If I were to run smack into my sixth grade self right now, my first thought would be, “Oh, honey.” And then I’d get straight to work helping me be slightly less of a dork.
The problem was that I just had no clue. Other kids were a little like aliens to me. I didn’t understand how they knew what was cool. I definitely didn’t know how to be cool. And that cluelessness led me to walk into the sixth grade dance believing I was actually there to have fun.
My sixth grade misconception is difficult to square with my beliefs as a parent. Because the parent in me believes things should be fun. That you should do whatever you want & be proud of who you are. That you should 100% let your freak flag fly.
But the realist in me knows that you have to understand the rules to break the rules.
I did not.
And that you have to be hella confident to break from the deeply entrenched social norms of middle school.
I was not.
So, basically, I had no chance of making it out of that dance unscathed.
I feel pretty confident I had on a jean skirt (too long, wrong denim wash). And some shirt that likely looked either too grade school or too much like I’d reached a tragically early middle age (likely my mom would have said it was “pretty.” Which was apparently code for: you are moving at warp speed from anything that resembles popularity). And I had barrettes pulling back the bangs I was growing out. To be clear: I parted said bangs down the middle and pulled them back with barrettes. Tiny barrettes. Very close to the part, because my bangs weren’t any longer than regular bangs. But I was growing them out. So, of course they couldn’t just hang down, or swoop over, or get moodily in my eyes.
So, there I am, in this fashion travesty. And I start dancing.
Like, I’m totally dancing like no one is watching. Except it’s middle school, and EVERYONE is watching. And I’m dancing like one of the nerds at the end of a John Hughes movie, who finally gets accepted for who they are… and all is right with the world.
Which is so lovely. But not particularly realistic.
I’m dancing (badly). With wild abandon. And this girl approaches me.
I can’t remember exactly what she said. I think it was something to the effect of “What the hell is that you are doing?” I remember her looking at me like she hated me. Really hated me. And I was confused. And scared. Because she shoved me like she wanted to fight.
When I think about it, I can still feel the adrenaline shoot through me. I was shaking. And I remember telling her that I wasn’t going to fight her. Because I had more respect than that for myself & her. Because I was a Christian. (I like that I could throw in self-righteousness even in the face of a beat down. Because let me tell you, that “I am a Christian” business wasn’t about mercy or empathy. It was me telling her that I was better than she was.)
I don’t remember how the whole mess of a situation got diffused. I think I threatened to tell on her.
No one said I excelled in sticking up for myself.
What I do remember is feeling a deep sense of shame that someone hated me that much, thought I was that gross that they’d want to fight me just for being myself. It was one of many messages I got in sixth grade that who I was was, in fact, nothing.
On the ride home (and for weeks afterward) I tried to combat that shame with that tried-and-true parental adage that she was just jealous of me.
I knew it was bullshit then. And it certainly did nothing to ease my shame.
I think about that often: how I internalized that shame, how I believed there was something deeply wrong with me, how I so quickly believed I was nothing.
And I wonder how to do better by Jane.
Fortunately, we’ve got a lot going for us: Jane was born with more fashion sense than I’ll ever have. And she’s developed a self confidence at 9 (and a half) that I sincerely admire.
And, on my end, well I just try to be honest with her. About people. About life (which is both pain & joy). And about working through her own response to other people’s shit.
Here are some things we live by in this house: When people are mean, it’s about them. Not you. It’s not that they’re jealous (because EW. That makes it sound like you believe you are better than they are). It’s that they are in pain. And if you can find compassion for that pain, you can release yourself from their judgement. Because, again, it isn’t about you.
But you also have to give yourself space to work though your own pain, when people spew their internal garbage on you. And to make a choice about how you respond. Because you can’t control what other people do, you can only control your response to it.
And we work on really knowing who we are. So that we can be proud of that. And so we can be people who put more good than bad into the world. And to try to love folks as they come.
Also noteworthy: Jane flips out if I dance in public. So maybe my dancing really IS that bad. Maybe. But that doesn’t mean I don’t do it anyway.