A friend's sixth-grade daughter posted on Facebook yesterday that other girls had made fun of her Halloween costume. Her words were heavy with devastation. This was clearly not the first time she'd been made to feel inferior by her peers.
I didn't respond because I knew a back-patting sentence or two wouldn't be enough.
What I wanted to do was hold up a mirror. Let her see how gorgeous she is inside and out without a social filter. And then I wanted to take her up into the sky. I wanted to draw a circle around our little area from above and show her how insignificant we are when compared to the rest of the world.
How insignificant these people are who think they have a right to define her.
I wanted to show her that elsewhere, that deep, red hair of hers is highly valued as something people can't buy in a bottle or create in a salon. I wanted her to see how infectious her smile can be, how many people will find joy in it when she exposes herself to the rest of the world.
I wanted her to understand that small towns can be safe, comfortable, wonderful places to grow up, but that they can also be deceiving. They can make people feel as if they are trapped within identities, identities that are not of their choosing, identities created by the insecurities of others who have claimed high places in tiny castles, building walls around themselves to keep threats like her out.
In small towns, there is nowhere else to seek confirmation that different is good.
The pool of potential friends is finite.
People are often stuck within regional influences and made to believe those influences are universal, that these identities are inescapable. They are led to believe that they created those identities because they are flawed as people.
Those who never leave might never learn the truth.
Those who leave and come back are often shocked by their own complacency.
I know because I experienced that shock and I want her to do the same.
I grew up in Saranac Lake, NY, a beautiful community in the Adirondacks, a place I love to this day. My class was larger than this girl's with about 130 students and I was fortunate in that even the most popular girls were relatively nice, at least to me.
I am told our class was unusual in that sense.
Still, a small group of boys and girls ruled. They were the starters on sports teams. They were the members of the Winter Carnival Court. They were the stars of the dating scene. They went to most every prom and could get away with most anything.
I accepted my place.
I believed I was simply not good enough.
Until I moved to Florida.
I was already at a low point when my mother announced she was leaving. I had failed to make the final cut for basketball, which meant I would hardly see some of my closest friends all winter. My family was falling apart and we were broke. I had only two pairs of jeans to my name and five or six tops, but I refused to shop in thrift shops because the popular cliche did not.
I feared they would find out and my status would worsen.
I had nothing to lose, in my opinion.
So I left.
No one knew me in Florida. No one knew my family. Their only option was to test the waters and find out who I was, whether I was worthy of their attentions. I was shocked to learn that I was indeed worthy, that Emma, Beth, Amy, Lance and Mike all were drawn to me because I was me.
I was surprised that my teachers found me worth their investments because they saw what my mind could do, not what my siblings did before me. I was stunned to learn that other people's parents liked me for who I was, not for who my parents were or were not.
My social issues back home were of my own making.
It was lack of confidence that made me feel inferior, lack of experience beyond my small-town realm. Certain people fueled that lack of confidence, but only because I was naive to my own worth. I let them.
I returned to Saranac Lake after five months because I missed it. I missed school, I missed my friends and I knew I wanted to attended college where the climate was more to my liking. But I returned as a different person.
Yes, I still had problems. Lots of them.
But social confidence was not one of them.
I couldn't change the culture in my school, but I found I lacked the desire to do so. I no longer shared the values of the elite because I knew how truly absurd and insignificant those values were. I discovered I could be friends with anyone because I no longer envied them or feared judgment. I also learned to cherish the friends I had even more.
Greater trials awaited me as I dealt with a fractured family and feelings of abandonment by both parents. That lead to a different kind of insecurity. But my new-found social confidence provided a core strength that pulled me through.
There are benefits to a small-school culture that are invaluable. We
chose this for our children over city living for many excellent reasons.
Our older children, who have experienced both cultures, have said they
would never choose to go back.
This girl has a long ways to go. Six more years. But those years can be great years if she can find that confidence, if she can learn to elevate herself above her own insecurities and love herself so much that no else will be able to define her.
She has a family that loves her fiercely and so many others who love and appreciate her. She is worthy, much more so than she believes, and I'm willing to bet her costume was awesome. All of that is easy for me to see and say as a 50-year-old though.
I know her road will be hard and I want so badly to pave it for her.
To make it smooth.
I want to do that for my own children as well.
But I can't.
No adult can.
That kind of perspective can only come from within.
The best we can do is to constantly expose them to difference and to our love, and hope they figure it out.