“I’ll race you across the lake.”
When Tom said this to me, it took me a second. I was so surprised that he was talking to me.
It should have made sense that he was talking to me. He’s 16 years old and I’m 14. We’re standing ankle-deep in Lake Williamsville, in Williamsville, Illinois. The shore is straight in front of us.
Tom is brown and muscular like a good Eagle Scout. I’m 5’10, and 125 pounds. And about 5 pounds of that is pimples. With my thin pale body and red face, I looked like a matchstick standing at the edge of the water.
As we’re looking across the lake, the thing that confused me about Tom saying this to me is, I am invisible.
Now, let me explain what I mean by that. At school when I go into the cafeteria and I sit at the center of the table, the other students turn their bodies away from me and continue to talk as if I’m not there. When we pick teams for kickball, and I’m the last kid standing by the wall; I’m not the last kid picked. They just don’t even pick me. They go on and play as if I am not there.
I’m not unpopular. Unpopular would mean that I would be measured on a scale of popularity to unpopular. I’m not even on the scale. I am invisible.
And so the shock hits me when Tom asked me if I want to race across the lake. The only thing that I can think to say is “ready go.” And I ran out into the water.
You know how it is when you first race into the water and you’re kicking your knees high? I’m laughing, and Tom goes running past me and dives into the water.
I dive behind him, and he’s stroking like a great Eagle Scout swimmer. He’s kicking with his strong legs. Now, I am a self-taught simmer, so I am slapping the water with my arms. I’m not really thinking about kicking with my legs.
He’s pulling away from me, so I’m slapping harder and harder and harder and harder, and the water is clapping noisily. I’m splashing water in my face, and I’m making progress but my arms are getting tired. And the tired-er I get and the more I become fatigued, my upper body begins to shake. My arms turn into rubber bands, and I can’t make any more progress.
I’m looking ahead, and it suddenly occurs to me in that moment: I cannot reach that shore.
And when I looked behind me, I realized I could not reach that shore. And I am in a lot of trouble.
So I look to my right, and several yards out I can see some rocks sticking out of the lake. And so I realize that must be shallow water. So instead of heading to the shore, I make a right-hand turn.
And now I’m really in trouble. I’m struggling, and I’m shaking, and I’m getting water in my mouth. At one point I even get water in my nose, so I’m smelling the lake, and I can taste it. And it gets in my ear, and my ear is popping.
I’m making my way to the rocks, and its everything I could do to reach them. As I near them, I put my hand out and I finally lay my hand on the rock…but it’s not a rock.
What I thought were rocks, were in fact the tip of logs floating in water that is fifteen feet deep.
As I put my hand on the log, the log sinks beneath me. And I struggle for a little while more, and then I think to myself: maybe if I just put my feet on the log it won’t sink very far. So I tried it. But when I put my feet on the log, and the log just goes down, and I go below the water.
Now I’m really slapping the water, and I’m yelling, and I’m coughing, and the water is in my mouth. And Tom is circling, and he’s yelling instructions to me. There’s this cacophony of noise. And all I can do is I can say, “Help! Help me! Help me! Help me!” And I’m screaming my lungs out.
When all of a sudden it is completely and utterly quiet.
In that quiet moment, it occurs to me that my eyes are closed. And I feel something cold on the back of my head.
When I open my eyes, I realize that I am at the bottom of the lake. The back of my head is resting against mud at the bottom of the lake.
As I look around I see that some water is dark and that other water is light, and that the water with the most light filtering through must be up.
I’m out of air. I’m going to have to take a breath.
I feel around and I find something solid. I put my foot against something hard at the bottom of the lake, and I push off with everything I’ve got. I claw my way up towards the surface. As I’m coming up to the surface, I’m opening my mouth, getting ready for that breath, but I’m so close. But I can’t quite wait, and finally, when I couldn’t wait anymore, I breathe in.
It just so happens that I break the surface just as I compulsively inhale. I draw in a slurry of air and water. I’m coughing violently.
Somehow I think to roll over on my back. And Tom swims beside me for the next 15 minutes as we slowly, very slowly crawl our way to the shore.
I’m on my back now I’m stroking slowly towards the shore. Finally, my hand reaches behind my head and falls on a rocky shore. I pull myself up, and I sit there shaking in the shallows.
At that moment, I realize something.
In the middle of chaos, and the cacophony of noise – and the world has a lot of noise right now – there is this quiet place. And in that quiet place there is hope and there is meaning.
I made three decisions.
First, I want to live.
Second, if I’m going to bother to live, I want to make a difference.
And third, if I want to make a difference, I have to choose to be visible.
So to my invisible friends here: if when I describe standing against that wall and not being picked for kickball and you thought “that’s me,” I’m talking to you right now.
I’m asking you to make a choice.
Choose to live.
Choose to make a difference.
But the only way you can make that difference is to choose to be visible.