Wednesday, September 27, 2006

growing pains

I had a talk this morning with my sons, about bullies. Bullies, and people who just plain don't like you. It seems like at least once in the school year we have to have this discussion all over again, but sadly it's necessary.

Not everyone is going to like you.
Just like you don't like everybody you meet, either.
It's rarely personal.
These are ages in your lives when the people around you are changing and worried about themselves, not you.
You're going to have to be strong.
Don't let people demean you. Stand up for yourself.
This is a time when you earn your values.

This time I added a twist, though. I admitted I had similar problems at their ages. This fascinated them no end: a story, finally, in which their mother does not figure in the most flattering light. They actually held their chins up with their hands, listening.

I didn't mean to remember it, but I had the most unexpected flash of recollection: eighth grade, sitting in Health class, and listening to the announcement that our math teacher had just had a baby. Immediately following the announcement a boy who picked on me seemingly all the time (and with whom I was having a personal feud at the moment) stood up and declared: "Some babies are boys, some babies are girls, Sharon IT."

The class tittered. My face burned.

If you wanted to pick on me, then, the target was easy: my face and my body. (We won't even touch upon my Technicolor hair -- that would be adding insult to injury.) I was so scrawny and short at thirteen that at the county fair, the carnies wouldn't let me on the bumper car rides: I looked like a nine-year-old boy.

My girlfriends would scramble on, tossing glossy hair over their shoulders and laughing. I'd stand like an urchin out of Oliver Twist, humiliated all over again.

Doubtless, it was a blessing in disguise. Had I been endowed with long lovely hair and a 36D bust at the age of thirteen I might have fallen prey to the most ...unscrupulous kind of characters. That's something I think about a lot, even now. How lucky I am that things worked out the way they did. But at the time there was nothing Providential about it whatsoever. I was ugly and skinny and apparently singled out by God to be an anomaly of my gender. I wanted to look like Madonna, not David Bowie.

So that swift jab in the classroom stung quite a bit. It illumined a closely guarded closet and revealed that everyone else saw me as I, myself, did.

Being a teenager is awful business. I'd never want to go through it again. It's just too painful.

"Not everyone likes me, even now," I told my sons.
This, clearly, suprised them. "Who? What could they say about you?"
"Anything they wanted. But usually people are going to pick on whatever it is you do the best, because they feel jealous and insecure. I mean -- they want what you've got, so they'll try to take it away from you and make you think you don't have it either."
"Who doesn't like you?" they wanted to know.
I shrugged. "Lots of people, I'm sure. It just doesn't matter."
"How can it not matter?" Wanting to know what the secret is -- the secret of inner detachment from public opinion, however selectively canvassed.
"Because knowing who you are and what you're about is more important. Trying to decide who you are from what other people say about you -- it's like trying to fill up a paper cup with a hole in it. You'll never be able to do it."

They went off to school thoughtful, the younger boys singing gaily, "Some babies are boys, some babies are girls, Sharon is an IT!" as I repeated, wearily, "It wasn't that fun to hear the first time -- let's not hash it out again, please."

It's amazing, though, how the cycles continue. There's always a handful of personalities in each class -- the bully, the shy child, the exuberant child, the scholar, the class clown. It's almost as if there's a script, somewhere, only we never really get to see the lines: we just instinctively know how the play is going to read out. This is the hardest part of parenting (I contend) -- allowing our children to get up on stage, knowing all too acutely how it played out for us. Maybe this time it's going to go better.

But, honest to God, ... you just never know.