One of the most intimidating moments during my young life was my first day of junior high school. We didn’t call it middle school back then. We had elementary, junior high, and high school.
I remember the very first time I stepped into the cafeteria in junior high. First, I remember the realization that I was still so very small. Other kids were much taller than me and developed. I remember my breath gave out as I walked through the double doors into a big room with different lunch tables. Everyone seemed to know each other. Everyone seemed to have their place at the table. Also, everyone that sat where they sat found themselves caught in the social regime of popularity.
We were all broken down into different groups from geeks or nerds to jocks and burnouts, troublemakers and class clowns. There is a picture in my mind that I can remember very clearly. My back was at the doorway. The cafeteria seemed so huge to me back then. Everything was so big and I was so small. I had no idea which way to turn. I didn’t know where to sit or who to sit with. Besides, what if I chose the wrong table? What if this locked me into a social pecking order that was subservient to everyone else?
Of course, back then, I wouldn’t have the words to describe this. As a matter of fact, the words I use to describe this come from years of processing and searching for when and where my insecurities first began. Of all things a kid wants to be, the last thing any kid wants to be is the outcast or the unwelcomed.
I suppose this was my biggest fear. Perhaps my differences or my appearance and my lack of muscle was something I noticed more than anyone else — or, maybe it is safer to say that how I saw my deficiencies were more crucial to me than they were to anyone else.
But isn’t this the definition of insecurity?
Insecurity: As in the lack of confidence and self doubt; subject to fear of being excluded or unwanted, or overly concerned, uneasy and anxious and uncomfortable in one’s own skin.
More than math and science and more than social studies and English, school is a social training ground. These are the lessons from the classrooms that no one really talks about. This is where we learn how to interact. This is where we learn how to perform and behave. This is where we learn about our social cues. This is also where we begin to create our image and where our personality begins to grow. We learn about the social politics of popularity and moreover, this is where we learn our first hand understanding about acceptance and rejection. These are also the breeding grounds of our future selves.
To a kid, terms like, “Them” or “They,” mean everything because terms like “Them” or “They” mean the crowd. See, the emphasis and the importance of the crowd means everything to a kid —or, maybe this is only how I saw it but at the same time, I’ve never met a kid that wanted to be the one that nobody liked and no one talked to.
The idea that we are all born equal is a lie. We are all born uniquely fit. Not everyone can play football or basketball. Not everyone can understand physics or algebra. As for me, I was never an athlete. Plus, I stopped understanding math when they started putting numbers in parentheses or asked me to find the coefficient of a letter.
I lost interest in classes when I had to read out loud and worried about the sound of my voice or the fact that I would stutter while reading — I hated that part. I hated the social pressures, which is where I built my ideas of how to defend myself from degrading moments. This is also when I began to develop my misperceptions of self.
I remember my first crush. Do you?
Mine was on a girl that didn’t like me back. I remember being humiliated and thinking to myself, “I’ll never put myself through that again,” but of course, I did. And of course, I had to learn and figure out how to interact with people, both socially as well as intimately.
There is a chapter by Robert Fulghum in his book All I Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.” Fulghum talks about the time he found a cicada on his front porch. The ugly little bug was escaping from its shell to open up and spread its wings. These bugs burrow underground for a long time and then they come out in a brown shell. They shed their skin and evolve with wings. At first, their wings are wet but once they dry, the ugly bugs fly away.
Fulghum noticed a bug trying hard to break from its shell. Being the kind man he is, Fulghum helped the bug shed its skin. Unfortunately, a bird came a long and ate the bug. Fulghum wondered why this was. He put the bug in the sun so its wings would dry.
So why didn’t the cicada fly away?
Apparently, the struggle that cicada goes through builds the necessary muscles it needs for its wings to work. And since the struggle was reduced to an easier process, the cicada never built the muscles it needed to be able to fly; hence, this is why the bug became bird food.
There are times when people say, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. There are times when people explain how it is necessary to struggle. They say this builds character. Some people say pain is necessary. So is sadness.
I remember hearing someone tell me, “God only gives us what we can handle.” But to me, this didn’t make sense. Maybe this was because of my struggles with agnosticism. And to this, my answer was simply, “Then I wish God didn’t have so much faith in me.”
