All my life I started last.

Last to be picked for kickball. Last chair in band. Last to get a raise. Understanding me is to understand what it feels like to always start last, to be in a world where no one believed in you. It’s a disconcerting feeling, this default decision from others that you aren’t their vision of a winner. Most people will never understand this feeling; most are picked in the middle. These middle-picked people have always gotten the benefit of the doubt, when they don’t have anything to prove, it makes them complacent.

The mask I wear is an uncomfortable one. No one cares where you came from, only that you found a way out. I share my journey alone, seeing memories of it in the shower, in my sleep, reminding that it’s always a race I run again, a zero reset inevitably dialing back the clock. I put the mask again and everything’s fine, no chip on my shoulder, no acknowledgement that if most people didn’t know my accomplishments, they’d put me last. People are nicer when you succeed, nicer when you act things are easy. I’ve learned not to trust people to stick around when I’m back to zero. You’d have to be last-picked to understand. I see human nature.

Late bloomers are a special breed; we see past each other’s masks. There’s pain in our eyes, a practice in our smiles. We bloom as a rose in concrete. That kickball score feels a little sweeter, that first chair, when I got it, was a symbol that no one can make me last. Everything I received is earned, because the default is nothing. Last-picked aren’t middle-picked. They will never understand our constant need to prove ourselves. We break rules because the rules want us to be last.

I know how most people see me. I’m too short, too stupid, not American enough, not Asian enough, not mean enough, not nice enough, too timid, too aggressive, too open but also too stubborn. I’m the guy people will try to cut through in a traffic jam, the person who’ll be given the seat by the cold door or bathroom of a restaurant. I’m the friend everyone wants one-on-one but no one invites to parties. Bullies constantly test me. All my life I’ve been disrespected. I constantly prove others wrong. So, forgive me when I walk away when things are down, when I hide in my shell and fix my problems. Only people like me will understand someone like me. They’ll recognize it behind the mask of someone who’ve escaped last place.