11 Min ReadSelf 04 May 2020
I'm talking about first love — that distinct sensation of butterflies fluttering in your stomach and the pounding in your chest that takes over your entire body. These are the feelings I experienced when I first met him.
Thirteen and ready for anything, I was on a bus ride back from an amusement park with the local church youth group who took teenagers to all sorts of places in hopes of keeping us out of trouble. Little did I know meeting him that day would be the deepest trouble I got into that summer.
There I was knees up against the bus seat in front of me, licking a jawbreaker I scored on the boardwalk, listening to a burned CD of all my favorite early 00's pop-punk tracks. My best friend at the time, jabbed my arm, demanding that I take my earbuds out. She was passed along a very important whisper from the back of the bus. Apparently, he wanted to trade seats with her and sit with me for the hour-long drive. I glanced at the popular boy with honey skin and long brown curls, who always had a skateboard in his hands. This was when Avril Lavigne's "Sk8r Boi" was a huge hit, so that was a very big deal. He was a year older than me and had just broken up with his girlfriend a few days before.
Maybe it was the new tank top I bought at Hot Topic or the self-bleached highlights I put in my hair. In reality, I was a shy girl whose only past relationships were with the boys on the posters in my bedroom. But I caught his eye, and now he was walking in my direction. My best friend scooted out of the torn leather seat, and he slid in. We didn't say much to each other. He placed one of my earbuds in his ear, and halfway during the ride, laced his fingers in mine. My heart was on fire.
Once the bus ride came to an end, he asked me a question I was not at all prepared to receive, and one I was never asked before. "Will you be my girlfriend?" I didn't want this new burning excitement to end, so I agreed, and gave him my number, my screen name, and, in a small way, myself.
Our relationship and infatuation grew quickly thanks to weekly youth group activities and nightly long phone calls we sneaked due to my parents' strict no boyfriend rule. When we were together, he always had his arm around me. He taught me how to skateboard and that kissing with tongue was something fun to do. Everything was juvenile at first, but the more we were together, the more addicted we became to each other.
Maybe our obsession with being with one another stemmed from the rocky home lives we had. My parents were freshly divorced for a second time, and my mom had moved out and started living with someone new. I lived with my dad for most of that summer but, bless the man, he had a hard time keeping a rein on his youngest daughter of three dealing with work and a divorce that broke his heart.
My new boyfriend, on the other hand, had an even rougher home life. At least my parents always showed me unconditional love and provided me with things every kid should have, like a warm bed, meals, and enrolled me in school every year. My parents went well beyond just those things, but I can't say the same for him. He was in and out of group homes his whole life. His mom had left him as a child at a fast-food play area and never came back, only for social services to find him. He had seen some horrible ugly things as a child. I would only find out about these things later on when he would share small glimpses with me as our relationship progressed over the years. When I met him, he was in his father's "care" living in a rough neighborhood and sleeping on a dirty mattress.
His mom had left him as a child at a fast-food play area and never came back, only for social services to find him. He had seen some horrible ugly things as a child.
Though his life at home wasn't one you would recognize from sitcoms feel-good movies, no one would've known. He had all the freedom to hang out whenever and wherever he wanted. Girls swooned over him, and guys thought he was the definition of cool. The summer was his, and he lived in his own world. He wanted someone to be part of that world, and that someone was me.
It didn't take long before I was sneaking out to see him. He'd skateboard to my house after my dad was asleep, and I'd creep out the door with pillows under my blanket. We'd stroll around the streets finding new places to make out. Sometimes he'd steal his dad's car, and we'd take a joy ride around town blasting our favorite songs. We were each other's escape, and I found myself pouring every part of myself into him, way more than my young heart ever could have handled.
After the summer ended and we both went back to different schools, things naturally changed. I wasn't able to sneak out as often, but our phone and instant messenger game were both still strong. He asked me to lie about something happening after school and to take the bus to meet him. I've done this a few times, so it wasn't anything unusual. It was wintertime though, and I had to wait for the bus in the rain. Lucky for me, when I made it to him, the sun came out for a moment, and I jumped in his arms when I saw him. My smile for him went unmatched, and without a flinch, he told me right then and there that we were over.
