Clay Aiken got picked on and bullied as a kid, but found his gift, embraced it and changed the experience of his life. He shares his story on the show, and in his book, Learning to Sing.
Chapter Five: "Find Your Voice"
When I was young, I was teased by other kids like it was their job.
I recall riding the school bus and always sitting in the seat right behind the bus driver. I would talk his ear off and hope that the kids behind me wouldn't tease me and that if they did I wouldn't hear it.
I wasn't very popular in grade school. I had friends, but they were kids like me — geeky, shy, unable to fit in. I was a different sort of kid. Some of it came — and I hope my mom won't get upset by this — because I spent a large chunk of my childhood around nobody but adults.
My mother and I left my birth father when I was two. After that, I spent most of my time with her or my grandparents. I would even go to work with Mom at Sears and hang out with all the ladies there. They'd prop me on the carpet samples and make me sing them country songs. With my red hair, square white teeth, and freckles, I looked like Howdy Doody, which for some reason they found adorable.
I felt comfortable when I was singing for the ladies at Sears — or singing for anyone, for that matter. But kids in grade school don't really care whether you can sing, and since I'd rarely spent any time around other people my age, I didn't know the social rules.
I knew how to talk to adults. I knew all the words to "Break It to Me Gently." But neither of those things keeps you from getting wedgies at recess.
It didn't help that I dressed like a loser. I wore Bill Cosby sweaters, the ones with the loud patterns and crazy colors. At school, I'd look around the classroom and all the other kids were wearing HyperColor neon T-shirts, Umbro athletic shorts, and designer sneakers, and I was wearing an old-man sweater with a collar and tan pants.
Mom bought my clothes. I don't even think I had a say. And if I did have a say, I would ask for some name brand that we couldn't afford. So basically, I wore a lot of nerdy stuff.
I remember that I wanted new tennis shoes, and my mother said, "We don't have the money for hundred-dollar tennis shoes. Besides, you don't grow from having everything given to you." And then she'd tell me about Dolly Parton and where she started, and she'd say, "Look where she is!"
Well, I didn't want to be Dolly Parton. I wanted to be cool.
My wardrobe would have been forgiven if I had been athletic. But I was clumsy, spastic. So there I would be on the playground, dressed like somebody's grandfather, burning up in those sweaters, unable to play soccer or kickball — just me off by myself, looking and feeling ridiculous. So of course I was picked on. I was teased. I was dodgeball bait. I spent a lot of time praying to be invisible.
Middle school was the worst. Middle school is where everybody goes through that change, trying to figure out who they are. Kids feel threatened at that age.
Feeling threatened, I became somewhat reclusive. It made me a little bit quieter, and I tried to stay out of everybody's way. When the bullies felt threatened, it meant that they were going to go on the offensive, and who better to go after than the quiet kid in the corner?
There was this game called Wall Ball that kids liked to play. The slowest kid would end up standing against the playground wall and the other kids would pelt him with a ball. One guess who that might have been.
My best friend was a boy named Chinh. Kids who are picked on flock together. People always find their support group. My mom used to say, "The water finds its own level." So you have the picked-ons, and the pickers. Chinh and I were picked-ons.
Chinh was Vietnamese, so he didn't speak much English. People picked on him, but he really couldn't understand them, so they gave up after a while. Chinh and I became good friends. I always ate lunch with him because he was nice and he didn't tease me — not even when my mom wrote inspirational notes on the outside of my lunch bag, which was practically every day.
The friendship between Chinh and me also probably had something to do with the fact that from a young age, I always kind of gravitated toward the people who were outcasts. I understood them. I knew how it felt inside to be judged and made fun of, to feel different and to pay for those differences.
As a child, I had another friend, a black girl who wore giant glasses and a hearing aid. We used to hold hands when we walked down a busy street. Safety in numbers.
Once, one of my aunts saw us together and rushed home to call my granny. "You won't believe what I just saw," she prattled, implying that what I was doing was somehow wrong.
Granny just laughed.
Usually I walked home from school with Natalie, who was also the child of a single mom. She never had anywhere to go after school. Natalie was lonely and a little scared. Once I figured that out, I started bringing her back to my house. We would play, and my mom would cook her dinner. She just seemed so happy to have a place to be where she wasn't alone. I was happy, too. It was refreshing to spend time with another kid who wasn't trying to knock my glasses off, a kid who spoke English.
Back at school, my survival tactic was to be nice to everybody. My mom taught me — wrongly, I learned — to just be kind to the bullies and then they'd come around. But when you are a geeky, gawky kid with orange hair, glasses, and old-man sweaters, they don't come around. Little boys don't one day wake up and say, "Gee, my yanking that little boy's underpants out of his corduroys is mean-spirited and I should really cut it out."
Those boys learned pretty quickly that I wasn't going to fight back and I wasn't going to tattle on them. The nicer I was, the bigger the target on my forehead. The high road left me defenseless. And the mockery only got worse.
I got it all. But the thing is, the more I took it, the less I cared. Being harassed became a part of my day, and I accepted it.
I know it sounds sad now, looking back, but at the time I wasn't analyzing it. I was just living my life. I think the bullying helped me figure out at an early age that stuff is going to happen to you that you wish wouldn't. People are going to treat you badly, and ultimately that is out of your control.
"Just let it roll off," my mom would say. And I did. Because even as a kid, I knew the other option wasn't for me. I was not going to hurt somebody else.
To learn more about Clay's inspiring story of overcoming childhood hardships and finding his place in the world, read Learning to Sing.
Excerpted from Learning to Sing by Clay Aiken with Allison Glock Copyright © 2004 by Clay Aiken with Allison Glock. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.