by Douglas Davey
Red Deer Press
Back in 1988, when Sheldon Bates was seventeen, a confusing encounter during swimming practice sets him asking big questions about his sexuality. Now, through his personal notes from the time, footnoted with his current thoughts, Sheldon records that tumultuous year of discovery, fear, discomfiture, bullying, and understanding in Switch.
Though dating Jenny, to whom he is wildly attracted, Sheldon conducts a little experiment and some research, hoping to clarify for himself what he is feeling. His wish, "Please, please, please let me not be gay..." (pg. 22), suggests his ensuing stress and incomprehension, not surprising in a time when discussions of sexual orientation were verboten and information limited to a dictionary and a thesaurus. And, if he can't understand it, how will Jenny, best friend Dan or older brother Bill react? Sadly, not as he expects, and his personal issue becomes fodder for school gossip and verbal and physical abuse.
I ate. I slept. I went to class. I watched TV. I looked like I was awake but in fact I was sleepwalking through life with no clue how to wake up or get out. After a while, the terrible flow of days became a gray smear. (pg. 79)Two things change everything. First, Sheldon is invited to join several other students at lunch in Room 115. There in Mr. Aiden's classroom, Sheldon feels safe. He can access a cupboard of relevant informational books and pamphlets. He can also choose to interact with a handful of students grappling with their own sexuality. Secondly, his English teacher, Mrs. Piedmont, assigns her students speeches, and Sheldon thinks about focusing on what he's going through as a possible topic. That decision will bring Sheldon both tragedy and deliverance.
I, for one, would never want to return to my high school years. Even without the aggravation of questioning your sexual orientation, teens have so much with which they must deal: puberty, body image, independence, career choices, responsibility. And not every teen has resources available to help them navigate those complicated treks. In the late 1980s, with no internet, with the AIDS crisis, and the secrecy virtually mandated by societal discrimination, the topic of bisexuality was still taboo, and kids like Sheldon would inevitably be left floundering for support. How he was able to survive, emotionally and physically, is both remarkable and gratifying. Douglas Davey, who was able to evoke that same trepidation and confusion in M in the Abstract (Red Deer Press, 2013), keeps readers repeatedly wondering how Sheldon will address his latest dilemma, or whether he will expose himself to more abuse by speaking publicly of his bisexuality, or when he will ask for the support of the school's administration or his parents. It is hard to believe the youthful Douglas Davey could present the 1980s of Sheldon's story so completely but that grey haze of being exposed to public scrutiny and discrimination is subtly exposed as a sign of the times and hopefully one that efforts have been made to rewrite.
Switch should belong in the 2015 version of Mr. Aiden's cupboard or, better yet, in high school libraries where everyone and anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, could share in the emotional turmoil of Sheldon Bates. Douglas Davey is providing us with the insight that, with greater awareness, could help us become more empathetic to those struggling with issues of sexual orientation. Let's hope we all accept Switch as that tool for learning.