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Toot Toot!

When I was in 7th grade, I moved up to the junior high school (Worley Junior High School in Westwego, LA). In 6th grade, I had two teachers that taught us all the subject. Moving to 7th grade where we had seven different teachers took some getting used to. In elementary school, I loved P.E. class. Ms. Young was our P.E. teacher and she was my favorite teacher. She is one of the main reasons I am a teacher today. She told me I could do whatever I put my mind to and she is the first person that told me I should be a teacher. She often would let me come and teach the younger kids during their P.E. period. 

At Worley, we had to take P.E. as one of our classes or we could be in the band. And you guessed it, I wanted to be in the band more than anything but my mom said I couldn’t because I already played piano. I was already taking lessons in piano and paying money for another instrument wasn’t something my mom wanted to do. I understand that completely. But P.E. in 7th grade was much different than Ms. Young’s P.E. class. There was a locker room and we had to change in front of our peers and that is something that terrified me. There was one other boy who I was friends with in my P.E. class and I truly think he was equally scared of the locker room. We always got our lockers next to each other and we would talk to each other and try to ignore everyone else as we changed.

One day as I was leaving the gym, I passed the band hall and the band teacher was outside. As I passed by I told her I wanted to be in the band so bad but my mom said I couldn’t. She asked me why and I told her it was because I already played piano. She told me that I could play piano and the band and sent me to the office to change my schedule. Not only did I get to join the band, but I also didn’t have to go to gym class ever again! I marched to the office and asked if my schedule could be changed and they changed me from P.E. to band! I didn’t even ask my mom if it was ok because I would be playing the piano! Since I was playing the piano in the band, it didn’t matter what period I was in, and I ended up in the 8th-grade band. This is where I met one of my best friends from junior high, Shantelle.

Quickly, the joys of being in the band faded. I didn’t realize when I signed up that what I would be doing was sitting in a small room self-teaching myself piano. The teacher told me to bring my lesson books and use the time for practice for my lessons. So each day, I would sit at a keyboard for an hour and just play out of my Bastien piano books. It was SOOOOOOOO boring! At the end of class, she would come in and ask me what I learned and every once in a while she would ask me to play something for her.

Throughout the next months, I had rare opportunities where I got to speak to the teacher, and as the weeks went by I got more and more jealous of all of the kids playing instruments while I sat in a small room isolated. It was sometime in November when she came in and told me that someone had dropped out of band and she had an extra clarinet—she asked me if I wanted to bring it home over the weekend and see if I could learn some notes. Well, the rest is history. I walked into the house and put that clarinet together, opened the Essential Elements book, and started blowing! I spent the whole weekend learning how to play.

I returned to school on Monday ready to play. But, don’t forget, I was in the 8th-grade band! I was able to keep up though! My instructor told me I was a natural and let me know there was an honor band try-out in a few weeks. She stayed with me after school several times helping me with the tryout music and I made first chair!

Here I am, about to be 37 on March 14th, and I am a professional musician. I really owe a lot of that to this moment. The clarinet has brought me so much joy for so many years. Without this teacher finding a way for me to get an instrument in my hands, I would have never had the chance to learn. Thank you so much for believing in me. Thank you for being a great teacher and pushing me to be a better musician. I appreciate it so much!

Westley Hodges (they/them)
© 2020, Westley Hodges (whodges@westleyhodges.com)

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What are you looking at, faggot?

Have you ever felt like you were in a room and everyone in that room hated you? Well, welcome to 2nd grade, Westley. I remember it like it was yesterday. 2nd grade is such a big step in our educational journey, and I felt like I didn’t fit in with any of my peers. Reading is more challenging, you start diving into our country’s history, and your handwriting begins its journey in cursive writing. I was in a special program called Rabbit Readers; this was a program that helped students that struggled with reading. Once a week, we were pulled out of class and brought into a room to help develop our reading skills. I enjoyed this group, mainly because everyone in this group struggled with reading. It was a safe place—but once that hour session was over, we returned to our regular class.

