Sorry, the old Ryan can’t come to the phone right now.

Illustration by Ryan Schultz

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the 17 years I’ve been alive, it’s that claiming you’re going to change is a hell of a lot easier than actually making positive changes to your character. Maybe this is easily understood for you, but it wasn’t for me.

Everybody always looks back on middle school as the most awkward years of their lives—they all strived to be cool and maybe even entered an emo phase. Honestly, I wouldn’t have a problem punching middle-school-me square in the face. Granted, at the time I was undergoing major life changes that resulted in more emotional responses than intentional ones, but that’s not an excuse for the bad character I represented in this world.

Now, this piece isn’t an emotional plea for forgiveness or a pity party for who I was. It’s simply a recollection of how I got to be who I am today. Unfortunately, that does include my emo phase and my poor character. So, I suppose I’ll continue.

Middle-school-me was angry at the world, at my family, at the wall I stubbed my toe on. You name it and it got to me in some way. My family had just experienced a second divorce, and somewhere in the confusion of change I decided that to be angry was better than to be hurtthis was, however, pretty bad logic considering my anger never actually dissipated my hurt. Middle-school-me talked badly about people I didn’t understand, myself, and anything that came to my brain without consideration of how that would affect anyone around me. Middle-school-me was an illusion, someone I was never supposed to be. I was composed of feelings designed to distract from my real ones and friends that would have hated me had I been a little more honest.

Middle-school-me experienced my most life-changing event in June of my eighth-grade year. I had been unable to sleep, resulting in me falling down a YouTube hole and watching hipster philosophy-aimed videos. While the messages were inspiring, I was caught up in the music: Tom Misch. I like to sum up Tom Misch’s music as a form of modern jazz. To me, it feels like a Sunday morning or a summer breeze or the feeling of laying in bed with the love of your life for the first time. This was my first real exposure to any kind of jazz music, and my girlfriend might be jealous to hear that I might have fallen in love that night.

This music inspired my change. It felt like every negative thing inside of me was released with every melody, like I could finally breathe. I finally let go of the anger, the hurt, and focused on myself. Who was I anymore? What was I doing? Was I proud of myself?


I pulled out a notebook and I wrote about these questions for hours. I created goals for myself to reopen in a year (and I still do so now, it’s quite fun actually), and I painted a bad painting that should have never been hung on my wall. For. Two. Years.


My first goal was to let go of the anger, to become more compassionate. I found that I was blaming people for the divorce, for my hurt. I found that instead of processing everything, I was distracting myself. From that moment on, I started writing. It was the easiest way to clarify my thoughts and to recognize my need to let go. I still struggle with this one today, and this one still hurts today. However, grudges only go so far and kindness is so much lighter to carry.

My second resolution was to stop talking behind people’s backs and to become entirely uninvolved in drama. I will admit I sometimes lean an ear due to curiosity, but once I remember that I don’t care about John Doe’s extreme party chaos from Saturday it’s easy to shut myself off completely. I think learning to stop talking badly about people is one of the hardest habits to break. My biggest encouragement in this, though, was the major consequence of getting caught talking about someone. That feeling of immense guilt is something I will never forget, and it stops me every time. I am proud of myself now because I am infinitely more aware and consider all the potential repercussions before blabbering about anyone. Cheers to that!

My third goal was to embrace myself. I had admitted to myself that night that maybe I wasn’t the edgy, emo kid. In that, I meant that this facade of temporary armor I had used to protect myself from societal judgement and hurt was exhausting. Sure, Pierce The Veil is a good band, but it’s okay if I would much rather put on some 1920s jazz and write poetry. I had to embrace my femininity, my crying, my feelings, instead of considering them unmasculine. I had to embrace me, completely, as a jazz -oving, crying, dog-appreciating man who is scared of spiders. And damn it! That’s okay!

These three things may not seem like a lot, but for me they were revolutionary. While I may have punched middle-school-me square in the face, I wouldn’t be able to punch me today. While sometimes my hair sticks up everywhere and I wear sweats three times in one school week, my character is one of which I’m proud. Of course, I still have a lot more improving I could and plan to do, but change is hard and takes time. It’s been four years since that night, and I’m still getting the hang of things.

I guess my point in this is that personal growth is so much harder than Tumblr makes it out to be, and yet it is so, so worth it. Angry, emo me would never have made it today. I wouldn’t have fallen in love, gotten into writing, or accepted the fact that Ratatouille is in fact the best motion picture ever to exist in all of human history.

And damn, a life without Ratatouille would have sucked.

Oh, and maybe the other things, too.

By Ryan Vortisch

1 comment

  1. You could probably punch freshman you and sophomore you also.