I could be less strong, just make the struggles go away.
But no. That’s not how life works.
There is no way to argue that we grow from where we come from. We build upon our lives from youth into adulthood. We go through personal growth and professional growth. We find our way — even if we think we don’t, we always find our way.
This might not be our ideal spot in life and our conditions might not always be optimal, but we are a series and compilation of events and memories that live with us since birth. The truth is everyone is looking to find their own way. We all have our philosophies. We are all very basic in the sense that we all have the need to be understood. We all want to find our own way to break down the world into ways that we can both interpret and understand. We want to understand why people say what they say or do what they do — and sometimes, the mystery continues.
We build coping skills. We learn to adapt to our surroundings. We learn to survive in our social circles of influence and we take on the different pieces and details of what we see. We learn to apply this to our own personality. We create our own fashion based upon our taste or what we see as desirable. We talk a certain way. We have accents which are indicative of where we come from. We have characteristics that classify us in social groups which date back to lessons from our childhood.
We all have our differences and we all have our own training grounds. But, if you could pick any age of your life and go back to revisit yourself, what age would this be?
If you could go back to the person you were at that age, what would be the advice you would give yourself?
What would you say?
How would you approach this?
If it were up to me, I think it would be the most beneficial to go back to that day in the cafeteria. I would tell me this is all an illusion. I would point out all the kids that I idolized for some reason or sought their attention.
See him, over there?
He dies at a young age from an overdose.
See him, walking outside?
I know you might think he’s cool now but the rest of his life will be spent in and out of jail. He will succumb to a brain injury and eventually be institutionalized because he cannot successfully live outside of the prison system.
See that one?
I know you think he’s the class clown. And I get it, the girls like him. I know that he picks on you and you take it because you want to be liked by him, which would somehow mean that you’ve been accepted, right?
Literally none of that is true.
That person is capable of doing terrible things to people. And I know this looks attractive. I get it. No one picks on the tough kid but this kid is empty inside. Maybe you feel empty too but being like him will only lead you to be empty in a worse way.
If I could go back to me at any age and tell me anything, I would tell me to stay away from the social government and the different divisions of “Cool.”
I would tell me that popularity is an illusion. It’s mainly temporary. I would tell me to learn how to define my friendships better and worry less about being alone and think more about being with the right people.
I would probably talk until I was blue in the face and do you know what? The kid that I was wouldn’t listen to me. I wouldn’t have listened because the fears of being alone or being uninvited and uncool were too gripping for me to escape from.
I’ve heard parents tell their kid, “I know what you’re going through.”
I’ve heard them say, “I’ve been there.”
Or, “I’ve seen this before”
And “I was your age once too.”
But guess what.
No, they haven’t.
Nothing is the same.
Similar, maybe, but not the same.
I think telling me all the best advice when I was a kid wouldn’t have stopped or helped me. Listening, though; listening would have been helpful.
And there are people that say, I listen to my kids all the time.
But do they?
It is very hard to remove our personal bias, which everyone has. Kids do too. The only way to help someone through their struggles is to learn about active listening and understand how to ask open-ended questions and listen non judgmentally.
It’s easy to tell someone “Life gets better” but what people fail to realize is when you’re in the middle of disappointment or something as tragic as heartbreak; the truth is all you wonder is if anyone ever died from a broken heart.
Perhaps one of the worst things to tell a kid is, “You’ll understand when you get older.” No kid wants to hear this. Even if this is true; how does this help someone when they’re going through a crisis?
The one thing I learned in emergency rooms after being deployed to hospitals for overdoses is that active listening can be life saving.
Imagine what the world would be like if we learned to listen to people without trying to find “The right thing to say” or letting our biased ideas get in the way of someone’s process?
I will say that yes, my struggles have made me stronger. I will say that who I’ve become is miles away from the person I predicted I would be. Still though, I wouldn’t have minded being saved a few times.
Then again, I wouldn’t have wanted to be bird food either —
Struggles are always real. Even if they’re not real to you; this doesn’t mean anything to someone else. Understand?