Every day in class, our teacher would have each student read a paragraph aloud in front of the class. I remember the feeling of anxiety as the game of Reading Roulette started. I wouldn’t even listen to my peers read; I would count the paragraphs and start trying to read the words in my head where I could get through it when it was my turn. Ok, I am next. I began reading, and about every three words, I would stop, and the teacher would help me sound out the word. 

The laughter began. 

I continued. 

The laughter grew. 

The laughter that I still hear to this day when I read aloud. The laughter that I hear right now while I am writing this very sentence. Friends, the laughter never stops. I promise. But, we have a choice to allow the laughter to affect us negatively. And, if I could travel back in time, I would have stood up, put my reading glasses on, and went down the row and read every one of those ugly children for filth! 

His name was Larry. One of the alpha males in my 2nd-grade class. He was never mean to me, and I don’t think he meant to hurt me—but he did. We were in the restroom, at the urinal (I hate urinals, they are so disgusting, and I think they should be banned), and he started screaming at me. “What are you looking at, faggot?” This was the first time in my life that I was called a faggot, definitely not the last. I didn’t know what the word meant, but I knew it was terrible, and it was meant to hurt me—and it did. I remember running out of the restroom and running into my teacher’s arms. She embraced me, and I told her what happened. She did nothing to Larry—just told everyone that the restroom is not a playground. 

It amazes me how vivid these memories are—why do bad memories overpower the good memories? I don’t know the answer; now, I focus on the positive and try not to give the negative any of my attention. That is difficult, it takes practice, but you have to start by celebrating the joy in your life. If you only look at the negative, you will miss all of the joy in your life.

© 2020, Westley Hodges (whodges@westleyhodges.com)

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Preface

I always knew I was different. I knew I wasn’t like all the other boys—or girls at that matter. But, I never thought of myself as special, talented, or unique until later in my life. If you had asked me if I thought I was special when I was in the 8th-grade, I would have probably responded with a firm no. I was broken, confused, and always stayed on the negative side of the road. The pain that I caused myself by allowing others’ voices to control my narrative was unbearable—and I am thankful that there was an ounce of strength buried within me that saved me from taking my life. Every day of my life, I would come home from school and feel sorry for myself—the bullying I went through was cruel and harmful. I am so thankful for the people in my life, like Darci (you will hear about her later), that loved me for my authentic self and let me know that I was important and unique. Words cannot express my gratitude to these amazing people in my life.

A lot has changed since my years as a confused young boy—lots! I was always one that immediately went to the negative side of every situation—I was my own victim. A victim of my own emotions, and I didn’t realize until later in life that I had more control of my reactions than I thought. Recently I was diagnosed with OCPD (Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder), and my life was changed. Knowing what is causing you to react the way you do is the biggest blessing one can receive. I always struggled with self-doubt and compromising my views on situations, and my reactions would get the best of me.

I have had a great career as a musician in the Episcopal Church and performed in some pretty swanky places. But even though I found success in my life, I always felt something missing. What was missing was happiness, joy, and self-approval—and I hope that as you read this blog, you will see how I figured out how to get on the other side of the road—the side of the road that is full of sunshine, love, and positivity. Now, don’t get me wrong; life isn’t always sunshine and daisies! Yes, I still have hard days and struggles, but I focus on the positive, focusing on my reactions to my reactions. I realize I have a lot more control than I thought.

Thank you for listening to my journey. I hope it is helpful to you in yours. A lot of stories to come!

Peace,

Westley

© 2020, Westley Hodges (whodges@westleyhodges.com)

Just swallow the baby…

Growing up in New Orleans, you learn how to eat spicy food at an early age, and you know that January 6 is the first day you can buy a King Cake. Since I moved from the South, my mom has sent me a Haydel’s Bakery King Cake on January 6 each year. I currently live in Chicago, and people always ask me why I am getting a King Cake so early! In New Orleans, the Mardi Gras season goes from January 6 to Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday). The King Cakes are available on January 6, and the street parades begin to roll. There are hundreds of street parades and second lines throughout Mardi Gras.

