Friday, June 3, 2011

The Glass Menagerie

There are two kinds of people in the world. No, not "the kind who divide people into two kinds of people and the kind who don't." There are the kind who, when walking down the street and feel all eyes upon them, think, "Damn, I look hot today" and the kind who think, "Is my underwear showing?"

I'm in the second camp.

Idiotic insecurities run through me like water flowing downhill, carving familiar channels and sometimes overflowing their banks. Why? Where did they come from? Why are they so persistent in the face of contradictory evidence that I'm an otherwise competent person who rarely wears her underwear on the outside of her clothes?

A friend of mine, now an insanely fit exercise maven, once said that she'll never not think of herself as the chubby child she used to be.

I believe that, locked and sealed inside the control room in my brain, running the lights and the sound board, there's a replica of my seventh-grade self, with bad skin, bushy eyebrows, crooked teeth and the nickname "The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes," given to her—not admiringly—by the boys in her class. She'll just never go away, this girl, and neither will her image of herself as the awkward, undesirable odd girl out.

This isn't a play—I swear—for pity or compliments (which that 13-year-old girl would never believe, anyway). It's just an intriguing notion to me, how our self-image can get so stuck in the wrong groove for so long.

I've been thinking about this since last week, when My Beloved and I traveled to Rhode Island for three days to visit schools and talk about our book, a historical graphic novel for kids. Typically we speak at elementary schools; fourth and fifth grade is pretty much our sweet spot, when the students are studying the American Revolution for the first time.

It's delightful to talk to kids at that age. They—boys and girls equally—are enthusiastic, spontaneous, confident, open, eager to throw their hands in the air to answer a question or ask one. ("Why didn't you include the part where the French came to the aid of the colonists? I think that was extremely important," asked one precocious fourth grader in Providence. "Why do people always start wars?" asked a fifth grader in California.) They request our autographs, even though they've never heard of us before. They laugh at our jokes. What's not to love?

But last week, after two and a half days of talks to the young ones, we wound up our trip with two classes of eighth graders. Now there's an exercise in humility.

"Can anyone tell me what a Tory is?" I asked the assembled teenagers. Silence, hair-twirling, chair-shifting, smirks. I rushed in with the answer to my own question before I'd be tempted to add, "Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?"

One girl spent the entire time with her face turned 180 degrees away from us. Another, asked to help read aloud a short scene from our book, grimaced as if she'd been asked to stick a pencil in her own eye.

One of the boys eyeballed me and My Beloved and asked, "Are you two twins?" Another asked, "Were you forced to commit holy matrimony?"

The kids were restless, noisy, jokey, cocky (the boys), silent (the girls), and would rather have been anywhere else.

And really, I understood. You couldn't pay me enough money to go back to junior high; sorry, "middle school." What a bizarre time—having your body abducted by aliens, feelings you can't articulate, hyperactive self-consciousness, and wanting so badly to be cool enough to fit in while normal enough not to stand out.

I imagined me sitting at that desk with my head turned to the back wall of the classroom (or toward the boy at the next desk). "Please," I'd be thinking, "don't look at me, talk to me or let me know in any way that you know I exist."

But I do know you exist, darlin'. And someday, you will, too. Then do me a favor: Leave this girl and all her wretched insecurities in the eighth-grade classroom where she belongs.


Marilyn said...

Carrying around your inner eighth-grader, the ultimate check and balance of humility. So glad to have you back! xo

Carmen said...

i was just talking about this very topic in therapy this week :) how we do or dont shake parts of our insecure middle school selves when we grow up. sometimes i wonder about the kids that i work with and imagine them as adults. man im happy i dont have to be a middle schooler again

Tina said...

My 13-year-old self is still in The Galleria trying on some liketotallygnarly flats to hide my like grody toenails. Fersure fersure.

Sometimes I have to beat her back with a hammer, especially when she threatens to expose herself to my new neighbors here in the Midwest.

Lesley said...

You really nailed this one on the head.
Arghhhhh! It is amazing that we form our internal view of ourselves at probably the most awkward time in our lives. I'm with you in the second camp! My 'image controller unit' is the pudgy, sneaker-wearing tomboy with the goofy, permed (by her mother) hair. Oh, and I had the uni-brow, too. To make things worse, I moved from NY to LA in the 8th grade at the height of nerdiness. I file that whole year under 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.'
How do you hang on to a positive self-image?

Sarah Nelson said...

Dearest, I remember you as a middle schooler and you were a cutie pie! Your coz... Sarah