Utterly stunned, I couldn't say a word, but before I even could, he kissed me on my cheek and told me I'd better head home. He skateboarded towards some friends, leaving me alone with a sharp pain in my chest.
A new sensation for me, just like first love, but this time it was first heartache.
I was devastated, blindsided, and I felt like I had no one to turn to. No one had equipped me to deal with this type of pain. The lyrics in the music I loved were my only guidance, and I slowly withdrew from the world around me.
A couple of months went by, and we hadn't spoken since our breakup. I was doing my best to forget we had ever happened. The funny thing with getting over my first love was that right when I seemed to be moving on, that love found its way to bulldoze right back into my life.
It was New Year's Eve, and a message appeared on my computer screen. It was him. He wanted to know if I had any plans. After I told him I had none, he professed he had missed me and regretted everything, and demanded I see him that night. I should have ignored it, but those butterflies I felt when we first met tickled my stomach stronger than before.
I lied to my dad once again, telling him I would be at a girlfriend's house for a sleepover. My dad okayed my plans, and I headed off to see him. When I finally saw him, every hard feeling I had turned into feathers. We kissed, and I immediately knew we were back to where we were before. We walked around town like we usually did and wrote our names on a bench with a black sharpie declaring our reunited love. But this night was to end differently. He wanted me to spend the night with him, something I had never done before. He insisted we should ring the New Year in together and stay up all night. I agreed, knowing I wasn't ready for our time to end.
We went back to where he was living, a new house where his dad was throwing a party. But his dad didn't want us to sleep in the house, so we resorted to the car for more privacy. We sat in the back seat and played songs until midnight. Midnight struck and, of course, we kissed, but he wanted more — more than I wanted to give. He promised me that this is what people do when they are in love. He had broken my heart before, and I was afraid of what he'd do if I said no. The windows were fogged, and no one could see. I trusted him. I let him take off my clothes. I let him lie on top of me. I let him take control.
I didn't know what this was or what would happen next, but my body froze. I went completely numb. I wasn't sure if it was because of fear or the nerves of letting someone explore me more than I'd ever explored myself, but I know when it was over, I was relieved. He slept soundly, but my eyes never shut that night.
I went completely numb. I wasn't sure if it was because of fear or the nerves of letting someone explore me more than I'd ever explored myself, but I know when it was over, I was relieved.
When morning came, he took me home. I felt empty, almost like the night was a dream or something that didn't happen, but it did. And it would bear more consequences than I could have ever imagined.
I thought our relationship was back on track, and I was desperate to hear from him after our night together. But he never called. He disappeared from my life, this time taking something he could never give back.
My life spiraled. I was depressed, getting in trouble in school, and resorting to self-harm to find relief from the chaos in my head. Why would he not talk to me? Was our night together not good enough for him? My parents banned me from seeing my friends until my grades got better. The isolation only made things worse. I was in a terrible state, but, of course, that's when first love trickled back into my life.
He came back in and out of my life for three more years, sweeping me off my feet, then slamming me back to the ground right when I was starting to feel safe in his arms again. I tried to move on. I tried to date other people. He even decided to date one of my closest friends in secret. You may think that that would have been the final straw, but it wasn't. He'd show up at my window at night, leaving me love letters, and I'd fall back into him every time. Our relationship just got messier and increasingly co-dependent with every betrayal.
I wish I could say our relationship finally ended in some powerful way where I took a stand and came out on top. But it wasn't that like; it was the opposite, in fact. He got a new girlfriend during one of our breaks, and he wasn't willing to cheat on her with me like he was in the past. He cut me off for good, even after my desperate attempts to get him back like showing up drunk and unannounced at his house in only lingerie.
At some point I came to see that the more he rejected me, hurt me, and made me feel worthless, the more I wanted him. That's when I realized this wasn't first love at all; this was first abuse.
I was broken and destroyed by the hurricane that was our relationship, but I slowly fought to regain the pieces of myself that I once thought I'd never be capable of putting back together. I went to church, spent time with family and good friends. A heart that's glued back together like this still has its cracks, but I swore to myself I'd never let him be the one to shatter it again.