There is a lot of controversy over which bakery has the best King Cake in New Orleans, but Haydel’s is my favorite. And, to be fair, you should know I am eating a piece right now! Every time I bite into a piece, I’m reminded of home, reminded of many great times when I shared a piece of my King Cake with friends and colleagues, and I am reminded how much I miss New Orleans.

This year it hits a little harder. As I opened the box and gave my partner Joe all of the Mardi Gras beads and doubloons, I could feel my sadness come forward. Besides traveling home for three days for my mom’s triple bypass surgery, I have not been with my family in over a year. I miss them. I miss the food, the laughter, and mostly, the hugs. I would give anything to hug my mom today. But, remember, I have a King Cake… so it is all good!

When I was in elementary school, each class would have a King Cake every Friday. If I remember correctly, the teacher brought the first one on the first Friday of the season. After that, whoever got the baby had to bring the King Cake the next Friday, which continued until the Friday before Fat Tuesday. When it was your Friday to bring the King Cake, it meant that you were the classroom’s royalty for that day. You got to wear a crown, and you got to cut the King Cake and serve it to your classmates.

Now, listen—I love being royalty, but mostly I just wanted to cut the King Cake and serve everyone! I enjoyed all the attention! But—here is the thing—I don’t think our parents wanted us to get the baby. It meant that they had to purchase a fresh King Cake on Friday morning and bring us to school to ensure it made it there safely. Also, they had to buy it, which was a hardship for some families.

Our favorite bakery growing up was McKenzie’s. I don’t think I tried a Haydel’s King Cake until later in life. McKenzie’s closed in 2001, which was a sad day for New Orleans. McKenzie’s was known for its amazing King Cakes as well as their Buttermilk Drop. OMG… the Buttermilk Drops!

The McKenzie King Cake was so big! The extra-large King Cake barely fit in our car’s trunk! And, if I remember correctly, I think it cost $8. I loved walking into the bakery and smelling the fresh baked goods and picking up that huge piece of cardboard holding this giant cake that I would get to serve to my classmates. Although I love this experience, I don’t think it was my mom’s favorite activity…

Each year, my mom would tell me not to get the baby, which it is impossible to avoid getting the baby. Getting the baby means that a plastic baby was hiding in your piece! Well, she had a plan for that as well. She would tell me that if I got the baby, I needed to swallow it! Swallow a plastic baby! Now, if you know my mom, you know she has a fantastic sense of humor, and I know she was joking. I still laugh when I think about it.

When other kids would get the baby, I would beg them to give it to me. Sometimes kids would give it to me because their parents told them not to bring it home. Every Mardi Gras season, I would usually get the baby a few times, sometimes organically, but most of the time because I begged for it!

This story always makes me smile. This year is hard with COVID-19—but at least I got a King Cake!

Westley Hodges (they/them)
© 2020, Westley Hodges (whodges@westleyhodges.com)

Dancing through life…

When I was a kid, I never stopped dancing. As soon as I was in my bedroom—with the door closed, of course—I would be twirling and doing the splits. I don’t recall ever seeing anyone dance, other than dancers in the music videos my brothers would watch, but I always loved dancing. From dancing to cassette tapes that my dad had of 1950’s music, to dancing to the demo songs on my Casio keyboard, I was always dancing.

One of my favorite times of the year was when I would have a break from school, and I got to spend a week with my Aunt Bertha. Aunt Bertha is my mom’s youngest sister, and at the time, she had two girls. She had a son later in life, but I was grown by the time he was in the picture. Usually two-three times a year, I would go to their house for a whole week. I called it “vacation.”

I am going to reflect on two stories about their house in this post. They are both significant to my queerness, and I just want to say how much I am grateful for my Aunt Bertha and how much I love her. I am not sure if I have ever told her how much she means to me and how much her love and compassion helped me while growing into the queer human I have become.

