Tuesday, November 22, 2005

I was reading Where Life Takes You by Rebecca, and she was talking about times in her life that formed who she was, and it got me thinking about some of the times in my life that I know resulted in who I am today.

Elementary school lodged one piece of information solidly in my head. I would never be popular. Big, smart, shy and eager to please put me solidly in the nerd chorus. When my family moved from our home in the city of Memphis to the suburbs, the culture shock made that even more profound. In my old school, we were still wearing knee socks and saddle oxfords, loafers if you were really daring. In the 'burbs, girls were wearing pantyhose and platform shoes, fringed suede hippie jackets and Gucci prints. My mother thought I should be literally in pinafores and Mary Janes in 1970. I learned that image counts no matter how much we say it doesn't or shouldn't.

By seventh grade, I'd made a few glorious connections with some other smart, misfit girls and discovered the beauties of female friendships. I also learned they're slippery things and that some women will build you up and earn your trust only to cut you down. I learned to crave and mistrust the closeness of female friends.

By eighth grade, assigned seating put me more in with the boys than the girls. The seventies were a time of educational experimentation, and my school lived for changes. Three or four separate classes would be in one large room with roll around dividers. We had foregone straight rows and sat in clusters of three or four students, all with different talents and needs. The intent was that we could help teach each other in a more student friendly environment. For algebra, I got assigned to sit with the coolest, wildest and best looking guys in my grade. I couldn't believe it. Me, the geek, with them. Guys were a complete mystery to me before then. With no brothers and a quiet father who worked 14 hour days, they were totally unknown territory. I learned that just being myself, I could become friends with guys and even talk with them. This was amazing news! I'd had my share of crushes. For three days before my parents made me return it, I even wore an absolutely adorable boy's ID bracelet, in the middle school version of going steady -- looking at each other across the room with longing. It was only when their friends or mine came around that it became awkward. The girls couldn't handle the directness and earthiness with which I talked to guys, and I wasn't cool enough for my guy friends to own up to a friendship around their peers. Males became something that had to be private. My friendships wouldn't be condoned by family, my behavior by my female friends or my outsider status by guys in groups. My expectations became pretty low, but I accepted what each friendship offered as what it was and didn't expect more. That sounds cold and harsh, but it's not. Some of those friendships offered a lot of wonderful things. Instead of building up something to be more than it was or a guy to be who I wanted him to be, I chose reality. It wasn't an easy lesson to learn that young, but it's held me in good stead for a lot of years.

Tenth grade brought a miracle. My high school offered a new modular system of scheduling classes, and one of the toughest teachers in the school got permission to teach a multi-grade Creative Writing class as long as she sacrificed her free period to do it. She hand culled the students. We had never met, but she had heard that I was a budding writer and I was asked to join. There were 12 students in all. We read one serious, wonderful book roughly every week each semester. We were required to keep a journal with five entries a week, and on Fridays, we spent our class in a circle where we all had to share something creative we'd written that week and critique each other's work. For the first time in my life, I had found a place where I fit in and where I trusted people. We were all so diverse. Jocks, pot heads, good girls and boys, bad boys and badder girls, cheerleaders, student leaders, those perpetually on the verge of being kicked out, all we had in common was a love of words and eventually a love of each other and our teacher who became our friend. Images didn't matter for once, and we stood by each other publicly and privately. Our closeness was so obvious that people in our building wondered just what was happening in that weird English class. It was there that I finally knew that writing and trustworthy friends had to be part of my life.

In college, I was surprised to find that people outside of a small group could actually like me. With the juvenile standards of popularity gone, I felt a freedom and an acceptance I'd never expected. I'd always loved learning and quickly came to love drinking and partying as well. That potent combination made college a wonderful experience for me. I learned that I could drink a lot more than my friends, and for some reason that helped amp my image as smart. I joined a sorority. It held the campus beauty queens, the president of the SGA, the sweethearts of every fraternity on campus and the highest GPA of any Greek organization on campus, and they wanted me. I was stunned but not really surprised that their success in so many areas meant they didn't really try all that hard that year to get a great pledge group, which meant that fewer girls wanted them. I didn't care. At long last, something about me was cool, and I still sought that validation. This was the time when I had my moment of precognitive movie insight and beat "Miss Congeniality" to the punch. I got over a lot of prejudices and mistrusts I had about women and pretty women in general. I even amazed myself by rooming with a girl on the Drill Team known equally for her prowess with the baton, her 4.0 GPA and the ability not to look pretentious while eating pizza with a fork and knife. I became an editor on the campus newspaper and a terrible DJ on the campus radio station. I was in Student Congress. I was known for handwriting the drafts of research papers at happy hour in our favorite seedy bar while my friends played pool. I dated a few guys, had more male friends. I met my husband and fell in love.

I had learned to trust but only when that trust was merited, and that appearances only counted for a very short while. I learned to love being busy and being involved, and that my personal time has essential. I learned how to be a good girl who knew how and when to get wild. I learned to love thinking things through. I learned that I don't have to fit in with any one particular type of people and to welcome real character into my life. Those things are with me still.


Blogger Lisa :-] said...


Some of my early experiences mirror yours, but I think I quit blooming at about 13. Never connected with guys in high school. I had my own appearance issues that I couldn't seem to overcome.

Fascinating analysis, Cynthia. Moves me to long-untraveled paths. I haven't thought much about my "formative" years for a long time. Lisa :-]

November 23, 2005 2:04 AM  
Blogger Theresa Williams said...

One of the wonderful things about moving into middle age for me is rediscovering the beauty of having female misfit friends again. I love being a misfit, don't you? (Smile!)

November 23, 2005 2:15 AM  
Blogger dreaminglily said...

"Big, smart, shy and eager to please put me solidly in the nerd chorus."

Very much me. That was so me.

I grew up too. I've learned that people like me, for me.

I'm glad you wrote this. Made me think.


November 23, 2005 11:40 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

Wonderful honesty and perspective. Cynthia. I hope all your other regulars find you here, and that a new audience benefits from your insight. (Theresa is a misfit only because she still like Tom Jones.)

November 23, 2005 12:59 PM  
Blogger Virginia said...

Wonderful essay! I never really bonded with guys in high school (lol - no wonder why) but I did manage to kiss Judi . . . (once, on the forehead, which, was a considerable accomplishment as she is much much taller than I am and was back then too.

I guess that was a defining moment. ;)


November 23, 2005 6:51 PM  
Anonymous Laurie said...

I'm dealing with some of the same issues you wrote about here even now, at 41. I've always struggled with the "where do I fit in" question. It's something I should be an expert at soon. :-)

November 24, 2005 12:14 AM  

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