Tuesday, July 16, 2013

7/16/13 I am Weird and I am Beautiful. These are my twin childhood truths.

162 years ago today...
Thoreau’s Journal: 16-July-1851
Methinks my present experience is nothing; my past experience is all in all. I think that no experience which I have today comes up to, or is comparable with, the true experiences of my boyhood. And not only this is true, but as far back as I can remember I have consciously referred to the experience of a previous state of existence. “For life is a forgetting,” etc. 

I don't want to forget. I want to remember it all. Or, I tell myself I do. But somewhere along the memory line are foggy things that, once dredged up, are painful moments I'm not sure are worth remembering. And yet. . . perhaps there is as much value as holding those up the light, popping the cork, and letting them breathe. Sometimes I put them side by side mentally: the bright light moments of childhood and the dimming darkness of adolescence.

I'm sure this is true for both sexes struggling through the pains of adolescence, but from my own experience and  having mothered both a son and a daughter, I think I can speak with some authority that it is so, so much harder on girls.

Why do you think the present day "radical" experiments making the news are all being undertaken by women? Kjerstin Gryus and  Phoebe Baker Hyde both turned their "no mirrors" and "no makeup" into book deals.  Rebecca Adams reluctantly blogs about her own reticence of taking on the Naked Face project and at the bottom of her post is a slideshow of celebrity women naked faced. Amy Wruble wrote a sardonic piece of growing older that, at its heart, is heavily invested in what she looks like. The one that I think of most mornings when I'm looking in the mirror and not bothering with the makeup? #9 "Going out without makeup is seeming more and more like an aggressive act."  Barbie gets a realistic makeover and Yahoo features it but Mattel won't change anything. I am one of millions who view articles like this one to remind myself what I'm bombarded with on a daily basis has very little to do with reality. 

It is a daily struggle to remind myself, even though I knew it so completely and effortlessly as a little girl: I am amazing and beautiful, apart from whatever constructs and limitations the world places on "beauty". I have to remember, like Thoreau, that those first experiences, the ones free from group-think and adult neurosis are more real and true than anything I know. 

I remember.

I am two and swinging with abandon on the bar at the zoo (the train is behind me). The exhilaration of swinging makes me feel powerful.  A few years later, I will break my arm at age 5, climbing on the monkey bars at school. 

I am not yet four, in the garage, picking up bricks because I want to build with them. I drop one on my big toe, lose the nail, and fight infection setting in all summer. 

but to be fair, I am wearing a dress and reading books about babies

I spend lots of time alone, as an only child, climbing trees and playing outside in the dirt. I bite my nails down to the quick and wait for them to grow back out so I can do it again. 

I make endless mudpies

and spend hours building with my tinkertoys. I still remember the finishing pieces always being the brightly colored plastic fans that would fit into the wooden slots and make a windmill. 

I love racing Hot Wheels and showing off on my new (boy) bike. Notice the conspicuous absence of pink or frills in my wardrobe. 

I remember gleefully turning over rocks in Little Cedar's creek during summers in Oklahoma, trying to collect crawdads, and racing around fields at the millions of leaping grasshoppers, catching them and keeping them in a jar with me. I loved my jeans and boots and sneakers and chaffed at having to be dressed up in scratchy tights and noisy, toe pinching patent leather Mary Janes.

 By first grade, my beloved blue jumper was as close as Mom could get to a dress that I would wear without complaint. All the other little girls went for frills and lace and pink. I didn't care. It never occurred to me at this age to worry about what other little girls liked or looked like. 

I guarantee you I am wearing sneakers.

One of the boys in my first grade class (although he's not pictured above) was Jason, my best friend. We played together at recess every day, and before school started, with the plastic horses with cowboys and indians and little fences you could set up in a square. It was strange to me that some of the kids called us boyfriend and girlfriend. It didn't compute. I liked playing with Jason, who was just . .   Jason. At recess when the girls were drawing hopscotch squares, I was trying to win at tag with the boys, or climb higher on the monkey bars than they did. (Reference broken arm #1.)

