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When I Was 17: Mr. Hernandez-Vasquez

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Set the scene:

I was a senior in high school. I had just come back from SYA Italy. I was at St. Paul’s in Concord, NH. I was a good student and I was on a full ride to St. Paul’s. I always aimed to do the best I could when I was there. It didn’t work out for my physics, chemistry or biology classes. Anything science or math related, I did not do so well on. I did do well in my language classes and my humanities classes. I left St. Paul’s my junior year for SYA because I wanted to study Latin and Greek more in depth. I learned that I could also get a chance to learn Italian and I was really excited about that. I also left because I was dealing with my sexuality and I thought that dealing with it at St. Paul’s was not the best place. Not a lot of people were gay, amongst the students, or the faculty. I thought that it would just be a great year to not only get ahead with the studies that I felt passionate about, but also to get myself emotionally and personally ahead as well.

 

Sports and extracurricular activities:

You had to do three terms of sports at St. Paul’s, just like here. I did club tennis in the fall. I did hockey in the winter. In the spring, I would just do weight training. In terms of clubs, I was all over the place. I joined the international student society. I joined the Chinese society. I also joined the Korean society because I had lots of Korean friends. I joined the Latino society and the Gay Straight Alliance. I founded an organization called “amigos” my senior year along with my friends. There was a large immigrant population in Concord, NH. There were lots of immigrant children from central America. The parents of the kids we tutored after school did not speak English at all. So we took it upon ourselves to go to the local middle school and be mentor for kids of immigrants. If the kids had just recently come to the country, we would help them with English. Sometimes that evolved into us helping the parents understand what was happening in the school. Because Concord is a very homogenous place. There weren’t many Spanish speakers. We helped sort of be translators and interpreters for them.

 

What language class(es) did you take?

When I started St. Paul’s, I had recently taken to reading Harry Potter. I was so smitten by it and I wanted to read all of the books. They had spells and I learned later that they came from Latin. I wanted to take Latin to understand them, so I signed myself right up. I took Chinese because at home in New York City, before St. Paul’s, my school was mainly Latino. But there were lots of smaller groups of Asians from China, Korea and Vietnam. It just so happened that I was very close friends with the Dominicans, the Chinese and the Koreans. So I wanted to learn Chinese, and Mandarin, specifically. I took Mandarin my first year. Then I heard there was another dead language called ancient Greek offered. But I had too many classes and my advisor said I couldn’t do so many classes. So I bought the book they were using in Greek. I talked to the Greek teacher there and I said I wanted to learn Greek or do it independently. She agreed to have me go to her when she was on duty. If I had questions, I would ask her. It was very helpful. Then I got to learn Italian when I went to Italy. In Korean club, I got to learn the alphabet and how to read and write and how it works. It’s a very complicated language with lots of different sounds. One of my really good friends was from Hong Kong. He would be help me a lot with my Mandarin homework. He was my roommate in my senior year. He knew Mandarin just from his schooling in Hong Kong, but he obviously spoke Cantonese. I was so enthralled and I would always ask him how to say things in Cantonese. He just got so sick of me and he bought me this book. It had the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese.

 

Do you think that language ever shaped your perspective and character?

Certainly! Learning how to communicate using someone else’s way of communication opened my eyes to their perspective. Language isn’t just words. They are expressions. People use words differently to say different things. Every time I learn a language, I learn how a set of people use those words to communicate. They are so beautiful. There’s a specific word in Arabic. You wouldn’t think of it in other languages. “Nala” means the first water you drink after crossing the desert. You wouldn’t need that specific word in my country, the Dominican Republic, where we’re surrounded by water everywhere. But in Arabian countries, that’s a word they would use. It’s just so nice to connect with people, and how they use words specifically.

First kiss/love/relationship

Mine is kind of very weird. I’ll tell you about two that happened in high school. My first kiss was with this girl in freshman year of high school. She was my first girlfriend. I knew that I was gay before we were in a relationship. But every guy was getting together with girls. And I was not out, or comfortable yet. It was also hard for me to go through that and be the person who’s not doing it. There was this girl. We played tennis together. And I liked her. Not in a sexual way, but I liked her. I had feelings for her in the sense that she was a really good friend of mine. Everyone was telling me that’s when you should ask her out, because you have feelings like that. So I did and we went out for a couple of weeks. I realized I felt so uncomfortable being more than just friends with her. She liked me. But it just didn’t work out because I just didn’t feel anything. So that’s when I was like, I’m gay. So that was my first relationship in high school.

The second relationship was not really a relationship at all. I fell in love with my straight best friend in Italy, in SYA. That was the year where I was like I’m telling everyone. So I let everyone know slowly. This friend of mine and I were like the same soul. We belonged in different generations. He was this cool kid from California. I had never been to California at that time. He liked films. He smoked cigarettes. It was such a cool thing, like oh my god, you do that?! He was all of that cool guy against the current. We became really good friends. I just fell in love with him, but he was straight. Half-way through the year, I told him I was in love him and I didn’t know what to do. He was so gracious about it. He was like: I’m straight. I don’t have feelings for you. But you are my best friend. I’m sorry. I don’t know what to do. But I’m here for you. It was such a great thing. It wasn’t a relationship like you would think. But he really let me understand my feelings. It was the first time I felt like towards a boy. I was really grateful to have him helping me in that stage. It was a relationship that helped me understand my future relationships with men.

Advice for current students:

You have to understand that I’m in my late 20s. I still feel like a kid. I still need to grow up. I have so many things I need to do to become an “adult”. It’s always a process to get there. It’s not an event that happens. It’s not that you decide to be more mature. It’s like a process that you just constantly go through. Sometimes I feel like an adult, sometimes I’m like “I really messed up. That was really foolish and childish of me”. We all have those moments. Or how I treat people. Or what I do in a certain dilemma or situation. I’m starting to realize that I need to be less harsh on myself. Our society says you need to be mature, you need to grow up and you need to know how to do it well. There’s no book that tells you how to do all that. And it’s just hard to do. Just know that every day that goes by. Every relationship that you have with people, those are the ones that are shaping you. So if you want to “grow up well”, assess who you surround yourself with. I remember growing up, my mother would always tell me this saying in Spanish that goes like this: “Dime con quien andas, y te diré quien eres.” (Tell me who you surround yourself with, and I will tell you who you are.) And I never got that. But then I realized, if you surround yourself with educated people who are driven, and who care and have morals and values, they will impact you. You will grow up to be an educated person with morals and values. Granted, yes, you will make your own decisions. But you will have that formation within you. And that’s really important.

Regrets:

Being too scared to be myself. I spent so much time trying to be what I saw around me, because that’s what I thought was normal. I spent so much time and effort looking at my body image, how my hair looked, how I dressed. Just trying to be like everyone else because I didn’t want to be different. And I realized that was just such a mistake. Once I learned to be comfortable, and I’m still doing that. I’m not saying I’m so comfortable being myself. But once I learned to be comfortable in my own skin and said “This is who I am. I don’t care.” And as long as I’m respectful and courteous to everyone else, then this is who I am and people should respect m

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