The first story happened when I was four or five, and I was on one of my week-long vacations in Myrtle Grove, LA. Myrtle Grove is on Hwy 23, and it is on the way to Venice, LA, which is the closest you can drive to the mouth of the Mississippi River. There is one way into Myrtle Grove and one way out, and the nearest grocery store was a 20-30 minute drive. Aunt Bertha had two daughters: Angel, three years older than me, and Tiffany, three years younger than me. Angel and I were best friends, but our relationship was always hot or cold. At the beginning of my stay, I would move into her room with her, but by the end, we would be clawing each other’s eyes out. As I said, we were best friends!

One night we were on the bed playing “beauty shop”—this is where we would do each other’s hair and makeup. We had hot rollers going, and we were open for business! Everything was going great until I rolled off the bed and hit my head on the corner of a speaker. Blood was running down my neck, and I remember everyone screaming. Aunt Bertha ran to the phone and called my mom, and I am sure the conversation went something like this: Girl, he done busted his head wide open! 

Then Aunt Bertha asked me if I wanted to go home, and I boldly replied: 

No! I am on vacation! 

This story is special to me because it reminds me of how much I loved being in their home. They were like the sisters I never had. I love them very much.

The second story happened when I was probably seven or eight. When I would visit, our school schedules didn’t always align since we were in different school districts. On this one particular trip, Angel and Tiffany had school the whole week I was there. So while they were at school, I had to entertain myself, which isn’t hard to do at their house. They live on the bayou, so you could walk out the door and go fishing…and there were tons of other things to do!

Angel took dance classes. She always took dance and was always performing in recitals. I had never seen a dance class, much less taken one, but one of the days of this trip, I decided to see if her tap shoes would fit my feet. Well, they didn’t! But, I didn’t give up, I squeezed my foot into them—sorry, Angel! For probably an hour, I tapped my heart out using Angel’s cassette tape from her dance class. I didn’t know what I was doing, but what I felt was freedom. And then, out of nowhere, Aunt Bertha slung the door open and asked me what I was doing. I just looked at her… She smiled at me and said: I won’t tell anyone. You keep dancing, honey.

I remember this moment like it was yesterday. 

Freedom. 

I wasn’t a boy in her eyes; I was me. Gender had nothing to do with it—she knew I was having fun, and she let me have fun. Thank you, Aunt Bertha. I love you so much, and I hope you know how much you mean to me. 

© 2020, Westley Hodges (whodges@westleyhodges.com)

Pick a side…it’s just gender.

I would like to preface this post by saying I have identified as non-binary and queer for a very long time. I struggle with proclaiming my pronouns as they/them/theirs because I have watched other people in my vocation struggle with it in their churches. You see, I direct music in the Episcopal Church—a church that is very affirming of the LGBTQIA+ community. I direct the choir and the handbell choir, and I play the piano and organ for services. I don’t change my pronouns because I don’t want my time to be me explaining my pronouns and my identity; I just want to do my job well. I advocate for the trans community, and any place I can find to incorporate inclusive language in our liturgy—I do my best. Maybe one day I will fully come out as non-binary—but for now, I am just me, and he/him/his or they/them/theirs is ok with me.

*If I used they/them/theirs exclusively, I know that my church and many other Episcopal Churches would support me. I choose to use both pronouns mainly because I don’t want to explain my gender and personal life to every person I meet in my job. I am not fearful of what people will think; I honestly am just taking the easier way out. Maybe that is wrong—but it is what works and has worked for me in my career.

Now, my story!

First grade came with a lot of challenges, but it also came with my first girlfriend. Ashley transferred to our school from the Catholic school across the street. She had cotton-white hair— just like me—and we became best friends right away. We hit it off so well that she called me her boyfriend. OOOOOH. Boyfriend!

The only time we actually got to hang out was at recess. Midmorning, we would all get in a single file line and walk outside for recess. It truly was the highlight of my day, but there was one catch… Boys had to stay on the grass, and the girls had to stay on the concrete. In the land of grass, there were balls for kickball and other activities, and in the land on concrete, there were sidewalk chalk and hopscotch patterns painted on the ground. Ashley and I would walk back and forth while I stayed on the grass, and she stayed on the concrete. It really sucked that I was never allowed to play with the girls because I hated playing with the boys.