I've kept this promise for thirteen years, the very age I was when I met him. After years of delicately healing my own heart, I felt safe enough to share it with someone new. I met and later married my real first love — a love that is patient and kind. A love that is not obsessive or damaging.
Thirteen years later, with maturity and strength, I have as a grown woman, I forgive him. I know now that falling in love at thirteen doesn't always have to end in life-altering shambles. But falling in love at any age with an abused soul who isn't capable of handling anyone else's heart is how first love turns into something much more sinister.
If I could give any piece of advice to another young girl like me, or what I wish I could have told myself the day a cute boy wanted to sit next to me on a bus ride, is to guard and love your own heart until you find your real first love and don't settle for anything less than that.
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You may recognize Judge, Tanya Acker, from her political and legal commentary on different networks and shows like Good Morning America, The Talk, Wendy Williams, CNN Reports or The Insider. Acker is more than an experienced commentator. She is also a Judge on the fifth season of Emmy nominated CBS show, Hot Bench.
The show, created by Judge Judy, is a new take on the court genre. Alongside Acker, are two other judges: Patricia DiMango and Michael Corriero. Together the three-panel judges take viewers inside the courtroom and into their chambers. “I feel like my responsibility on the show is, to be honest, fair, [and] to try and give people a just and equitable result," Acker says. She is accomplished, honest and especially passionate about her career. In fact, Acker likes the fact that she is able to help people solve problems. “I think that efficient ways of solving disputes are really at the core of modern life.
“We are a very diverse community [with] different values, backgrounds [and] beliefs. It's inevitable that we're going to find ourselves in some conflicts. I enjoy being a part of a process where you can help resolve the conflicts and diffuse them," she explains.
Acker's career has been built around key moments and professional experiences in her life. Particularly, her time working right after college impacted the type of legal work she takes on now.
Shaping Her Career
Acker didn't foresee doing this kind of work on television when she was in college at either Howard University or Yale Law. “I was really open in college about what would happen next," Acker comments. “In fact, I deliberately chose a major (English) that wouldn't lock me into anything [because] I wanted to keep all of my options open." Her inevitable success on the show and throughout her career is an example of that. In fact, after graduating from Yale, Acker served as a judicial law clerk to Judge Dorothy Nelson who sits on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
It was not only her first job out of law school but also one of the formative experiences of her professional life. “[Judge Nelson is] certainly, if not my most important professional influence," Acker says. “She is really the living embodiment of justice, fairness, and believes in being faithful to the letter and the spirit of the law," she exclaims. “She delivers it all with a lot of love." Judge Nelson is still on the bench and is continuing to work through her Foundation: The Western Justice Center in Pasadena, California, where Acker serves on the board. The foundation helps people seeking alternative ways of resolving their disputes instead of going to court.
"I enjoy being a part of a process where you can help resolve the conflicts and diffuse them," she explains.
“It was important to her to try and create platforms for people to resolve conflict outside of court because court takes a long time," Acker explains. “I'm proud to be a part of that work and to sit on that board."
After her clerkship, she was awarded a Bristow Fellowship and continued building her career. Outside of the fellowship, Acker's legal work incorporated a broad variety of matters from civil litigation, constitutional cases, business counseling, and advising. One of her most memorable moments was representing a group of homeless people against the city. “They were being fought for vagrancy and our defense was, they had no place to go," she shares.
As part of her pro bono work, Acker was awarded the ACLU's First Amendment Award for her success with the case. Though, she has a hard time choosing from one of many memorable moments on Hot Bench. Acker does share a few of the things that matter to her. “Our show is really drawn from a cross-section of courtrooms across America and the chance to engage with such a diverse group of people really means a lot to me," she discusses.
How Did Acker Become A Judge?
In addition to Judge Nelson, Judge Judy is certainly among her top professional influences. “I think it's incredible [and] I feel very lucky that my professional career has been bookended by these incredible judges," she acclaims. “I've really learned a lot from Judy about this job, doing this kind of job on television." Before Acker was selected for Hot Bench, she hadn't been a judge. It was Judge Judy who recommended that she get some experience. Acker briefly comments on her first experience as a temporary judge on a volunteer basis in traffic court. “I was happy to be able to have the chance to kind of get a feel for it before we started doing the show," she comments. “Judy is a wonderful, kind, generous person [and] she's taught me quite a lot. I feel lucky."
