Influences: It’s okay to stand up for yourself

So obviously I was a right gem in Jr. High. Honestly, I think a lot of my attitude and ineptness was residual issues that came with moving to a new area when I was like nine or ten. Unlike where I grew up originally, I didn’t have kids right across the street and I wasn’t as constantly enabled as I had been before. Sure, I had people at the church I went to and some friends at school, but tween years are that wonderful age where you can be friends and not friends depending on the day and time. Plus, my school friends weren’t actually in my class, or even my end of the building. Add to that a much younger sibling who I spent the bulk of my time around, vastly different interests than a lot of people my age, and no cable, and yeah, I’m sure I came across like a socially inept mutant a lot of the time. It’s honestly always been easier for me to connect with people younger or older than myself, and I know that didn’t help, either.  I had no concept of self at eleven. I knew how I wanted to be, and how I saw others, but I had absolutely no idea how to bridge the gap or lessen the tension. As I’ve said before, I wandered through the Forest of Awkward and bumped into every stinkin’ tree trying to find the way out.

Sometimes, though, the universe, fate, a higher power, whatever you want to call it, is looking out for you. And sometimes other people are, too.

In sixth and seventh grade (I think…the actual timeline escapes me now), I was forced into taking what would be considered wood shop but it went under a different name at the time. I was not pleased with this, mainly because I was a girl and I didn’t consider it necessary to learn that sort of thing at that point in life (Never mind that I’d begged my parents for a tool kit when I was like six and got in trouble for using it on most of our living room furniture. Amazing how things change so fast). I’m sure I was also convinced I was going to fall onto a saw and die. I’ll always be the first to admit that I may have been born on a Tuesday, but full of the literal kind of grace, I ain’t.

This was also during a time where I was constantly ganged up on at school. Granted, this had started maybe a year before, but by that point I was…I hate to say I was so used to it that I just kind of let it happen, but that’s probably the easiest way to put it. I think my thought process was to just ride it out, and I’m forever grateful that I’m not growing up here and now, because man I could not stomach the thought of what the addition of social media would have meant to my personal experience. My heart breaks every time I read about a kid committing suicide, because I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if I’d been pushed a little harder or felt exposed by today’s plugged-in nature. There’s a certain meanness that comes with growing up, for better or worse, and I cannot help but think that while technology is a benefit, it also mixes with that meanness in strange and awful ways.

It’s not that anyone was particularly horrible or being anything other than the typical jerks that tween and teen kids can be. However, life was confusing enough, and I tended to be something of a pleaser at that age, so my whole school experience felt a little impossible to navigate. I wanted those more popular than me to notice me, to like me, but I didn’t really no what to do with that focus once I had it. It was like I was waiting for someone to tell me how to be, to give me a script, to put the pieces together. There was no way my parents would re-vamp my wardrobe with brand names and they were so focused with my younger sibling and getting settled into a new area that I don’t think they would have really thought that re-working my appearance or whatever may have helped get some people off my back. And for all I know, that wouldn’t have worked at all. I’ve also always been my harshest critic, and I think if anyone had given me a talking to about reigning in some of my quirkiness at that point, I either would have blown them off or broken.

So I went about my day, got through it, and repeated it the next day. I also didn’t tell my parents. In my mind, there was no reason to, because I’d learned quickly that most of their advice just plain didn’t work with my age bracket. For whatever reason, I got it in my head that that was just the way things were.

Quite honestly, I didn’t know what the hell I needed to do to make the taunting stop, I didn’t have the vocabulary to express that, so I put up with it. At the time, the typical solution was to say that people grow out of that behavior, I’d eventually come into my own, that things will be so much better in high school/college/as an adult, and I’d grow up to be some magical princess that could do anything and everyone would be so, sooo incredibly jealous of how on top of everything I was because I just needed to settle into myself…

I mean yes, that’s exactly what happened because I am now that freakin’ amazing and drop-dead gorgeous. That goes without saying.

