opportunities that life has to offer. Nobody makes perfect choices, but I will try to make the choices that I would be proud of later in life.

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