Tuesday, July 2, 2013

When I was 18

I've had terrible writer's block.  Awful.  Day after day goes by and I don't write.   Darn it.  Why can't I write?!

So I've asked for some assistance from readers of this blog and I've received some good ideas for writing exercises that may help me with my difficulty.  I think I'll start with this one given to me by RantWoman.

"When I was 18, I knew everything. Luckily I have forgotten a lot since then." Discuss

I didn't know everything when I was eighteen and I was not confident that I did. I was reared and socialized in the church among elderly folks so I guess I didn't develop the same kind of teenager vibe other kids get.  Other 18 year old kids scared me.  I made a study of avoiding them.  To this day, unless I'm playing the role of professor, I avoid young adults because they still make me feel nervous and inferior.  This can be problematic because to avoid anxiety attacks, I occasionally have to avoid eating or shopping in places where they hang out.

The year I turned eighteen I was attending a community college in lieu of my senior year of high school.  Being able to attend college instead of returning for a final year of high school was a blessing.  It was heaven to be on a college campus where I could focus on my studies instead of having to wake up each day with that sickening fear that went along with having to walk into that high school building.   I was a "Brain" and that is not a good thing to be if one is a girl. Not in a public school in a rural, blue collar community. Luckily, I was ignored more often than I was bullied.

Reluctantly, I got my driver's license at 18, but only because  I had to drive myself to college each day, and could no longer justify delaying the inevitable.  I knew other kids were thrilled about turning 16 and getting their learner's permits.  Not me.  From 16 to 18 I'd been avoiding it because I was certain that driving would be horrifying.  Terrified of getting into an accident and even more terrified of annoying other drivers with my beginner's mistakes, I even hid my learner's permit test prep booklet and intentionally forgot the hiding place (I found it later under the dog bed mattress) to avoid having to study for the test.

But at 18, regardless of my feelings on the matter, I found myself driving.  I became pretty proficient as long as I could stay on familiar routes.    My parents bought cars that were easy for me to drive to ease my experience.  It was not wholly unpleasant although I was still white-knuckled much of the time and had to psych myself up for each excursion.  Thankfully, I did not have to drive for long.  Eventually I was able to turn the wheel over to more confident hands when I married my husband.  I stopped driving when I was 23. 

I also had my first date at 18.  (I met my husband some years later).  My first date was a nice enough boy.  He was popular and good-enough-looking, but a bit of a dullard.  We went to a school play, and that was about that.  Pretty lukewarm on the romance side.  What was remarkable was that he noticed me at all.  I had never before been the positive object of male attention and had therefore assumed that I was probably repulsive.  The only time a boy asked to kiss me was on a dare and he told me he needed the lunch money.  Needless to say, I declined the invitation and then went home and cried. 

So by 18, I had not yet developed a sense of myself as a person of worth to anyone outside of my family.  I treasured the love and acceptance my parents showered upon me so although I was often difficult and snarly, I also was devoted to them and convinced of their brilliance.  My inability to fit in anywhere else pushed me deeper into my studies, but also pushed me to view older adults with thankfulness.  Because grown-ups seemed so comfortable in their own skins, and because they seemed to have both superior knowledge and the confidence I lacked, I did not become the kind of teenager who rolls her eyes at them.

I was becoming the adult I am today.  The things that mattered to me are the same:  family, intellectual rigor, honesty, decency.  My weaknesses are the same:  emotional fragility, anxiety.  My relationship with gender, though evolved beyond that of the deep insecurities of an adolescent, is still strained and a bit surreal.  I'm better educated than I was at 18 and therefore less confident in myself and the promises of the world.  I'm better able to stand my weaknesses than I could as a girl.  If I were to travel back in time to speak to that young woman I would tell her that she knew more than she thought she did.  I would assure her that others' would learn to find value in her even if she never became very likable.    I would tell her that being liked is not nearly as good as being honorable.  I would tell her that integrity is a thousand times more worth cultivating than popularity.  I would tell her she was on the right track.  But I would not tell her much more because, being so inexperienced, she was still very hopeful that she would flower into something special, and I wouldn't want to take that hope from her by telling her about future failures and struggles.  The memory of her hope that she would become a success is a sustaining memory for me.

It is funny to me when students ask for my advice or when they respond to me with unveiled admiration.  I know that I am not at all the confident and together person they assume I am.  They do not see how much of the uncertain eighteen year old is still with me.  They are unaware of my self-doubt, sense of failure, and frustration.  Perhaps there are many adults who feel as I do.  Perhaps I am not the only one who never seemed to outgrow the fears and anxieties of adolescence.  What is my role in life?  How do I navigate this gender thing?  Who am I?  Why do I feel like such a misfit?  Why is the world so scary?  How do I satisfy everyone's expectations of me?  What if everyone discovers that I'm just a pathetic loser?

I may not feel that way all the time, but it happens often enough to comment on here.  The reason I share it is just this:

I think these feelings of inadequacy, fear, and isolation can be instruments of love.  I know what it is like to feel vulnerable and alone.  I can use that feeling to help me become more gentle with others.  People called me "aloof, arrogant, and snobbish" when I was really scared, shy, and convinced that I was unlikeable.   It is good for me to remember how well I have covered up my own weaknesses and fears.  It is good to remember too that no matter how expertly I cover my fear, I cannot escape it, and it still hurts.

So if I know how well I can bluff, I also know that others may be bluffing too.  I'll try to remember that a show of confidence is not the same thing as confidence.  Bravado and cheekiness can hide vulnerability.  So when I'm out in the world, and especially when I'm teaching,  I'll remember that sometimes adolescence hurts.  Heck, sometimes being human hurts.  I'll remember my own hurt and try to respond with love instead of anger and compassion instead of judgement.   You never know when the "brain" or the "jock" or the "geek" or the "princess" (no matter what their age) is really just a frightened and lonely kid.


Amanda said...

I know this is an older post, but it is an excruciatingly beautiful one. Thank you.

Hystery said...

Thanks for that, Amanda.

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