I look back on this experience and can think of countless other stories about me not fitting on one side of the gender lines or the other. In the two binary genders that society has put in place, there are pieces of each in which I identify. My gender is much more than the garments I wear or the way I style my hair. My gender is personal; it’s in my heart. It’s little things like when my dad tells people I knit because I am a pianist. That gets under my skin. That isn’t true! I knit because it is fun and I love it! I do lots of things that our society tells us that men shouldn’t do.

Growing up, all my friends were girls. As an adult, if I had a friend that was a guy, he was usually gay. What is funny now, my best friend is a straight guy. I just got lucky with this friend that he doesn’t judge me, and he meets me where I am in every aspect of our friendship.

Have I learned anything along the way?

Why, yes—I’ve learned a ton.

  1. Always be yourself.
  2. Don’t let anyone limit your light.
  3. Love yourself.
  4. Love others.
  5. When life gets hard, remember how much you have overcome and keep moving forward. Our hardest times are just there where we have prospective to identity the really good times. If everything were amazing, we wouldn’t know what amazing felt like.

© 2020, Westley Hodges (whodges@westleyhodges.com)

First Day of School

I know a lot of people went to preschool; well, I didn’t. I turned 5-years-old on March 14, 1989, and in August I went to kindergarten. It’s funny how some memories are so vivid and others are so vague. My memories of going to my first day of kindergarten are very vivid. I remember my mom bringing me to the school to register a few weeks before classes started. I remember the assessment they made us do: we had to skip down the hall, say our ABCs (if we could), and count to ten (again, if we could). Skipping was easy; I excelled in that activity. The ABCs and counting were foreign to me, but—lucky for me–they still let me in kindergarten!

I remember walking in the door of my new class a few weeks after the assessment. Now that I look back on it, it is horrible how this works.

I spent five years of my life, well, MY WHOLE LIFE, by my mother’s side.

Then, Martha—that’s my mother’s name—loaded me up in the car, drove me across the Westbank Expressway, and walked me into a classroom full of strangers, and left me!

Who does that to their child? 

Well—I hate to break it to you—I didn’t cry. I actually enjoyed it. The teacher sat me down at a table with three other kids. THIS MEMORY is in 4K resolution in my head! Sitting at the table were Shelle, Katherine, and Travis. Three people that I would be in classes with through sixth grade.

Katherine stood up and introduced herself. This girl was a mess! She had a book with her and she stood up and proclaimed that she was the teacher and she was going to read to us. Ummm, ok. So, she read a book to us. Reflecting on this story, that diva couldn’t read, she made the whole thing up. I mean, we couldn’t read either, so we couldn’t prove her wrong! Shelle was quiet. All through elementary school, Shelle was quiet.  And, Travis. Travis was African-American and we were friends all through elementary school. He was very funny and loved everyone. He never really fit in with a group. But, I don’t think he was gay—just different. 

It didn’t take me long to make friends in kindergarten. I was so social that I even went to other classes. I would ask the teacher if I could go to another class, and she would let me. Looking back, she let me because that meant she didn’t have to put up with me! I was a talker; I never would shut up. All through school I would get behavior reports for talking when I was not supposed to. I couldn’t help it—I had a lot to say!

School was hard for me. It always was hard and never got easier. I always struggled, was always behind on my work, and I hated homework! I would say that 90% of the time I did not do my homework. I still don’t understand why we spent 8 hours in school and then we’re expected to go home and do more work. That was dumb, in my humble opinion. When it came time to turn in homework I would either turn in nothing or scribble on some paper to make it look like I tried. I would purposely distort my writing in the hopes the teacher would give me credit because they thought it was right but just couldn’t read my writing… That never worked.

Parent-teacher conferences happened always…

Westley isn’t doing his homework.

Westley doesn’t read well.

Westley doesn’t speak well. 

Westley is a horrible human being and is behind all students his age on this planet. That is what I heard. Even though that is what I heard, I pushed through. I survived kindergarten, and 1st grade was waiting for me…

© 2020, Westley Hodges (whodges@westleyhodges.com)