Dustin Lance Black's #Back2School blog

Dustin Lance Black

Filmmaker / LGBT Activist


1.  What school did you go to?

I went to a public High School in Salinas, California called North Salinas High School.  It was a rough High School, almost entirely made up of students from agricultural and military families, and filled with gang and drug activity.

2.  What is your favourite memory of school?

I always got along better with older people, so my favorite High School memory was the day I discovered I could also take classes at the local Community College instead of only going into High School every day.

3.  How did your school experience influence/help your career?

A lot of students in my school were only trying to survive the experience.  But there was one English teacher who actually took the time to sit and talk with me about my ideas--specifically around a book I was reading by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  There weren’t a lot of other kids who were interested in Emerson, so the fact that she sat with me and talked about his philosophy and helped me understand why I might be interested in him, inspired me to take my education beyond high school.

4. Tell us about your experience of bullying at school, please be as detailed as possible.

I wasn’t really bullied much at school because the threat of bullying and violence was so present and real that I did what I think a lot of kids do when they’re in an environment that feels dangerous: I learned how to blend in and hide. I wore very plain dark clothes, I walked right from home to my first period class and as soon as the bell rang at the end of the day, I walked straight home again. I often didn’t even stay on campus for lunch.  I would sneak off and wander about for that hour.

5.  What was the lowest/worst part of the bullying?

The lowest moments for me were those I witnessed bullying going on with my classmates--when people who were different in one way or another were being treated poorly. That included name-calling and physical violence in my school.  And because I reacted to seeing that bullying by shutting down and blending in, I’m well aware that I lost those four years of discovery--four years of finding the VALUE in the ways that I was different. Those were, in many ways, lost years.

6.  How did you overcome this?

There was just enough encouragement in my school from a teacher or two who helped me look beyond the present. They encouraged me to start looking into classes at the local Community College, which led to me getting into a community theatre program in Salinas, and ultimately helped me get involved in professional theatre work in San Francisco by the age of 16.  Being in a dangerous / abusive environment can shut you down, it was discovering that there were other places to go--for help, support, and inspiration--that helped me move beyond my circumstances. 

7.  What was your favourite school subject?

Honestly, I wasn’t a huge fan of most of the classes that were offered at my school. Most of the teachers were pretty terrible. I’m not sure they wanted to be there either. But the work I did to finish those classes and get good grades created the opportunity to find amazing professors at University who were inspirational, made learning exciting, and helped me grow.  The truth is, surviving High School classes was well worth it in the end.

8.  What did you look forward to when you went back to school after the holidays? What advice would you give to young people who are going back to school after the holidays?

Coming back from summer break is an opportunity to find YOUR people! So instead of trying to find and befriend people who are “popular” or who everyone else says you ought to be interested in, go find the kids who YOU get along with, who make YOU laugh, who YOU can grow with.

9.  Was there anything you worried about when you went back to school after the holidays?

I was very shy in high school, so I was always worried about fitting in.  And in America, most schools don’t use school uniforms, so the first week of school everyone shows up in their brand new clothes. Unfortunately, my family didn’t have much money, so I couldn’t buy the clothes that I thought might have helped me fit in better.  I was mostly worried that kids would notice that I was still wearing the same beat up old jeans from the year before.

10.  What was your favourite school meal?!

On Wednesdays, Domino’s Pizza came in and served pizza. For one dollar, you could get a slice. On those days, I actually stuck around for lunch!

11. If you had to go back to school again what would you change?

If I had to do it all over again, I would say to my 15-year-old self: “Stop worrying so much about what other people think,” because,  “Other people’s opinions are none of your business. Be YOU!” Following this philosophy is what ultimately made me happier, stronger and has built a fruitful, creative career.  Your differences make you stand out when applying for University, for jobs, and make you far more marketable in any creative ventures.  The things that make you different, make you valuable and powerful!  Be YOU!  Be YOU!  Be YOU!

12. What is your back to school advice to any young people worrying about going back to school because of bullying? Top tips/how to overcome/what to do.

First, when you go back to school, don’t focus on who you “should” be hanging out with and go find the people who you enjoy hanging out with. In my experience, the popular kids in high school don’t end up being the most successful kids in the real world. Sorry! It’s true! It’s likely that many of the kids who are being bullied today will be tomorrow’s award winners and market leaders because they think differently!  And that’s what is truly valuable once you get out of High School.

Second, if you are worried you are going to be bullied, make contact with people in the administration who can support and protect you.  Your personal safety comes first.  Always.

13.  What difference would an Anti-Bullying Ambassador have made?

At my school, bullying was just considered a part of growing up--something you had to survive.  The idea that there would be anyone in school to watch out for students and to help create a healthier environment for everyone… that work would have been self esteem and life saving.  I might have actually participated in High School if there’d been Anti-Bullying Ambassadors and might not see those years as lost years when I look back on them today.