That year, when we had a Thanksgiving play, we were divided up into Pilgrims and Indians for our costumes. I steadfastly refused to be anything but an Indian, and had visions of me in buckskin chaps and war paint. I got a skirt. It was quite a letdown. Jason's costume was way cooler. 

I spent all of my elementary grades in a tiny, private, and very insulated school. I was mostly free of media pressures until probably the 5th grade, when I remember it starting to seep in. I was made fun of for not knowing who Blondie was that year. The most popular of the 5th graders were wearing jeans with appliques on the back pocket and I suddenly needed a pair of those worse than I needed to breathe. The chief mean girl had them and I somehow knew if I didn't get them, she would continue to be mean to me. (I never got them.) When we'd gone outside for an hour at the first signs of spring with an unusually sunny day after many days of clouds, I was walking back inside when one of my gym teachers (a young man) commented on how my freckles had bloomed out of nowhere, and I couldn't  say why, but when I was in the bathroom later I studied them and decided they made me ugly. Where did that come from? I'd never given my freckles a second thought before. 

That same year, I played softball for the first of three years with the county league (on what would later be known to be contaminated by the Brio superfund hazardous waste fields). I wasn't very good, uncoordinated and suddenly shy about being in those short uniform shorts. But when I slid into home and busted up my leg and my parents made me wear long pants for the rest of the games to stave off the constant threat of another staph infection (I'm a carrier), the humiliation was almost too  much to bear, when all the others girls were in their shorts. 

One outlet I held onto for a bit longer before succumbing completely to gender expectations was the plays we put on at school. I always auditioned for the lead roles, regardless of gender, and was bitterly disappointed when I didn't land them. In the fifth grade, I was the male firefly with a solo. But I remember being told to shake my hips at one point in the verse and feeling very self conscious and silly. 

In the fall of my sixth grade year, I was crushed not to land the part of the boy camel in the Christmas play. I was relegated to no lines and in a white dress as an angel. It was infuriating.

the unhappiest angel, ever

In the Spring, I doubled the effort and landed the part of Daniel AND the narrator in Daniel in the Lion's Den. There was a section of the script that had, I kid you not, three straight pages of monologue. I didn't care a bit that I was a girl playing a boy's role. And, it seemed, at least in my memory, that no one else cared either. 

But those moments were getting harder and harder to find. My brownie troop turned into Girl Scouts, with new troops, and new girls who looked at me like I was too weird for words. None of them liked camping or cars. Most of our badge work was crafts and sewing and cooking. When I went away for a week to Girl Scout camp, I chose the most outdoor one there was, horse camp at Peach Creek. It rained all week and we rode horses exactly once. Most of my memories of that week are sitting in the tent, in the rain, save for the communal showers we had to take. The inevitable body comparisons were not kind on the ego. I was not only horseless, but clearly without breasts and lacking in many other girly departments. 

The summer before 7th grade, my church group had held summer camp for a week in Brownsville and I'd learned very quickly that I was weird and slow and backwards for not knowing how to use a curling iron. 

When I transferred to public school in the 7th grade, I was still under the "girls don't wear pants" ban that had been instituted by my parents in the sixth grade. I'm guessing my stubborn refusal to be a girl was alarming them by that point. I was allowed to wear split skirts (gauchos), which I expertly paired with my striped tube socks and Nikes. I was teased mercilessly for that, more by the "church kids" I'd known my whole life than anyone else. (Mom, don't get mad, but there were quite a few days I snuck pants to school and changed without you knowing after that.) The ban was lifted midway through that year, but the damage had been done. I was a fashion pariah. Add to this unruly hair and a full metal mouth of braces, and there was no hope that I would ever be thought of as beautiful by anyone, least of all, by me. I harbored a brief fantasy that none of the boys looked at me because they were secretly too awed by me to be able to interact. Then I'd look in the mirror and want to cry. 

I have very few photos from this time period. I look at the handful I do have and wonder, how did that dysmorphic thinking poison everything in my life? I look like a typical junior high kid. But all I have to do is focus on those eyes and I remember the agony of those years. 

