I’ve always enjoyed being different. When I was a kid I desperately wanted to express myself through my clothes, music and art. I used to wear insane things to school; loud patterns and honestly, rather risqué tops—either cropped, mesh or featuring some bold statement, celebrity head-shot, or a controversial rap lyric. In the 6th grade, I snuck away from a class field-trip to shave my head. Later, I was the first girl in my school to pierce my face. The other kids knew I was eccentric, but no one ever made fun of me…to my face any way. Maybe it was because we lived in such a small town or maybe it was because I had mad swagger.
My confidence didn’t run all the way through. I was self-conscious about my body (the body I would kill for today), convinced I was unpopular (turns out I was popularity-neutral), and really worried that the other kids would figure out how weird and poor my family was. Apparently, I did not wear these concerns on the surface. Two of my closest childhood friends told me they were scared of me when we first met. To them, my confidence indicated I was a much older girl and thus, must be revered and feared.
I did have a few things going for me though…
I treasured authenticity above all other character traits. As a teen, expressing my individuality was akin to breathing. If you took it away from me, I would surely die. I joined art club, spoke out against book-banning, debated our school’s dress code tirelessly, and when asked to give an oral presentation on the First Amendment of the United States, I brought in a boom box and played NWA’s F*** The Police for the entire 7th Grade class before delivering a diatribe on freedom of speech as the backbone of this great nation. (I cringe a little now at the memory.)
I was naturally altruistic and valued justice above personal comfort. My friends crossed over into different cliques and often didn’t get along with each other. Some of my closest friends were the least popular people in school. At times, I worried their social status would affect my own and tried to make boundaries. My mom would say, “If you don’t want to hang out with them then don’t, but I’m not covering for you. Handle it yourself.” I would immediately feel like a selfish jerk. I did not end those friendships and instead, found myself speaking up when they were bullied. Bullying became an even bigger issue in high school when even my popular friends weren’t safe and speaking up meant becoming a target myself. I think this toughened me and helped me to feel comfortable with not being liked.
The greatest advantage I had, which really blows my mind, is the support I had from my mom and my teachers. I was never dissuaded by authority. My mother was (is) my cheerleader, she did not coddle me, but she never discouraged me from expressing myself…even when my clothes were outlandish and I had no business wearing them out of the house. She attended every sports event, play, and recital I ever had. She hung my art on the refrigerator. She didn’t completely freak out when I got my first tattoo…while under age…at an illegal tattoo party…despite not even having her own ears pierced. She never told me I was being frivolous or unrealistic. I think, because she is authentic too.
I was also lucky to have amazing teachers. If they thought I was nuts, they never let on. They could have told me my opinion didn’t matter, that kids should be seen and not heard, but they didn’t. They emboldened me with encouragements like, “your generation will run our country someday,” as they asked us to participate in some political debate or write a paper on social injustice. They encouraged us to speak our truth.
I have a daughter of my own now, and though she’s small I wonder if she’ll grow up to have the same flame inside her that her mother has, her grandmother has and her great grandmother had. I worry that I will unintentionally overpower her with my strong will. I hope I can be mindful of her authenticity especially where it diverges from my own, when she is truly individual. My mom was a teen when she had me, an age of fierce idealism but somehow was able to stand in quiet support of her daughter (me) when it was time to do so. At 36, I’m an old mom in contrast. I still have fire by most people’s standards, but it has quelled quite a bit. Today, I’m more likely to speak softly and carry a big stick but I know when passion finds me it takes little effort to kindle that flame.∞
“When you have a rainbow deep down in your heart, your smile will shine bright. You know you’re a part of that colorful, magical, feeling you’ll find, when you have a rainbow inside.”