Photo Courtesy of Annie Shak.
Acker's Time Away From Home
Outside of Hot Bench, Acker took recent trips to Haiti and Alabama. They were memorable and meaningful.
Haiti, in particular, was the first trip she excitedly talks about. She did some work there in an orphanage as part of LOVE Takes Root, an organization that is driven to help children around the world whether it's basic aid or education. “Haiti has a special place in my heart," she began. “As a person who's descended from enslaved people, I have a lot of honor and reverence for a country that threw off the shackles of slavery."
She was intrigued by the history of Haiti. Especially regarding the communities, corrupt government and natural disasters. “They really had to endure a lot, but I tell you this when I was there, I saw people who were more elegant, dignified, gracious and generous as any group of people I've ever met anywhere in the world," she goes on. “I think it left me with was a strong sense of how you can be graceful and elegant under fire." Acker is optimistic about the country's overall growth and success.
“[Judge Nelson is] certainly, if not my most important professional influence," Acker says. “She is really the living embodiment of justice, fairness, and believes in being faithful to the letter and the spirit of the law."
“There are certainly times when people treated me differently or made assumptions about me because I was a black woman," Acker says. “I've got it much better, but that doesn't mean it's perfect...it certainly isn't, but you just have to keep it moving."
Her other trip was different in more ways than one. She traveled there for the first time with her mother as part of a get out to vote effort, that Alabama's First black House Minority Leader, Anthony Daniels was organizing. “It was incredible to take that trip with her [and] I've got to tell you, the South of today is not the South of my mother's upbringing," she explains. Originally from Mississippi, Acker's mother hasn't been back in the South since 1952. “Every place has a ways to go, but it was a really exciting trip [and] it was nice for me to connect with that part of the country and that part of my history."
Overcoming Racial Barriers
As a black woman, Acker has certainly faced challenges based on her race and gender. But it doesn't define who she is or what she can accomplish. “There are certainly times when people treated me differently or made assumptions about me because I was a black woman," she says. “There's no sort of barrier that someone would attempt to impose upon me that they didn't attempt to impose on my mother, grandmother or great-grandmother." In a space where disparity is sometimes apparent, she recognizes that there is no barrier someone would try to impose on her that they didn't attempt to impose on her mother or grandmothers. “I've got it much better, but that doesn't mean it's perfect...it certainly isn't, but you just have to keep it moving," Acker states. The conversation continues truthfully and seriously. Acker shares what it can be like for black women, specifically. “I think we're underestimated and we can be disrespected, whereas other folks are allowed the freedom to enjoy a full range of emotions and feelings," she articulates.
At times black women are often restricted from expressing themselves. “If someone wants to make an assumption or jump to a conclusion about me because of my race or gender, that's on them, but their assumptions aren't going to define me," Acker declares. “If something makes me angry or happy I will express that and if someone wants to caricature me, that's their pigeonholing; that's not my problem." A lifelong lesson she learned and shared is to not let other people define who you are. It is one of three bits of wisdom.
Three Pieces Of Advice From Judge Acker
The Power Of Self-awareness
“It's really important that you have a really firm sense of what you want to do and be, and how you're moving in the world because when people try to sway you, judge you or steer you off course you've got to have some basis for getting back on track."
Know Your Support System
“Have a strong community of people who you trust, love and who love you," she advises. “But also learn to love and trust yourself because sometimes it's your own voice that can provide you the most comfort or solace in something."
Learn From Your Experiences
“Trust yourself. Take care of yourself. Don't be too hard on yourself. Be honest with yourself.
“There are times when it's not enough to say this is who I am. Take it or leave it. Sometimes we've got things that we need to work on, change or improve upon," she concludes.
Acker stands out not only because of her accomplishments, but the way she views certain aspects of her life. These days, she's comfortable accepting what makes her different. “I think there's a time when you're younger when conformity feels comfortable, [but] I'm comfortable these days not conforming," she laughs. She enjoys being a decision maker and helping people work through it on Hot Bench.
This article was originally published May 15, 2019.