Wildhaber Takes Readers Through Their Journey of Self-Acceptance


Madison Puckett, Sophomore Editor

Friday, May 6th, 2022 was when everything changed for senior AJ Wildhaber after they found out their essay “Dead Name” won second place in the Robert J. Stuckey Essay Contest. This essay discussed many personal experiences that AJ has gone through during their road of self-discovery and coming to terms with who they are.

“I screamed, flailed, threw my phone, and jumped around in a circle. I then retrieved my phone and texted all of my friends and family. I feel kind of bad admitting it, but there was a part of me that kind of expected to win,” Wildhaber said.

First hesitant to submit their essay, AJ gained the confidence to submit after being convinced by Honors CA4 teacher Mr. Brian Murphy, and realizing that their story needed to be heard

“Honestly I wasn’t going to. I didn’t think I was good enough,” Wildhaber said.  “If I was going to submit anything at all, it was going to be something I had finished earlier in the semester, because despite being due three months before, ‘Dead Name’ wasn’t even finished. But thank God, Mr. Murphy talked some sense into me. I needed to write this essay. I had something I needed to say, for myself and for other trans people.”

While there are all kinds of styles of writing, all good writing tends to have at least one consistent element; human emotion. AJ’s essay not only lets the reader feel the emotions they were feeling, but also gives them a new perspective.

“Like others who have read it, AJ’s essay is a powerful experience for the reader,” Murphy said. “In my writing classes, I really try to discourage students from using the 2nd person ‘you’ in essays.  It’s usually unintentional, and it rarely accomplishes what the writer needs to do.  AJ’s essay is a rare and special exception. Their repeated use of the word ‘you’ is completely intentional, and it really works. AJ puts the reader firmly in their shoes, feeling every emotion that AJ has felt throughout their journey.”

While initially being nervous to publish their essay, having people read some of the most important yet personal parts of their life, AJ eventually knew that their essay was worth writing, and certainly worth reading.

“I think the scariest part was waiting for the teachers’ feedback before the school’s submission was picked,” Wildhaber said. “I was so worried that it fell flat; I had so much to say and I wasn’t sure if I said it right. I was also worried that they wouldn’t realize that what I wrote was real life, that I wasn’t just making it up to be dramatic. Eventually, though, I just said screw it. They can think what they think, and whatever happens, happens. And later, after feedback from some friends and the English department, that little ‘I’m probably gonna win’ part of me appeared.”

It is important to be surrounded by people who can accept you for who you are and help you through life’s obstacles, these people make the tough times seem a bit easier. 

“Luckily I haven’t experienced all the obstacles in the essay, but I hope the resilience that’s gotten me this far will keep me going if I do,” Wildhaber said. “Knowing I have family members that have my back has infinitely helped with the anxiety. My friends have been incredible too. In sophomore year, my friend stood outside the bathroom and threatened to beat up any transphobes for me (jokingly, of course). It’s so good and so important to have people who see you and love you for who you are.”

AJ’s essay demonstrates not only the struggle of self-discovery, but acceptance from not only AJ, but also the world surrounding.

“Luckily my mom is incredibly supportive, and I have minimal experience dating or battling transphobes, so I can’t speak for some of our protagonist’s experiences,” Wildhaber said. “But everything else that comes with being trans? It forced me to find and be more assured in myself and my identity.  I spent too much time picking masculine outfits, trying to deepen my voice, and changing my posture just to pass enough to not get beat up. Luckily my fears have not yet come to fruition, and this year I’ve felt safe and confident enough to be the person I fought hard to find.”

Having the courage to tell your story while not all of the world is ready to hear it can be difficult, but it is important. So often people don’t understand the situation until they are in it themselves.

“My brother said that being put in the shoes of me and other trans people made him realize how terrifying and frustrating deadnaming can be, and it made him want to learn more so he doesn’t wind up putting people through that,” Wildhaber said, “My mom said it was sad, and it was sad to know how it felt when she slipped up. She added, ‘I don’t know if the world’s ready to read it. I don’t know if they’d get it or understand.’ I don’t think aforementioned transphobic family members are ready to read it either, but maybe they’ll find it and start to understand too!”

An essay like AJ’s and the topic it is on will hit home for many, especially people dealing with similar circumstances. This essay can forever be their guide to begin living a life full of acceptance and self-discovery.

“Be yourself, and believe in yourself,” Wildhaber said,  “No matter how you present or what people call you, never doubt who you are. And be safe. There’s a delicate balance between being yourself and being safe for trans people, and I’m still trying to strike it myself. The best thing you can do is find a support system, whether it’s through family, teachers, friends, or people online. And never trust a man who says, “No femmes.”

Knowing that such a personal story made such a big impact on HHS is one thing that AJ will take with them forever, and they will always appreciate all the positive feedback they received from staff members. 

“There have been lots of congratulations, particularly from teachers,” Wildhaber said “Mrs. Nelson nearly scared me to death in the hallway, and Mr. Tidwell THANKED me for submitting it. Dr. Dittrich thanked me for representing the school, and that’s when it hit me: a GAY, TRANS story is representing our school; I couldn’t be more proud! Queer stories matter, and it turns out my story matters, too. It’s surreal and it means the world!”