Cowardice

I was a coward most of the way through school. In a lot of ways, I still am. I’ll readily admit that what “they” think takes up entirely too much of the time I spend thinking about the world. This would be a lot less of an issue if what “they” thought was usually good.

I am about to embark on (another) adventure. This time, I’m going to the other side of the world to spend a year teaching. I am so excited I can hardly sleep. But “they” are still saying things like: “How can you bear to be away from your family for so long?” and “What does your mother think of what you’re doing?” or “Why on earth would you go there? There are so many foreigners.”

I would really like to be that person who has nothing but a pile of expletives to say to “them”. But along with all the other lessons, some useful, some not so much so, that I’ve picked up along the way, I’ve learned not to pick fights where I don’t need to. That’s what’s kept me from saying a number of things I’ve been holding back on, including:

“I know that at your age, being thought five years younger than you are is a compliment. But for me, it’s really, really, not.”

and

“It’s really not my problem if you would never be brave enough to chase a crazy opportunity to the other side of the world. Don’t try to tell me that courage is an indication of immorality.”

and

“My mother supports me in the opportunities I pursue, so don’t try to tell me I’m breaking my mother’s heart by going so far away.”

This is just a small sample, but I have to say, as a kid, I never would have thought that there would be so many people out there trying to rip a strip off my future, and what I think my future should be. I had no idea how many naysayers would come out of the woodwork to try to talk me out of what I want (or what I need) to do.

As a kid, I was even worse. I remember going into a meeting of the Reach For The Top team at my high school on the advice of my math teacher. Imagine Jeopardy as a team sport, or pub trivia games without the booze and cheesecake, and you’ve got a decent idea about what this game is all about. Rather than the welcome I was hoping for from a few other people who thought it was okay —cool, even— to be smart, I faced a handful of boys in varying stages of adolescence who told me in no uncertain terms that I was not smart enough to be there. That little episode sent me running as fast as I could with my tail between my legs, vowing never to return.

I went to middle school (or junior high, if you prefer) with some pretty awesome people. Right now, they’re in the process of graduating from Harvard, Bryn Mawr, and Johns Hopkins. I don’t know for sure if most of them remember me, but I remember them.

I was never gutsy enough to be terribly open about how much I admired them. People who knew things that I would never understand. Certainly, at the school I attended, it was more acceptable than at many to be smart, to be brilliant, even, but even so, there was a tremendous push to fit in, to connect to the popular set.

I expect that this was true in pretty much every middle school, and that those who were with me at the school in question didn’t feel those pressures the same way I did. For one reason or another, according to that limited definition of what fit, they weren’t in. And I so badly wanted to be in, that I avoided contact with them in far too many cases.

There was a boy who did Irish dancing. There was a girl who was openly bisexual. There was a boy who worked with his brother on a school project, having to do with history and geography, and stole the show. There was the male lead of the school play. There was the female foil in the school play. There was the candidate for student body president who said “You know, when I first started this, I really wasn’t sure who would accept me for who I was”.

And then there was me, who wanted to connect with these remarkable individuals and couldn’t. There was nothing to do, there was nowhere to go. I putted along in my little track, avoiding anything and everything that might affect my precarious social position, and my own opinions be damned.

Sure enough, that precarious social network has dissolved, and along with it the tenuous links to those friends I wanted to desperately to keep. All my sitting down and shutting up seems a little silly now. Now I wish I’d done it differently. I wish I’d had more guts. I wish I’d been able to ignore the giggles and the smirks as much as those remarkable individuals had. Because they’re still remarkable.

And I’m still pretending to be ordinary.

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