Sarcasm aside, I am slightly amazed at how far I’ve come some days when I look at myself with my inner eleven-year-old eyes. So there is some truth there, but that wasn’t enough to help me at the time. Clinging to some far-off ideal that I couldn’t even picture…that’s a line that doesn’t solve the actual problem at hand. So often, as well, the problem is multi-faceted. While I don’t believe in victim blaming, I do know that throughout middle school I would turn around and take out my frustrations on other people, continuing the cycle, or I’d do things that would inadvertently draw negative attention my way. These relationship dynamics are not black and white, good vs. bad, and so often the emotions produced depended on specific situations – that were always changing. There’s no one good solution for situations like this. Now, I can see that, and it still frustrates me.

At that age, though, although ‘wait it out because you’re wonderful’ was the line preached by parents/self-esteem people/sitcoms/etc, that is so complete bull. If you don’t help kids work out problems at a young age, how are they supposed to communicate with coworkers/problematic loved ones/potential spouses? How are they supposed to ask for a raise or stand up when someone overcharges them, never mind when someone discriminates against them? How can we even begin to deal with large-scale problems like racism, sexism, classism, and all the other -isms when we can’t even sit kids down and get them to talk about their feelings and possible options like actual human beings? That kind of pro stance on passive waiting is everything that was wrong with the eighties and nineties to a big extent, and it just plain doesn’t work.

I can also tell you from experience that sometimes you can tell all the teachers/complain to your parents/be the protagonist you are in your head all you want, but at some point you’re still left alone with the people in your social circle, and the fact is that they are under no obligation to like you. Plus, at that age, it’s not like they’re just going to not tell you that they don’t like you, because everyone is hormonal and irritable and hating their lives to some extent at the moment. Also remember, this was before fandom was cool, before it was chic to be geek. This was when you were supposed to not admit to liking Disney or any toys at all as soon as you were eleven. Heaven forbid if you admitted to anything not in that week, or acted too out of the box, because then it was open season.

So I was trapped in a class where people freely told me what they thought of me on any given day or tried to make me put my foot in my mouth to show how naive I was for just being who I was. Plus, I had to somehow make things out of wood with death machines while dealing with a social anxiety that felt almost like a physical pressure. These days I recognize the feel of my own nerves, but I plain felt like I simply could not do anything that was required in the class. It was like there was a wall between me and everything else. I was terrified to try it, convinced I would fail, and failing was something that completely terrified me. I didn’t like to disappoint people, and in my mind this would totally change my role in the eyes of my parents and who knew who else. This was also the time in my life where my head would explode into random, horrific tension headaches for no reason, so that made things extra fun.

I cannot remember the exact incidents…I think one had to do with some sort of hand-made rocket, I believe one incident happened while we were studying a text book lesson about tools in the bronze age while I was in the middle of one of those fun headaches. I cannot remember what was said, but the commentary was relentless and I was determined to keep my head down. I was also still getting used to the concept of male teachers, and knowing how useless I was bound to be at anything in the class, I was determined to shut up and do the best I could and not attract attention.

However, on one specific day, I remember the teacher just lost it. Not just called people out, not just mildly threatened them, not diverted to preachy lessons on respect that everyone squirmed and snickered through. No, full-on lost it. I was terrified, thinking I was in trouble and jumping to conclusions because in my mind/personal experience raising volume = immediate punishment. Instead, he went off on those who had been harassing me, which was a good percentage of the class at the time. Of course, it had occurred to me that what was happening wasn’t right, but it had never really entered my mind that I didn’t have to wait it out, that it was unacceptable. As an adult, I’m fully aware that I likely didn’t help matters, but at that age it’s not like I possessed the best communication skills, or that others would actively feel the need to listen.

I’d love to say everything stopped, it was all happily ever after, and I made beautiful giant wooden effigies to capture the moment that put future students in awe of my carpentry talents, but of course that would be a story and not real life. Things were still not fabulous, but I slowly learned to stand up for myself and cultivate a somewhat fragile sense of worth. That was a foundation, though, and foundations can be built on. I also slowly learned that I could use tools, and even if I wasn’t great at something or my anxiety got in the way, I wasn’t going to blow anything up. I think the worst thing that happened was that I took a little bit of skin off a hand with a belt sander, but considering all the weird injuries I’ve gotten since then, that’s incredibly tame.