Here's  a confession I don't think I've ever shared with anyone, to demonstrate how disgusted I was at my own reflection. I remember having a Christmas party the next year, in 8th grade, at my house, inviting mostly church friends but a few from school, and feeling so terribly nervous that no one would come. I even arranged all the old bottles of medication in my bathroom right up at the front of the cabinet, imagining any of the girls who went in there might somehow think, "Oh, she's sick. That's why she's so weird and ugly." Being secretly sick, maybe even dying, sounded so much better than just strange and awkward. 

I'd had my first real (as opposed to movie star) crush that semester, on Marty Flores, who chose to "go with" someone else instead who also liked him. I chalked it up to my everlasting elephant-man looks and bought him a Christmas gift anyway. He had been very sweet and kind, despite the rejection. I decided I was better off accepting my inherent aloneness from that point forward. (Man, junior high dramatics are impossible to avoid.)

It was at the end of that school year, in my American History class, that I reached a turning point. It would still be a terribly slow slog through self-hatred over the new few years,  but this is where the way out started. By that semester, I'd resigned myself to being a band geek, having a few friends who were kind enough to let me hang around despite, you know, being me, and that would have to be enough. And then, Mr. Flores' Congressional Unit came along. He let us elect a row that would serve as the senate. He would act as the president, and everyone in class would present their bill for a vote. As I stood before all those eyes, argument in hand, something came over me. I didn't care that my hair was a mess and my clothes hopelessly unfashionable and my teeth something resembling a Bond villain. I had a well-reasoned, sound, logical, irrefutable (in my mind) argument. The class thought so, too. I got 100% of the vote. And then, Mr. Flores vetoed it. 

I'm not sure what snapped in that moment. But I heard the crack. Something about the passage of that bill and my own worth as a human being had gotten entirely tied up in the singular moment that I wasn't, for one shining class period, the geeky girl hoping not to get teased. I was Clarence Darrow and Atticus Finch rolled into one. (I should have remembered that both of them lost their biggest cases, too.) And I stood up to Mr. Flores in righteous indignation and demanded that, if this exercise were truly sample of democracy, the class should have a say in electing its own president. He sent me to the principal, but not like you think. He had me ask Mr. Ritchie, whom I suggested would be the elected choice of the class (to which enough students nodded their heads) that he agreed to let me go ask if he was available to sit in. Mr. Ritchie presided over class as acting president the rest of the week and didn't veto a single thing. 

I felt like that little girl riding her orange boy bike, climbing higher in the trees, chasing down the fastest kid (a boy) in the class at tag. It didn't last terribly long, of course. There were still bullies and self-hatred and doubt to contend with. But it was the first moment in a very long time that I felt powerful and strong and, dare I say it, male

Mr. Flores called my house that night. I heard his voice on the line, but Dad had also picked up and told me to hang up. I sweated out a long 10 minutes in my room, wondering what my punishment would be for speaking back and disrupting class. Instead, Dad came in and asked what happened, and when I related the whole incident, he said, "Mr. Flores called to tell me it would be a great disservice if I didn't send you to law school." That makes me grin from ear to ear even now, thirty years later.  Thank you Mr. Flores for valuing me when I couldn't do it for myself. 

This moment was followed by others, of course, that made me feel less like a freak. But as I look back on them, most of those were related to the physical changes.  The braces came off, the hair became less unruly (well, it was the 80s), I blossomed into something resembling a figure, and had been given more autonomy in choosing my own clothes and wearing makeup. But the internal changes came more slowly, with the dawning awareness that my mind was something that made me different in unique ways that I could embrace, to feel beautiful in my own unorthodoxy, which was what was really at work in later adolescence. I was figuring out how to be me, in all my own beautiful weirdness. It's that dynamic that I cling to when I'm fighting the daily bombardment of "not good enough, not pretty enough, not girly enough" that, even in my 40s, is an unconquered battle. 

But there have been enough Mr. Flores moments to make it through relatively unscathed. 

Another of those moments happened my senior year, in Mrs. Rayburn's Honors English class. Sitting across from me was Marty, and on his ankle was a bracelet with something engraved on it. I couldn't make out what it said, so I asked him about it. 

He gave me a wry smile and that twinkle that only Marty could have, and said, "Don't you remember?" 

It was my 8th grade Christmas gift. 

Thank you, Marty. I remember.

my past experience is all in all. 


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