Seriously, I’ve thrown a shoulder out while sewing a hellhound, driven myself to the emergency room when a sewing machine clamped shut on my hand, jacked up a tendon in my foot while dancing as a giant animal, and twisted an ankle falling off a stage while being stalked by Jason. You cannot get better than that, and those are just the highlights.

I had that teacher for two years (I think. Maybe it was three), and while he didn’t necessarily contribute to my literary growing up, he definitely helped me become a person. Sometimes you need to be woken up or metaphorically hit on the head with the fact that you are a person, you are a valuable human being, you are someone worth standing up for. Plus, the things that you’re afraid of probably aren’t worth fearing. Am I ever going to win medals for woodworking? No, and not just because I don’t think that’s a thing. Still, I have volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and not killed anyone, I built numerous flats and set pieces in college, and a lot of my costume work professionally has involved sharp blades, power tools, and other fun things. I wouldn’t have started teaching myself to work with latex if it hadn’t been for that teacher, nor would I be willing to build giant puppets and cakes for the grim reaper to jump out of just to see if I could (long story for another time). I wouldn’t have the gumption to look up experts in certain fields for advice on corporate projects I’ve done, and on and on and on. It took that teacher quite vocally shaming everyone else to make me realize that it was time for me to stand up and start becoming my own person, that I owed that to myself.

It also helped me cultivate a thick skin that I definitely needed working in entertainment and in publishing. When you have fifty pages of rejection notes (that would be one rejection per line on a page), when you’re constantly told why your look/voice/design style/whatever just isn’t quite right or there…you need to believe that you’re going to find your place if you just keep at it.

I still have my days, don’t get me wrong. There are still things I really don’t like dealing with/will pass off to someone else if I think they can do it better. However, I’m not afraid to learn or at least try anymore. A lot of my career has been just trying to see what happens, and I never would have gotten to that point if I hadn’t been encouraged to try to make a car run on a CO3 capsule (that turned out awesome) or put together a hand-made rocket (admittedly that one was pretty terrible).

That teacher also usually came round at the end of class if we had free time and comment on my doodles (I am a chronic sketcher, for better or worse), and asked about certain things I was interested in. It wasn’t that I hadn’t had anyone interested in what I was into before, but I definitely needed that acknowledgement at the time, plus it meant something that it was from someone so unlikely. I needed to believe that it was okay for me to be the person I was. I hadn’t yet latched onto the performing arts yet, hadn’t discovered Star Wars or any of the other “geeky” things that provided a grounding point through the rest of my teenage years. I was still drifting in a big way. It truly meant something to feel like I was interesting, that someone cared about the stupid little things I was fussing with.

Plus, it made me pay attention as an adult. I’ve worked around kids and teens for a big part of my professional career, and there have been a few times I’ve had to step in, myself, to handle a similar situation. It’s a little ironic and amusing to consider myself the ‘big dog’ now, but hey, everyone needs an advocate every now and then.

I think people forget how easy it is to impact someone, and teachers don’t always think with how many students they have every year for x number of years that they are making a difference…but they are, very much so.

The fact that I’m still here, still trying, still learning, still cheering for the underdog, still building weird things, and coming up with ideas is proof of that.

4 thoughts on “Influences: It’s okay to stand up for yourself

  1. Thanks for writing again about those terrible middle school years. We as adults forget how difficult, hurtful, and full of self-doubt those years are. It is good to hear there was a teacher who saw the need to stand up for you and opened up the possibility to develop new skills and your own sense of self-worth. You do a great job of writing non-fiction like this, too, in a story format. Some say that fairy tales often express how young people battle through those teen years, making the emotional issues into staving off wolves, witches, ogres, and such, so they find their strengths within (Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, etc). Sometimes the real stories are just as amazing to read how a young person survives those years and finds the “swan that was hiding within that ugly ducklling.”

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